Not Just a California Problem: Water Worries

If you thought water was just a Left Coast issue, think again. Potential shortages, and fights over water rights and quality loom for areas across North America. There is, however, hope we can all beat this thing.

By Richard Banks | Photos By Jae C. Hong, Orlin Wagner, John Bazemore and Richard Banks

Farmer Donnie Young looks over a wastewater lagoon on the dairy farm he is part-owner of near Ulysses, Kan. Faced with a decling water table in the underlining Ogallala Aquifer, water is reused in six different process at the dairy before finally being used to irrigate crops.

Farmer Donnie Young looks over a wastewater lagoon on the dairy farm he is part-owner of near Ulysses, Kan. Faced with a decling water table in the underlining Ogallala Aquifer, water is reused in six different processes at the dairy before finally being used to irrigate crops.

SEE THE WHOLE PACKAGE: How Israel overcame its national water shortage and averted an existential crisis. If they can do it, can we? >>

Time magazine said that Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt said that the Wall Street Journal said that Mark Twain said, “When God created the American West, he provided plenty of whiskey to drink and just enough water to fight over.” Well, apparently, everyone was wrong in attributing the aphorism to the ’stached humorist, and we at FarmLife wasted hours of our time chasing that snipe and trying to confirm its source.

But apocryphal or not, I’m guessing Mr. Twain would probably claim the quote if he were still around, because 1) it rings true and 2) it’s especially topical these days. Consider these recent headline-grabbing bits of news:

California

Irrigation water runs along a dried-up ditch between rice farms to provide water for the fields in Richvale, Calif.

Irrigation water runs along a dried-up ditch between rice farms to provide water for the fields in Richvale, Calif.

The three-year period between fall 2011 and fall 2014 was the driest since recordkeeping began in 1895. This drought in the Golden State—which produces 25% of U.S. food—was made worse by high temperatures, with 2014 setting a record. It’s predicted that, when the year’s completed, 2015 could be even drier and just as hot.

Understandably, California residents and businesses are concerned, and in some cases getting plain riled up. Cities and towns are being asked to reduce water consumption by 25% or more; industries that use what many claim as excessive amounts of water are being challenged by activists; and many of the latter are also pointing the finger at farmers, which use 40% of the state’s freshwater.

To make up for the loss of precipitation, new wells have been drilled across the state, many of which have been dug deeper in order to find what’s left of the water. As a result, the depletion of groundwater continues to worsen to levels that could take thousands of years—wet ones—to replenish. Yet, California is reportedly the only state that does not yet regulate the pumping of groundwater, a fact that lead authors of a U.C. Davis study to call the situation in the Golden State “a slow-moving train wreck.”

However, it should be noted that Governor Jerry Brown recently signed legislation that does offer a measure of regulation. According to Jay Lund, a professor and researcher in the University of California Davis Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the law may need a few years to take effect.

“What it does is for the longer term, it sets up a series of regions, so every major groundwater sub-basin is going to be required to form its own groundwater sustainability agency. [Each] will be required to come up with its own groundwater sustainability plan, so we don’t overdraft the system too much and we adhere to some water quality expectation.”

Regardless of the legislation, however, California’s groundwater has been taxed and needs to be refilled, says Lund. “We need to be more aggressive in filling up the groundwater basins during wet times so that we have groundwater available during dry times. But probably 70% of our response to drought in agriculture in California this last couple of years has been from pumping additional groundwater, so it’s really helped us a lot here.”

The Rest of the U.S. West

Generally speaking, the western U.S. has experienced one of the hottest and driest eras in recorded history. Consider these four additional facts:

• According to NASA, 9 of the 10 warmest years since 1880 have been since 2000. The heat has melted mountain snowpacks earlier than normal—including in California and Nevada’s Sierra Nevada range—lessening water availability later in a given year when it’s needed.

• A severe drought grips more than 40% of the U.S. West, according to the federal U.S. Drought Monitor. That percentage was from the August 18, 2015, reading of the Monitor, and is expected to worsen as we get further into the year.

• In addition to a greater need for agricultural production and a growing population, the advent of water-intensive hydraulic fracturing, has brought new demands for water out West and elsewhere. The drilling process requires millions of gallons of chemical-laced water per well that can rarely be reused.

• That heat, drought and increased demand has severely depleted the Colorado River Basin. A study released last year by the American Geophysical Union, showed that in the previous nine years the basin—which covers Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California—has lost about 65 cubic kilometers of fresh water, nearly double the volume of the country’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead. That figure surprised the study’s authors, who used data from a NASA weather satellite to investigate groundwater supplies. (For further context, consider that there’s 10.5 million cubic kilometers—2.6 million cubic miles—of fresh groundwater worldwide.)

Western Canada

The 2015 drought in the Canadian Prairies and British Columbia were blamed for water restrictions, including in normally rainy Vancouver; predictions of eight-year lows for canola and wheat yields; and wildfires (B.C., alone, experienced about triple the number from the year before).

Earlier this year, parts of Alberta experienced the lowest levels of rainfall in 50 years and numerous counties in the Canadian West declared agricultural disasters, triggering government aid. In mid-summer, water volumes at the mouth of the Bow River were 10% of normal.

This year’s dry spell follows the drought of 1999-2004, reportedly one of the worst on record for the Canadian Prairies. The drought even went nationwide in 2001 and 2002.

Ogallala Aquifer

The Arkansas River cuts through the irrigated fields in western Kansas south of Garden City, Kan. Irrigation, above all other uses, places the biggest demand on the Ogallala aquifer in western Kansas. The river is about the only surface water in that part of the state.The Arkansas River cuts through the irrigated fields in western Kansas south of Garden City, Kan. Irrigation, above all other uses, places the biggest demand on the Ogallala aquifer in western Kansas. The river is about the only surface water in that part of the state.

The Arkansas River cuts through the irrigated fields in western Kansas south of Garden City, Kan. Irrigation, above all other uses, places the biggest demand on the Ogallala aquifer in western Kansas. The river is about the only surface water in that part of the state.

By 2060, the Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches from South Dakota to North Texas, is projected to be almost 70% depleted. One of the world’s largest underground sources of freshwater, it provides almost 30% of irrigated groundwater in the United States.

To help stem the draining of the aquifer, Kansas recently passed new laws to allow farmers to form groups that would set limits on irrigation. Reportedly, two years later, only one group—a Local Enhanced Management Area (LEMA)—has been formed and the aquifer continues to be siphoned off. (This, even though the LEMA seems to be working without creating significant pain for participating farmers: In the first year, LEMA participants used approximately 2.5 inches less water for irrigation than neighboring farmers and produced, on average, just two bushels less per acre.)

Meanwhile, Texas, which had a record-breaking wet spring in 2015, is again experiencing drought-like conditions in part of the state. To help soften the blow of future dry spells, the state Texas is investing $2 billion in building reservoirs and other water-related infrastructure. Also hurt by recent droughts, Nebraska proposed spending $2 million to study water usage.

The Wet East?

Drought is not exclusive to the West, Prairies and High Plains, however. While states like California and Kansas may be among the hardest hit at present, depletion looms large for Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and the Lower Mississippi River region, including Memphis, long-known for its enviably large aquifer. This according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which also notes that Houston, Tampa and Long Island have depleted water tables to the point that freshwater sources are now threatened by ocean-influenced saline groundwater.

Water is released into the Chattahoochee River from Lake Lanier at Buford Dam in Georgia. Metro Atlanta is a major draw on water from the Chattahoochee, which also runs along the Alabama-Georgia border and into the Florida panhandle.

Water is released into the Chattahoochee River from Lake Lanier at Buford Dam in Georgia. Metro Atlanta is a major draw on water from the Chattahoochee, which also runs along the Alabama-Georgia border and into the Florida panhandle.

Consider, too, the long-running dispute—aka the “Tri-State War”—pitting Georgia, Alabama and Florida against each other due to disputes over water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin. In simple terms, Georgia claims it needs more water than originally allowed to serve the growing Atlanta metro area, while the other two states say the depleted basin is affecting them downstream, especially the Apalachicola River oyster business on Florida’s Gulf Coast, which has suffered substantial losses in recent years due in large part to a lack of freshwater.

Let’s Back It Up

To be sure, droughts are as much a part of the climatic routine as summer and winter are to the season’s cycle. But, whether you believe increased greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere is or is not interrupting the delicate climatic balance on the planet, two things are for certain:

1) Naturally filtered groundwater can take thousands of years to replenish aquifers. No record-breaking rainfall and the tiny percentage of irrigation water that would trickle down to the great depths below will make much of a difference and refill underground water sources for the droughts faced by our great, great, great, great, great, great, etc. grandchildren. And 2) We humans are still making more humans who are, or will be, competing for limited natural resources, the most precious of which is, arguably, water.

So, what do we do? For starters, we become more efficient. As declared in the slogan of Israeli-based irrigation company Netafim, we can “make more with less.” Certainly, this goes for those involved in agriculture, but it’s critical that the rest of us do our part, too. Americans, at 382 liters per person, and Canadians, at 343 liters, use more water than people in most other countries. (Compare that to approximately 165 liters per person in Israel, but also understand methods to determine usage may vary, making water use comparison difficult.)

To decrease usage in residential, industrial and municipal situations, we’re not just talking watering the lawn less and taking shorter showers. For instance, the EPA estimates that we Americans waste as much as 1 trillion gallons of water annually via leaky pipes, running toilets and the like. North of the border, Environment Canada, a government agency, estimates that 30% of the total water entering supply-line systems is lost to leaking pipes.

Thirsty Farming

Click to enlarge: During the last century, global water use rose at more than twice the rate of population growth.

Click to enlarge: During the last century, global water use rose at more than twice the rate of population growth.

But back to farming, which has taken a lot of heat in various quarters for its water usage, some deserved, some not so much. While it’s not as much of an issue in Canada, where agriculture uses only about 10% of the national freshwater supply (such a low figure is due in part to climatic conditions and because the country’s arable land is a relatively low percentage of its total), it’s a hot-button topic here in the U.S., where agriculture accounts for an average of 80% of available freshwater usage.

It’s funny in a way, but many tree huggers have become very selective in those woody plants they embrace—sequoia, yes; walnut, no. Some have even become, let’s call them, broccoli kickers.

Now, a reason for that animus is both crops consume what seems like a lot of water—one walnut requires an average of five gallons, while one head of broccoli requires 5.4 gallons. While few have suggested alternatives (we gotta eat after all), many activists have suggested farmers not grow such thirsty crops during a drought as bad as California’s current dry spell.

An orchard of dead nut trees in California's Central Valley stands as a stark reminder of the state's multi-year drought and unusually high temperatures.

An orchard of dead nut trees in California’s Central Valley stands as a stark reminder of the state’s multi-year drought and unusually high temperatures.

While broccoli farmers can more easily choose not to grow in a dry year, many producers continue to deliver water to nut orchards, in large part because, without moisture, trees die—an expensive proposition, when you consider the first harvest doesn’t occur until as late as 10 years after planting. Then, again, the amount of nut trees being planted during recent drought years has increased by large percentages in many of California’s hardest hit regions, draining water from already tapped sources. It’s complicated.

Don’t Despair, At Least Not Yet

As with so many things, use of water isn’t as simple as it may seem. For example, orchard farmers are often some of the most efficient in how they water their crop. Just know there is hope, which the FarmLife team found in droves on a recent visit to Israel, a country on the front lines of dealing with water shortages for the general public and farmers, alike.

Yes, there is bad news—the human population continues to grow and extremes in weather, including droughts, may very we’ll become more common. The good news, however, is that we in the U.S. and Canada are already implementing some new methods to deal with shortages, both current and predicted. There is a lot of work yet to be done, though, which could include adapting approaches used by others elsewhere on the planet, where people are willing to share what they’ve learned during their own difficult times.

SEE THE WHOLE PACKAGE: How Israel overcame its national water shortage and averted an existential crisis. If they can do it, can we? >>

You might also be interested in
A Special Report: How Israel overcame its national water shortage and averted an existential crisis. If they can do it,...