America's fresh water is running on empty
Experts warn of crisis from overtapped
rivers, lavish use
Palm Springs, Calif. - The desert around here,
so dry that imported Arizona cactuses need watering, has
sprouted a man-made ski lake, 100 lush golf courses, outdoor
air conditioning and gardens fit for the tropics.
A quarter-million residents use an average of 375 gallons
of water a day at home, twice the national norm. That
costs a household only half as much as cable TV.
Beyond the Salton Sea to the south, 400 Imperial Valley
farmers receive as much Colorado River water as Arizona
and Nevada combined. Their main crop is alfalfa, a thirsty,
low-profit feed for dairy cows and horses.
There, rain is a curse. It wilts the lettuce and unbalances
the water district's cash flow by cutting demand for irrigation.
This is just a start. The Colorado is piped to the fastest-growing
cities in the United States: Los Angeles, San Diego, Las
Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz. What little is left irrigates
Mexico's richest farm region.
To water specialists, the overtapped Colorado River basin
is symbolic of a calamity facing much of the world. Fresh
water reserves are disappearing fast.
These experts see the California power crisis as the
harbinger of much worse to come.
"No one thought that a state richer than most countries
could fail to deliver reliable supplies of electricity,"
warned Richard Brusca, a University of Arizona environmental
scientist. "Well, guess what's next?"
People can survive power cuts and even live without oil,
he adds. Water is another matter entirely.
Like China's lifeline Yellow River and other waterways
on six continents, the Colorado often runs dry before
reaching its mouth. Across America and the world, ancient
underground lakes are squandered by overpumping.
Pesticides, fertilizers and solvents poison some aquifers
far below the surface. Others take on salt water when
levels drop too low.
The planet has no more fresh water than it did millenniums
ago. But with today's rocketing growth in arid zones,
conflicting needs of farms, cities, industry, recreation
and wetlands promise bitter water wars.
"We foresee serious problems," said Bruce Smith, a U.S.
Defense Department official who supervises 300 projects
in 100 countries designed to help provide water and reduce
political tensions. "This is getting very bad."
He said the Pentagon and State Department now give high
priority to preventing violent conflicts over water in
the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
Yet water managers across America say the public and
political leaders who can effect change seem to ignore
"Planners always say that we can worry about water supplies
in the future," said Tom Turney, New Mexico's state engineer.
"That doesn't work anymore. The future is now."
The Rio Grande is as overcommitted as the Colorado. Albuquerque,
N.M., whose underground reserves were until recently vastly
overestimated, could dry up by 2050. Already it has closed
wells because of natural arsenic in the soil.
Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas,
has soared beyond a million inhabitants, typical of northern
Mexico's growth. It could run out as early as five years
"When you open the doors and see inside, it terrifies
you," said Aletta Belin, an environmental lawyer in Santa
Fe, N.M. "You think, 'Isn't someone supposed to be watching
all this?' "
Linda Vida of the Water Resources Center at the University
of California-Berkeley sees the same phenomenon across
the American West and beyond.
"Nobody is looking out," she said. "The stakeholders
want what they want. No political leader is willing to
go out on a limb and make some people very unhappy. No
one wants to deal with tying growth to resources. They
just squeeze out more."
As a result, she said, a drought that otherwise might
be managed with water reserves could hit California far
harder than the energy crisis.
Interviews with scores of specialists lead to a gloomy
picture, but some also see points of light.
"People are beginning to ask the right questions," said
Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute for Development
in Berkeley. Technology is helping. Now, he noted, it
takes one-tenth the water to make a ton of steel.
The Metropolitan Water District's conservation programs
have reduced consumption, stabilizing water in Los Angeles
despite population growth. The district is filling new
reservoirs, above and below ground, to add reserve capacity.
The Orange County Water District has a revolutionary
project to triple-filter wastewater and recharge the substantial
Santa Ana aquifer. This also helps to block encroaching
"We're showing California and the world that you can
effectively recycle water," said William Mills, head of
Still, as a seasoned engineer and manager, Mills sees the
conflicts ahead. Old-style fights involved rifles and dynamited
aqueducts, but now stakeholders head for the courts.
"We're going to see lawsuits everywhere over the next
10 years," he said. "The water wars are going to start
all over again."
Each state has its own complex policy based on the days
when farmers and ranchers held sway. Municipalities and
water districts set their own rules. There is no federal
Arizona is regarded as forward-looking in water matters.
But its Water Resources Department in Phoenix, which sits
behind a lush green lawn, faces frightening projections.
The state population grew 40% in a decade.
Two decades doubled Arizona's population to 5.13 million,
pushing new homes onto waterless wasteland. Golf courses
and parking lots climb dramatic hillsides, replacing unique
In Phoenix, where urban canals still flood home gardens,
daily water use is 250 gallons per person. Wealthy suburbs
are awash in lagoon-fringed subdivisions with "water"
and "lake" in their names.
In Tucson, with more restrictions, the average use is
175 gallons. Yet saguaro stands and mountain foothills
are plowed up for more resorts.
Although attention mostly focuses on the U.S. Southwest,
rivers as unlikely as the Ipswich near Boston have been
William Alley, director of groundwater research at the
U.S. Geological Survey, sees shortages looming in much
of the United States. Even areas with plentiful supplies
are taking no chances.
The Great Lakes have one-fifth of the world's fresh surface
water, he said, but recently a Korean tanker was refused
permission to fill up there for ballast.
Along the Atlantic coast, seawater seeps into aquifers
from Cape Cod to the tip of Florida.
The huge High Plains (Ogallala, Neb.) Aquifer has been
tapped so heavily that parts of Kansas and other Midwest
areas may have to switch to rain-fed agriculture, Alley
In many places, land subsides. Overpumping in California's
San Joaquin Valley has caused one section of farmland
to drop 29 feet. Tucson, Albuquerque and Las Vegas are
Severe drought in the Northwest, where reservoirs have
been drawn down to supply power for California, threatens
a calamitous summer. Already, salmon are in danger, unable
to spawn because of low water.
In the Southeast, drought has further depleted aquifers,
letting in seawater. Desperate Florida authorities are
seeking federal clearance to replenish underground water
with untreated runoff.
Impact of global warming
Scientists expect problems to get worse if global warming
upsets rainfall patterns. Dams and diversions may aggravate
crises. As deltas and wetlands dry, ecosystems suffer.
"It took nature millions of years to fine-tune these
systems, and we come along and think we can improve them,"
said Brusca, of the University of Arizona. "We may be
in for some ugly surprises."
Most experts believe that people won't save water until
it costs what it is actually worth. Water is now essentially
free. Most consumers pay only the cost of treatment and
delivery. In some places, it is even illegal to meter
But putting a value on water is touchy.
Las Vegas authorities, for instance, insist that their
lavish use of water draws big spenders. Casinos among
blazing lights and lagoons bring in far more than wheat
At the Palm Desert Marriott resort, boats ferry diners
from the lobby to a restaurant across a 23-acre artificial
lake. Inside, its brochure boasts, "It took over 50 million
gallons of water to fill the indoor lake and waterfalls."
Elsewhere, cooled mist above cafe terrace tables air-conditions
the outdoors. Badly aimed sprinklers water paved streets.
Nearly every home has a swimming pool, its water evaporating
in the heat.
"People today are selfish, thoughtless and don't seem to
care about anyone's future," fumes Pat Finlay, a retired
actress and self-described "water nazi" who badgers her
Palm Desert neighbors to save every drop.
Tom Levy, general manager of the Coachella Water District
and president of the California Water Contractors Association,
scheduled two public meetings to push conservation. Despite
newspaper ads and 80,000 mailed notices, only 40 people
Levy predicts that large-scale desalination will be essential
within 50 years. Even if technology cuts the cost, he
said, agriculture still would face severe changes.
Desalination now costs about $800 an acre-foot, Levy
noted, but farmers can lose money with water at $15 an
Experts agree that big-picture solutions in America and
beyond must be political and technical.
Victor Baker, head of the University of Arizona hydrology
department, believes that engineers could solve most of
the water problems if scientists and politicians would
"Politicians don't understand the science, or they manipulate
it to their own purposes," he concluded. "Scientists,
who don't understand politics, always think they'll be
heard. The trick is to make politicians more realistic
and scientists more understanding."
Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on May