Great Lakes Environmental Directory Great Lakes Great Lakes environment Great Lakes grants exotic species water pollution water export drilling environment Great Lakes pollution Superior Michigan Huron Erie Ontario ecology Great Lakes issues wetlands Great Lakes wetlands Great Lakes Great Lakes environment Great Lakes watershed water quality exotic species Great Lakes grants water pollution water export oil gas drilling environment environmental Great Lakes pollution Lake Superior Lake Michigan Lake Huron Lake Erie Lake Ontario Great Lakes ecology Great Lakes issues Great Lakes wetlands Great Lakes Resources Great Lakes activist Great Lakes environmental organizations Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat air pollution alien species threatened rare endangered species ecological Great Lakes information Success Stories Great Lakes Directory Home/News Great Lakes Calendar Great Lakes jobs/volunteering Search Great Lakes Organizations Take Action! Contact Us Resources/Links Great Lakes Issues Great Lakes News Article About Us Networking Services

Great Lakes Article:

America's fresh water is running on empty
Experts warn of crisis from overtapped rivers, lavish use
Mort Rosenblum
Associated Press
Posted 11/04/2002

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 the danger.

"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 from now.

"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 seawater.

"We're showing California and the world that you can effectively recycle water," said William Mills, head of the district.

Court battles

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 water master.

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 Sonoran desert.

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 pumped dry.

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 said.

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 slowly sinking.

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 water.

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 and alfalfa.

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.

No conservation

"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 showed up.

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 acre-foot.

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 think differently.

"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 14, 2001.
This information is posted for nonprofit educational purposes, in accordance with U.S. Code Title 17, Chapter 1,Sec. 107 copyright laws.
For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for
purposes of your own that go beyond "fair use," you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Great Lakes environmental information

Return to Great Lakes Directory Home/ Site Map