Water Security

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Several weeks back I wrote a post on food security. It was in the wake of the Intel deal to build a huge manufacturing plant in Central Ohio, insuring the security of our micro-chip supply. But there is a form of security even more fundamental than food security, and that is water security. Human beings cannot live more than three days without water. Fifty-five to sixty percent of the human body consists of water.

In addition, we depend on water to grow both plant and animal food, as a source of power, for various manufacturing processes, and for transport among many other things. That Intel plant in Ohio? It is projected to use a staggering 5 million gallons of water per day, becoming the single largest user of water in Central Ohio. Ohio’s abundant supplies of water were no doubt one of the factors in siting the plant there. But they will now have to develop the infrastructure to move that water, and a reclamation plant to recycle at least some of the water used.

It seems that water may threaten our security in at least three ways:

When there is too little of it. Climate change is rendering many parts of our world much drier, not just for a year here and there but for the long term. The reservoirs that are supplied by the Colorado River have dropped by 50 feet or more to about 25 percent of their capacities, jeopardizing power generation as well as the supply of water to Arizona, California, and Nevada. And much of that supply, up to 80 percent, is for agriculture. It’s likely that the fresh fruit and vegetables in your refrigerator were grown there. But perhaps for not much longer–a major dislocation. NASA predicts that California has only one year of water. Given the low levels of water in rivers, streams and reservoirs, efforts are being made to tap into groundwater supplies in aquifers. But these are also finite and dependent on the same rainfall and runoffs for replenishment

When there is too much of it. We heard a presentation recently of a Christian school in rural eastern Kentucky that fought to recover from a hundred year flood last year, only to endure a thousand year flood this summer, with much higher floodwaters. One of the impacts of climate change in much of the eastern United States is more intense storms with heavier rainfall totals. That school has decided to re-locate out of its location in a hundred year flood plain because the once in a hundred or thousand year events seem to be coming much more frequently. Coastal communities like Fort Myers in Florida face greater storm surge, which in combination with rising sea levels can wreak ever greater devastation. And with the melting of ice from Greenland to Antarctica, rising sea levels will make many of our coastal cities new versions of Venice.

When impurities render it unpotable or toxic over the long term. It is a major wonder of infrastructure and technology that we can turn a tap, fill a glass, and drink it. This is not the case in many parts of the world, resulting in higher infant and child death rates, and underlying digestive illnesses for many. But bacteria are not the only danger to our water. Impurities are a major threat from lead that impairs child intelligence in many cities with aging water infrastructures to toxic chemicals that escape into adjacent groundwater, or are discharged by manufacturing processes. Finally, the possibility of sabotage always exists.

Many of our problems are ones that have been long foreseen, but ignored. John Wesley Powell, armed with watershed maps testified before Congress in 1890 about the limits the water supply of the West, situated in a desert climate, would impose on development. People did not want to hear him then and most still don’t want to heed his message. But it seems to me that the question needs to be asked whether the West, particularly in even drier and hotter conditions than Powell knew of, can sustain a growing population and the water uses to which it is accustomed. Likewise, climate experts have predicted with a high degree of accuracy the intensifying climate effects contributing to flooding and coastal inundations.

It seems it is probably past time for us to think about water:

  • How will what we know determine decisions about where we live, or don’t live?
  • How will we better steward existing resources, including the capture of rainwater runoffs, often wasted?
  • How will we protect and expand the supply of potable water, including in the permitting processes for industrial activity that may endanger it?
  • How will we manage water disparities in different parts of the country without creating water wars?
  • How will we think intelligently about various industrial uses of water to avoid disruptions in production while providing for other uses? How will we handle situations where demand exceeds supply?

Many places are already wrestling with these questions. Our presence on a burgeoning and changing planet means all of us need to grow in our awareness of these realities. We no longer have the luxury of ignoring the warnings of John Wesley Powell and the host of others who have given public testimony about the challenges facing us. Every single one of us are within three days of extinction without water. That seems to me to be enough reason to care,

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