Water Works

TAPPED OUT:The Coming World Crisis in Water and What We Can Do About It.

The Texas summer of 1998 had its apocalyptic moments. In late June, a dome of high pressure built up, pushing the mercury over the century mark for a more than a month; worse, this “weather event” also deflected storm systems away from the state, so that the palette from the High Plains to Laredo, from El Paso east, turned burnt sienna. Robbed of moisture, the rock-hard soil fissured and constricted, buckling water mains in Fort Worth, Austin, and other cities; elsewhere, reservoirs receded, and aquifer levels dropped precipitously; cattle and corn suffered along with their human tenders. A foreboding sense of doom led farmers, ranchers, and urbanites to unite in a one-word prayer: rain!

It came in August, and with a ferocity that was as overwhelming as the drought had been punishing. Spinning out of the gulf, two tropical storms pummeled coastal communities and then moved inland: Houston went under water as did San Antonio; when Tropical Storm Charlie stalled over the Hill Country, it unleashed murderous floods that ripped through Eagle Pass, and then turned the Rio Grande into the Nile, a mud-brown wave that swept through downstream cities and towns, and inundated a once-parched valley. We should have been careful what we prayed for.

Does it help to know that our strange affliction – too little and too much – was (and is) a world-wide phenomenon? Probably not. But Paul Simon (former senator from Illinois and now Director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University) suggests we get used to such volatile swings in the weather, and the devastating catastrophes that attend them. The unpredictability of global warming, when combined with the furies that El Niño/La Niña can unleash, will increasingly imperil human life, especially as our numbers increase and our population density intensifies. We are setting ourselves up for a fall.

A big fall, if the dire predictions Simon cobbles together in Tapped Out come to pass. In one state after another, the news is grim. The Sunbelt’s big three – California, Texas, and Florida – are particularly troublesome. The Golden State, for instance, is currently consuming water at a rate that is unsustainable. The heavy pumping of underground water, according to a 1995 report, is “causing land to subside and threatening some aquifers with possible collapse.” This situation will only get worse, because there is little monitoring or control of the mining of white gold, and because agricultural “policies encourage the production of water-intensive, low-valued crops,” such as rice. If, in a state with “more than 1,400 large water reservoirs and the most sophisticated water supply system in the world,” demand will outstrip available supplies in twenty years, what hope is there for less-advanced polities?

Not much, as the Lone Star and Sunshine States suggest. “Texas is one of only three western states that still does not have a drought plan,” Simon writes, a lack that is particularly worrisome given our considerable reliance on aquifers for water; the vast Ogallala, which lies beneath the Panhandle, is proof that size does not matter: the “largest discrete [isolated] aquifer in the world,” the Ogallala is also “the fastest-disappearing aquifer in the world.” Florida is in a similarly precarious situation: development and population growth are pressing up against groundwater supplies; rushing in to fill the void is salt water, contamination that will increase if, in response to elevated air temperatures, the oceans rise. Anne and Paul Ehrlich are among those who estimate that for every foot of elevation in sea level, “there will be about a 40-foot reduction in the depth of freshwater in Florida aquifers.”

As with America, so goes the world. In the Middle East (where, according to the World Bank, per capita renewable water supplies will have fallen to 667 meters by 2025, a more than five-fold decline since 1960), the social and political tensions emanating from water distribution are rapidly escalating. Simon argues that many of the Arab-Israeli disputes of the past have been triggered by contests over scarce water supplies, and quotes the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who, on the eve of signing the famed peace treaty with Israel, acknowledged that “the only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.” This calculation is as evident in the wrangles between Pakistan and India, the immiseration of many Third World peoples, and the looming calamities threatening to engulf China; that nation contains 21 percent of the world’s population, but has access to a mere 8 percent of “the earth’s renewable freshwater,” so it is only a matter of time before its internal crises spill into the international arena, everywhere imperiling peace.

It’s not that I doubt Simon’s gloomy scenarios – they actually play to my abiding pessimism about the human condition – but, curiously, the unrelenting set of horror stories manages to call into question the very issue he has brought to our attention. This is partly the result of how thoroughly dependent his argument is on his clippings file. You can almost hear him rustling through sheaves of yellowing newsprint in search of the article that best supports his claims; you can almost listen in on Simon reminding himself to use no more than one clip per paragraph, for that is how Tapped Out’s narrative is framed. When he’s not paraphrasing press reports, he snips out, and lays down, lists of portentous headlines – “Counties Set to War over Water,” “Barricade the Water,” “Shortage Could Dry up the Economy,” “Water Resources in Jeopardy,” “Clock is Ticking in Search of Water” – as evidence enough that the end is at hand.

Simon knows full well that the clock hasn’t stopped ticking, one more reason why his manufactured gloom is so off-putting. Here’s another: it is too blatant a backdrop for his proposed resolutions, a stark landscape against which to read what he modestly calls “The Answers.” Alas, his proposals do not merit any such dramatic build-up, as they break no new ground in the long-standing debates over the future use and distribution of water.

Three elements contribute to what Simon believes will enable our species to survive on Earth: conservation, population control, and desalination. About the first two, he has little to say that has not been said, and repeatedly so. We will cash in on conservation, which he conceives of as a “Big Short-Term Payoff,” when consumers are “charged the actual cost for bringing them water,” when water-delivery systems are leak free, when recycled, or “gray,” water is more thoroughly brought on line, and when our current storage facilities (above and below ground) are better monitored and regulated.

If saving water will save our lives and livelihoods, so too will controlling the surge in human birth and survival rates. Yet this issue apparently is so politically charged that the one-time senator seeks to finesse, not confront, it. Well aware that “[m]ore people consume more water,” and that increases in water consumption is also tied directly to advancing standards of living, Simon offers this bromide: whatever “can humanely retard population growth will help protect our usable water supply.” Therein lies the catch. Family planning and expanded educational opportunities (especially for girls) are highly controversial in many of the most at-risk areas of the world; moreover, while these markers of a modernizing economy may lower birth rates, they’ll simultaneously escalate water consumption, as the American experience attests.

How avoid such social policy dilemmas, and their potentially explosive consequences? Simon’s resolution is to increase water supplies, and to do so through desalination. The idea has long captured human fancy. Aristotle’s happy insight that saltwater, “when it turns into vapor, becomes sweet and the vapor does not does not form saltwater again when it condenses,” has played out over time, leading to a nineteenth-century British patent for a desalination procedure; the successful development of the process in the modern Middle East; and, closer to home, the support of American presidents, from Eisenhower to Clinton, for greater funding of scientific research in the field. This past, Simon hopes, will become prologue.

Yet it is geography more than history that seems to reinforce his faith in desalination as the best technological fix for our contemporary water problems. “What makes the use of saltwater so appealing,” he argues, “is that most of the nations and areas with serious water shortages border the sea. And almost 70 percent of the world’s population lives within fifty miles of the ocean” [italics in original].That’s why the construction of desalting plants is so crucial. They may not yet be economical (in the sense that the cost of desalinated water currently is at least three to four times higher than ground or surface water); more research should yield a more efficient technology, and, in time, price reductions. But this prospect, coupled with the situation’s urgency, and the proximity of the oceans to population concentrations, makes desalination, in Simon’s eyes, “the brightest distant light in an otherwise dark picture.”

Staring at that shimmering vision may have blinded him to some of desalination’s potential for environmental devastation. Consider low-lying Florida. Certain that whatever “consumes seawater and diminishes the likelihood of elevation, helps Florida” [italics in original], he urges the state to heavily invest in desalting projects; so should other Gulf states, such as Texas, as well as water-starved Mexico. But what would be the long-term environmental impact of withdrawing billions of gallons of seawater from this relatively contained body of water on the rich biota it sustains? Perhaps he shares one Floridian’s blunt, NIMBY-like assertion: “I’d rather see the ocean desalinated than water sucked out from under my property.” But it is hard to tell, for on this crucial matter the usually loquacious Simon says nothing. That’s a disquieting silence in one who opens his book with a noisy denunciation of the cataclysmic shortsightedness of contemporary political leadership on the coming water crisis.

Contributing writer Char Miller teaches environmental history at Trinity University.

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Published at 12:00 am CST