I’m currently reading a very interesting book called “Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water” by Marc Reisner. It is very timely reading, given the drought that we’re currently facing in California. The book explores much of the relationship of the American West and water, especially the power, politics, and idiocy behind many Bureau of Reclamation projects and Army Corps of Engineer projects — such as the Central Arizona Project, the Teton Dam, or the proposed Narrows Dam — that are not economically viable and often built in unstable areas. There are two chapters devoted to California: one explores the story of William Mulholland and the first Los Angeles Aqueduct (here are some interesting maps related to that), the second explores the history of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. Other chapters touch on some Army Corps projects that helped large farmers in the San Joaquin valley, the story of obtaining water from the Colorado, and the more surprising story of how they wanted to get more water for the Colorado / Central Valley from the Feather, Eel, Klamath, and even the Columbia river. What’s missing in the book is any discussion of San Francisco and its water, and the battle over Hetch Hetchy. It is a glaring omission.
In any case, this book has gotten me thinking about water, and a number of articles this week have emphasized that thinking. It’s also got me looking at many government projects a bit more cynically — when you understand some of the political battles behind them, you can see the waste. This is independent of party: both conservatives and liberals, Repubs and Democrats, have fought for water project boondoggles. Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Dwight Eisenhower tried to cut them, but never succeeded.
So here are some articles on water, with commentary:
- Once It’s Gone, It’s Gone. One of topics repeatedly mentioned in Cadillac Desert is how areas in the west have been over-pumping the ground water (similar to how we are over-pumping oil). We’ve been drastically drawing down a slow-to-replenish resource, and don’t have the water projects to replace it (and don’t get me started on how we’re contaminating the aquifers through fracking). A number of articles are bringing this fact home: the Las Vegas Sun has an article on how the groundwater loss in the Southwest is shocking: “Groundwater losses from the Colorado River basin appear massive enough to challenge long-term water supplies for the seven states and parts of Mexico that it serves” [combine this with the fact that more water from the Colorado River has been promised to the states along its path than flows through the river in a normal year]. The LA Times is reporting that farmers are having to drill deeper to find groundwater for wells. This indicates that the aquifer is getting low. The AAAS Science Magazine is reporting that the Western US states are using groundwater at an alarming rate: “A new study shows that ground water in the [Colorado River] basin is being depleted six times faster than surface water. The groundwater losses, which take thousands of years to be recharged naturally, point to the unsustainability of exploding population centers and water-intensive agriculture in the basin, which includes most of Arizona and parts of Colorado, California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming.” Yes, droughts are cyclical; but global climate change, combined with our misuse of what water resources we have, are making this one even scarier.
- A Crappy Situation. Think about your personal water usage. Outside of irrigating your landscaping, where is most of your water used? The answer, of course, is the bathroom. One of the articles I saw this week was on why the modern bathroom is a wasteful, unhealthy design. There are a number of interesting points in the article. Thanks to the modern bathroom, the average water use per person went quickly from three gallons of water per person to 30 and perhaps as much as 100 gallons per person. Further, we’re doing silly things like storing medicine, open toothbrushes, and glasses in an environment where fecal bacteria are being flung around. That’s less of a problem if you’re the only person using your bathroom; more of a problem if it shared.
- Go Jump in a (Concrete) Lake. Our house, alas, has a swimming pool. I don’t want it, but we liked the rest of the house. So here’s an interesting question: What uses more water — a swimming pool or the landscaping that replaces it? If a lawn is going it, quite likely the pool is water smarter (other than the fill, which is one-time). The pool only loses water due to evaporation; you pour water on the lawn regularly. It does make me think seriously about getting a pool cover to control evaporation, however. I just hate to think of the leaves that would accumulate on top of it.