“When the Well Is Dry, We Know the Worth of Water”

In response to my post titled ““What Does Winter Weather Reveal about Global Warming?” Condemon posted a series of interesting comments and queries. This paragraph captured my attention:

I cannot subscribe to those theories about overpopulation and taxing the ecosystem. . . . . [People occupy only] 1% of the earth’s surface! That would be saying the atmosphere cannot adjust itself and we are not supposed to be here. The earth is in constant motion cleansing, balancing and renewing…that’s what it does, that’s what it was designed to do. As we speak there are new oil reserves in the process of creation, what resources are we in short supply of?

Since there are quite a few issues here, I’m going to spread my answers out over a series of posts. I’ll start with the last question since this one ties in with many of the other issues Condenom brings up.

What resource is in short supply? In actuality, we are short on a number of resources, but one of the most crucial is also one of the last most people think of: WATER. Fresh water. Irrigation water.

We live on the Blue Planet, the Water Planet. In fact, according to just about any decent reference work, such as this earth sciences text book, about 70% of the surface area of the earth is covered by water, almost all of this salt water.

While salt water has traditionally provided a major food bank for many cultures, ours included, in this post I want to discuss only land-based water resources, specifically aquifers, even more specifically the Ogallala Aquifer, which has been extensively for crop irrigation since its discovery in 1899.

If you aren’t familiar with aquifers, here’s a good primer.

(If you don’t have PowerPoint, you can download a free viewer by clicking here.)

The Ogallala Aquifer, also known as the High Plains Aquifer, is a national treasure.

The Ogallala

It covers 174,000 square miles and provides water to between 20% to 27% of the irrigated crop land in the United States. This water represents 30% of the pumped ground water used each year.

In short, without the Ogallala, much of the now productive farm land in the United States will simply dry up. Just a couple of years ago, I started reading about small towns shifting from corn to cotton.

Why are they switching to cotton? Lack of water. The wells aren’t pumping what they used to. The aquifer’s shrinking, even drying up.

Why? The answer is simple. We are pumping water out faster than it can refill itself. This aquifer, which ranges in thickness from a few feet to more than 1000 feet, contains water that entered its system thousands of years ago. Irrigation pumps have been taking it down about a foot a year.

Now the ancient aquifer is a natural system that refills itself. But how fast does it recharge itself?

The answer is not quick enough: Between a third of an inch to a little over three inches a year. Other sources say half an inch on average. I have yet to find any source that says the overall aquifer is stable or recharging in a natural manner. Why? The answer is pretty simple: People and their pumps.

Many good resources are available on this issue. Here are a few university PowerPoint presentations on the topic:

“Exploring the Sustainability of the Ogallala Aquifer” (2001)
[The link I inserted here was not working, so I removed it. I copies the titled and pastes into Google and it’ll come up. This presentation requires at least PowerPoint viewer software.]

The Ogallala Aquifer (2006)

“KU Geological Survey” (2007)

There are many more good studies out there on this subject. Managing–or trying to sustain–the Ogallala represents a major problem for farmers in several states. If they fail to do so, and some have already failed, a good chunk of America’s food supply goes away.

Some places are already reducing the use of overhead irrigation methods under which as much as 80% of the water is lost to evaporation. I’m not going to document this since I live in a state where crop irrigation is a way of life. Everyone except the lawn-watering townies KNOWS this. I know it because we flood irrigate most of our 20 acres about every 30 days during the summer. By the way, it’s backbreaking work tending ditches, but our irrigation water is a treasure. I don’t like to see townies with decorator lawns. They waste water. See my old blog post “Death to Infidel Lawns.”

Water is a requisite for life, and we can’t afford to waste it. Many articles and books have already been devoted to the topic. A good many predict that the wars of the second half of this century will be over water.

Here are a few books I still need to read:

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Steven Soloman

When the Rivers Run Dry: Water–The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century by Fred Pearce

Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Waterby Maude Barlow

Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource by Marq de Villiers

Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It by Robert Glennon

The titles alone tell me I’m not the only one worried. It’s not just pumped water agriculture that’s in danger. Benjamin Franklin said something like this: “When the Well Is Dry, We Know the Worth of Water.” We can extrapolate from that and say that dry wells aren’t the only problem. Rivers, lakes, streams, not just aquifers are in danger. We also have to deal with contaminants in our water–hormones from birth control pills, pesticides, and industrial waste. The list goes on.

Have you heard about the hermaphrodite fish?

I have to stop.

In an upcoming post, I’ll tackle the next shrinking resource: arable land.

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9 Responses to ““When the Well Is Dry, We Know the Worth of Water””

  1. comdenom Says:

    This is not an issue of water in short supply, we have the same amount of water we have always had. Water cannot be created or destroyed, this is mismanagement.

    You don’t grow water intensive crops in an arid or semi arid region, when you work against the laws of nature there’s an excellent chance of getting subprime results. Call this stupidity, arrogance or plain not thinking things through, our government is fraught with this syndrome as displayed over and over again. Government solutions more common than not mess up the natural order of something else they have neglectfully considered, as depicted in this article.
    http://articles.sfgate.com/2009-07-13/news/17218619_1_food-safety-cookie-dough-food-borne

    I live in an area that has a high water table and often deal with water in my basement, why? Because someone in authority thought it a good idea to fill in a lake…go figure.

    Let me share something substantial I learned in grade school; http://www.nwwater.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/document.view/documentID/2BA19C41-866E-4F92-AA88-7AB9FE811EAC

  2. uncommonscolds Says:

    Condenom wrote: “This is not an issue of water in short supply, we have the same amount of water we have always had. Water cannot be created or destroyed, this is mismanagement.”

    In general, I agree. However, this answer could use more detail and development. How should we manage our groundwater? And who should be in charge? Should people not use the ground water that’s available to them as they see fit? Groundwater under land that could grow crops–for right now I’m ignoring the “should” aspect–is used to grow crops in our present world, be it in China or the US, is it not? Who owns this water? From a moral viewpoint, who has a right to this water? The landowner, some government, the world? And, given the current world population, do we need to continue extracting groundwater to grow food or do we decrease or even cease pumping? If we do decrease or cease the drawdown, how do we feed everyone? Where’s the water come for that if not from the aquifers?

    What’s the answer to solve this management problem? Education? Government control? The free market?

    In addition, how do we get water where we need it? Water that has run off, frozen, or evaporated is still water, but it isn’t likely to be useful in growing crops, is it? And what about contamination? Unfortunately, if the water has become contaminated that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be used to grow food, does it?

    What do you suggest as remedies for this mismanagement? That’s where the real issues lie, isn’t it?

    (Can you tell I am really big on the Socratic method?)

    As you know, use of aerial irrigation is a pet peeve of mine because it’s so utterly wasteful. But that’s hardly the only mismanagement of water. What else do we need to do? Is it possible, given the failures we are currently seeing, to continue using aquifers are our present rate?

    I’m reading more horror stories than successful management stories, and I know some mighty smart people are out there trying to find ways around problems. What have you found that’s encouraging?

    Condenom also writes, “You don’t grow water intensive crops in an arid or semi arid region, when you work against the laws of nature there’s an excellent chance of getting subprime results.”

    Again, I absolutely agree. We should not be growing crops in these regions. We should be honoring uses that fit the land. Much of the cropped Midwest, for example, was once prime grazing land. But then more people were born and pretty soon we needed more cereal grains to feed them. Bingo, the beginning of expansion of farming onto less than perfect cropland.

    Can we feed the world without expanding onto less than perfect soil and without dipping into fossil water? If the population is expanding and that expansion is harmless, what needs to be done to feed them? Again, I ask, What is proper management?

    Condenom continues, “Call this [mismangement] stupidity, arrogance or plain not thinking things through . . . . ”

    Again, I say, Amen. Not thinking things through is perhaps mankind’s fatal flaw. Most people are short term thinkers. We tend to stick with the easy, the simple, the immediate. And then that law of unintended consequences kicks in. The long term has a way of biting us in sensitive places just when we thought we had everything figured out.

    Condenom writes: “[O]ur government is fraught with this syndrome as displayed over and over again. Government solutions more common than not mess up the natural order of something else they have neglectfully considered, as depicted in this article.”

    Not just our government. As far as I can see, it’s all governments, all people. People have big brains, but also have the arrogance to think they can use them to fix complex issues with simple, immediate answers.

    Thanks so much for the comment. I’m enjoying this conversation.

    Cassandra

  3. comdenom Says:

    As you know Jamaica is a poor country, someone that grew up there told me that a lemon tree was planted on or close to where household sewage was run into the soil by his house, this happened to be the most vigorous tree with the largest, sweetest fruit in the county.

    Groundwater is formed from precipitation percolating into the earth surface along with runoff from higher elevations etc. I really take offence to the general term used by others as water usage for everyday living and commerce as “exploitation”. The usage is simply survival at least and thriving at best, the terms used to define a problem does have impact and does matter.

    The water belongs to the people to use as they see fit with minimal intrusion from the government. The US was originally set up with the absolute best practice of operating a country so I’m using this model to explain a solution scenario that works for any possible situation but in this case my focus will be water supply in a drought prone area.

    It is determined that a region experiences water shortages that impacts development in a drought zone. Government would have the responsibility to minimally name the rules of the game and monitor and enforce these rules. The rules set forth would adhere to the constitution. If the government gave each person living in the area a fair and equal allotment for personal and an allotment for commercial usage during a drought, this is what would happen; The people of the region would quickly learn how to best use their share and those that wanted to push the envelope within their confines to garner more equity would become more resourceful.

    Resourcefulness is exactly how ingenuity is born through inventions and management techniques. This scenario explains why the US became the great nation it is. With minimal involvement in the game the government doesn’t pay for research and development nor does it generally have to create more regulation because it’s in the best interest of each individual to efficiently manage their resources.

    The US government has progressively moved away from the constitution hence we now have a complicated, convoluted mess with the government even playing the game instead of setting the parameters of how the game should be played. Government exploitation also progressively increases instances of not thinking things through while increasing the cost, thus transferring the cost of living to the people.

    When government funds R&D the research becomes politicized, agenda driven and ultimately one way. Our science is now corrupt (not pure) and suspiciously unbelieveable. If the science is such, how fair and how much of a conflict of interest is it to pay for the science on which they base regulation?

    Any government is wrought with evil (questing power and control etc.) but a necessary evil at best. A smaller government incorporating appropriate checks and balances with an equal three-way division of power makes for the smartest containment of corruption and lowest cost.

    A Totalitarian government on the other hand could easily change (and has) the rules to prevent dissent by removing the individuals right to any water, using water as coercion, hence the pertinence of constitutional rights. Instances of coercion has played out many times in history, here is a US example of constitutional infringement regarding growing wheat that could have easily caused dissent; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wickard_v._Filburn

    So in essence the answer is the free market.

  4. uncommonscolds Says:

    Alas, your last response puzzles me, Condenom.

    First of all, I have no idea why you keep bringing up “the government” in a discussion of groundwater. At some point, political issues will be unavoidable, but not in such a preliminary discussion. I don’t even know if you agree that our aquifers are in danger of depletion.

    If you must talk government, I’d hoped you’d at least discuss something at least tangentially related like the Texas laws that allow a land owner to not only suck all the water out from under his/her land but also out from under the land of neighbors. Texas is still the land of “the biggest pump gits all,” ain’t it?

    Also, as an academic who knows many, many scientists, I am troubled by your comment that “Our science is now corrupt (not pure) and suspiciously unbelieveable.” Since this is a discussion of groundwater, I am forced to believe that this means you find the data on the Ogallala “corrupt” and
    “suspiciously unbelievable.” Why? Do you also believe data provided by Chinese scientists is problematical?

    Good discussions need to stay on topic, don’t they?

    Cassandra

  5. comdenom Says:

    These and a few more of your questions were posed; “How should we manage our groundwater? And who should be in charge? Should people not use the ground water that’s available to them as they see fit? Groundwater under land that could grow crops–for right now I’m ignoring the “should” aspect–is used to grow crops in our present world, be it in China or the US, is it not? Who owns this water? From a moral viewpoint, who has a right to this water? The landowner, some government, the world? ”

    Aside from your mentioning government several times, government has everything to do with the answers to your questions, government is in control and government controls everything (including that which it chooses to ignore). In order to fix anything we have to fix government first or we just ride the merry-go-round as I have previously stated regarding the lame fixes (meddling and muddying) in the past. In effect, how can a solution be derived from examining only one side of the equation?

    A great chunk of the scientific community is dependent on the paycheck of a government facility working under the false premise that humanity is exploiting resources and causing global warming that further destroys the earth with the ramifications of intensified weather phenomenon that is scorching the earth and raising ocean levels at the same time. You see nothing wrong with this picture? Are you requesting me to discuss a topic without addressing the very root of the problem?

    “Why? Do you also believe data provided by Chinese scientists is problematical?” This answer applies to all; If the science is agenda driven it is problematic at best and guilty of examining only a portion of an equation while interjecting inference that pollutes the science. Good science does not start with a theory or predetermined result and sets out to prove it so. If research funding is contingent on proving a particular problem exists then what is the incentive be to be unbiased?

    It’s no accident that the underfunded scientific community is against AGW while the better connected, better funded group is pro AGW, the answer is not because the latter group has higher qualified experts.

    Regarding the aquifer depletion specifically, is that phrase even accurate? The aquifer is rechargeable, it recharges from precipitation. If the rate of recharge has dropped, it would be due to a decrease in precipitation for that region, unless you have specific data that verifies a spike in greedy human usage. Otherwise a drop in a recharge rate would be due to drought, a naturally recurring event of which we have no control.

    We can better manage adverse (natural) conditions through the ingenuity of the free market making solutions both faster and more efficient than government if government did their job. You probably already perused this site but here is an indication about better water management methods; http://www.scidev.net/en/news/china-s-clever-water-use-boosts-food-yields.html

  6. On to Land, Part One: Feed Me « Uncommon Scolds Says:

    […] case you missed them, my posts of 15 Feb. 2010 “When the Well Is Dry, We Know the Worth of Water” and 17 Feb. 2010 “When the Well Is Dry, Part 2″ are on […]

  7. Aquifer Depletion and Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” « Uncommon Scolds Says:

    […] “The Tragedy of the Commons” By uncommonscolds I received a lengthy response to “When the Well Is Dry,” my 15 Feb. 2010 post on […]

  8. Karley Says:

    “The theme of the quote is thing that we do not appreciate what we have in our life, sometime you find something new and forgot an old thing we have, but when you realized the value of that old thing, you will feel regret but it’s too late. These literacy term enhance because they allow you to feel the emotion of the regret and they want you do something to be able to fix your mistake: We do not know what we got until its gone.”

  9. Chong Says:

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    Uncommon Scolds” ended up being good! I personallycouldn’t agree together with u even more! At last seems like I personallystumbled upon a blog page worth browsing. Thanks for the post, Charmain

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