By editorial board • 

Water a critical commodity and it's being frittered away

The New York Times published a report on America’s groundwater status last month, based on exhaustive analysis of monitoring data from 84,544 wells from every corner of the country. Alarmingly, it depicts a crisis dwarfing most if not all others.

The situation is so dire we may actually be on a path toward running out of water to drink. And sadly, the Times reports that’s a threat we share with virtually every other place on the planet, to one degree or another.

Simply put, we are running out of water to grow our food and quench our thirst. Times journalist David Leonhardt put it this way;

“For most of human history, groundwater has existed in a convenient equilibrium. The pockets of water under the surface need years or decades to replenish as rainwater and other moisture seep into the earth. Fortunately, though, people have used groundwater slowly, allowing replenishment to happen. Now that equilibrium is at risk.”

Actually, “at risk” is putting it very charitably.

Over the course of the last 40 years, aquifers across the country have been suffering drawdowns, to the point 40% of the wells tapping into them hit all-time lows during the past decade. What’s more, Times investigation shows countries around the globe are facing like threat.

Growing population and industrialization are major contributors, as are technological advances allowing individual wells to pump more than 100,000 gallons a day. Meanwhile, global warming is disrupting rainfall patterns, melting ice caps, accelerating evaporation, reducing snowpack, bleeding off glacial ice and fostering widespread drought.

It’s gotten so bad:

Groundwater depletion has become visible from space. Ice melt has shifted the distribution of the earth’s mass so much its axis has taken a sharp tilt toward the east.

Over-pumping of aquifers is causing roads to buckle, foundations to crack and fissures to develop in several parts of the U.S. It is also causing saltwater intrusion in coastal regions and arsenic contamination in California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley.

Corn yields have fallen by more than half in several parched Kansas counties, reaching record lows. Reverting to dryland farming has become the leading option in some parts of the Midwestern farm state, demonstrating the magnitude of the crisis.

The principal aquifer is being pumped at more than double the replenishment rate in Arkansas, which grows half the nation’s rice. More than three-quarters of the aquifers are being consistently overdrawn in California, which accounts for the largest share of the nation’s produce.

In fact, industrialized agriculture, which has become the backbone of American food production, both for export and domestic consumption, is under threat virtually everywhere. We are the world’s largest exporter of corn, soybeans, sorghum and cotton, but that may not remain the case for much longer.

It’s not only our food supply at issue either, as aquifers account for about 90% of our domestic water supply. Warigia Bowman, a water expert from the University of Tulsa, warned, “There will be parts of the U.S. that run out of drinking water.”

How could we let this happen? Under-regulation seems to be the leading culprit.

The federal government has largely left it to the states. So have the nation’s cities and counties, to the point locally where Yamhill County lacks the authority to factor groundwater status into development and land use decisions.

But most states, including Oregon, have lacked the will to rein in the well-heeled, well-connected titans of corporate agriculture and large-scale development. Plainly put, they’ve been caught fiddling as Rome burns.

Oregon represents a good case study:

The state Water Resources Department has conducted assessments identifying areas of “concern” and “significant concern.” But records show 83% of development applications being approved in areas of concern and 79% in areas of significant concern, the higher-risk category encompassing most of rural Yamhill County.

Wineries are water-intensive, and Yamhill County is home to around a hundred of them. Water usage just doesn’t seem to factor in.

More than 20 years ago, the News-Register reached the conclusion, based on a five-part special report on water: “Public agencies are not planning for the future in a cooperative, coordinated manner.” And it seems nothing has changed during the intervening decades.

Earlier this year, the Secretary of State’s Office issued a report citing “rapidly declining groundwater from agricultural, industrial and municipal overuse in several areas of the state” and repeated failure of the Legislature to address the issue. Over the years, it noted, “Water management groups in Oregon have been convened and disbanded by the Legislature with ultimately little to show for their efforts.”

That’s also true locally with the Yamhill County Water Task Force. It has been convened three times in the last 20 years without managing to generate meaningful action.

Figures show proven American oil reserves are only sufficient to sustain pumping at the current rate for another 11 years, counting reserves locked in shale. But water is even more critical to our well-being, and there is no feasible fallback technology for producing the food and water to sustain human life.

Here’s hoping our state, nation and world arise from their slumber in time. The clock is ticking at an ever-increasing rate as our rampant fuel-burning serves to warm the habitat we share.


Don Dix

The US Navy has been de-salinating saltwater on it's ships for over 70 years. The Earth's surface is 70+% water -- ?????


Don, I used to think the same thing, but desalination is not the answer to large scale water issues. First off, it takes an enormous amount of energy to desalinate. Now from reading your past posts, I don’t think you care about the carbon cost, but the actual cost is still about $5 per $1000 gallons. That is very expensive. Also, you have to figure out where to put the salty byproduct and dumping it in the ocean would cause massive damage to the eco system.

Remember that farms are by far the biggest user of water. Expensive water is not the answer. For instance, 80% of the water used out of the Colorado river is sent to farms. The 10-15% used for human/city use covers 40 million people.

Don Dix

The cost is now $2 - 3 per 1000 gal. Oil and gas reservoirs and coal bed methane represent huge potential new sources of water. The typical oil and gas or oil field production facility produces seven times as much water as it does oil, which means that there is available water.

So the question to the feds who grant coal, oil, and gas leases is which is more important -- that 'dirty energy' (coal, oil, and gas) that is said to be bad for the environment, or the water that is produced, or both? Can you say dichotomy?

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