Rain, rain, go away, come again another day… The exact origins of this little nursery rhyme are obscure. It's old and English, that's about all we know. I'm guessing the British Isles weren't experiencing a severe drought at the time.
Unless most independent experts — climatologists, meteorologists and hydrologists — are delusional, droughts and chronic water shortages are now a permanent part of life in the post-industrial world.
The Colorado River Basin is a case study in climate change. The water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead (the nation's largest reservoir) have fallen to historic low points in recent years. There's a 50-50 chance that Lake Mead water will be rationed to states downstream by 2015.
Journalist Michael Wines ("Colorado River Drought Forces a Painful Reckoning for States," New York Times, Jan. 6, 2014) notes that, "Agriculture, from California’s Imperial Valley to Wyoming’s cattle herds, soaks up about three-quarters of [the Colorado River Basin's] water and produces 15 percent of the nation’s food. But 40 million people also depend on the river and its tributaries, and their numbers are rising rapidly." That's a lot of people, people.
But it gets worse. California sucks…Colorado water, I mean. The biggest sucker is Southern California, which will add an estimated six million people to the existing 19 million in the next 45 years. Meanwhile, the Sierra Nevada — the region's other water source — is also drought-stricken.
Maybe Wines is a whiner. Maybe one cold snap and all the palaver about a "polar vortex" PROVES that global warming is a hoax.
Maybe not. Wines again: "…most experts agree that the [Colorado] basin will get even drier [in the coming years]." And a bunch of global warming studies point to the same gloomy conclusion: "… rising temperatures will reduce the Colorado’s average flow after 2050 by five to 35 percent, even if rainfall remains the same — and most of those studies predict that rains will diminish."
A lot of water runs off these mountains every year. Where does it all go?
Where it does not go is all the way to the Pacific Ocean. For six years after the Hoover Dam was completed in 1936, virtually NONE of the Colorado's water reached the delta in the Gulf of California. Lake Mead got it all. Ditto for nearly two decades (1963-1981) when Lake Powell was filling behind Glen Canyon Dam. The delta is now five percent of its original size.
Surprisingly, domestic use accounts for only about 10 percent of all water consumption worldwide. Agriculture accounts for a whopping 70 percent, industry for the remaining 20 percent. In some major industrial nations, however, industry uses over half the available freshwater supplies (in Belgium it's 80 percent). Think about it:
• Freshwater withdrawals have tripled over the last 50 years.
• Demand for freshwater is increasing by 83.7 billion cubic yards (one cubic yard = 201.9 gallons) a year.
• The world’s population is projected to grow by almost 81 million in 2014.
• Lifestyles, eating habits, sharply rising production of biofuels and accelerating energy demands will also create more demand for surface water. (It can take more than a thousand gallons of water to produce a single gallon of biofuel, for example.)
• In developing countries, 80 percent of diseases are associated with impure water and some three million early deaths every year; 5,000 children die every day from diarrhea, about one every 17 seconds.·
Question: When is conservation a dirty word in Washington? Answer: When it interferes with Corporate America's bottom line. In other words, all the time.
Money talks. Washington is the wealthiest city in America. Media campaigns are extremely costly. If you get elected to the U.S. Congress, you hit the jackpot. Incumbents almost always beat challengers at the polls, but winning the fundraising game is the real key. Connect the dots.
Fortunately, not everything depends on Washington. In fact, water conservation IS happening in the Southwest. Arizona uses about the same amount of water as it did in 1955, even though its population is 12 times larger.
Looking ahead, a lot more emphasis on conservation is essential. We all can and will learn to waste less water, to wean ourselves away from our infantile passion for perfect lawns. Farmers will have to make big changes in the crops they grow and the way they grow them, using less water, fuel, chemical fertilizer and pesticide.
Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is a cautionary tale for the 21st century: “Water, water, everywhere, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.” Sam the Man was onto something.
Less than one-half of one percent of all the water in this word is drinkable. Oceanic salt water accounts for 98 percent of the total. Another 1.5 percent is stored in icecaps and glaciers.
Maybe the technology goddess and good old Yankee ingenuity will save us. San Diego is building a desalination plant. Unfortunately, seawater conversion on the scale required is not a cost-effective solution.
I'm pretty sure band-aids and bromides won't fix this problem. We can't count on Washington to keep us from drying up either. We're going to have to take the bull by the horns and do it ourselves.
Tom Magstadt writes and cooks in the log cabin of his dreams. He lives on a mountain in Ouray County and frequents Colorado Boy almost enough to qualify as a regular Visit Tom’s blog at http://open.salon.com/blog/dakotaki.