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Peak Water

[ 165 ] August 26, 2013 |

If you don’t read Peter Gleick on water and the West, you really need to because he’s the most important journalist focusing on this vital issue. And if he says we have reached peak water, then we’ve probably reached peak water. After a long list of really depressing facts about water in the West (and the country more broadly), Gleick offers some wise advice:

First, we must acknowledge that we’ve reached peak water in the American west. We have promised more water to users than nature provides. Until demand and supply are brought back into balance, groundwater levels will continue to drop and our rivers will continue to run dry, destroying natural ecosystems. Second, we must acknowledge that there are limits to new supply and that we must turn to the demand side of the problem. This means figuring out how to use water more efficiently and productively, and thinking about moving some water-intensive activities and products to more water-abundant regions. Maybe it is time to grow less rice, alfalfa, cotton, and pasture with flood irrigation. It is past time to retire the green lawn as an acceptable landscape option in arid climates. All toilets and washing machines should be water- and energy-efficient. Finally we have to stop assuming that the water available for future use is the same as in the past. Climate change ensures that it won’t be, but until politicians start to heed the warnings of climate scientists and the on-the-ground evidence of the current water situation, our water problems in the west, and elsewhere, will worsen.

Absolutely true. Of course, we’ve barely begun to admit that these are real issues and we have to change our lifestyles in very real ways.

Comments (165)

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  1. NBarnes says:

    GOP dogma states that environmental change doesn’t happen. The people in these areas can’t even admit these changes are happening, let alone that adjustments are necessary. To do so would call into question their membership in the Republican tribe. They’d rather die.

    • zombie rotten mcdonald says:

      yeah, if only their preferences didn’t have the tendency to take others with them.

      • firefall says:

        you want more republican zombies?

        • Snarki, child of Loki says:

          They’re slightly more coherent than the pre-zombie GOPers, so that’s a plus.

          Example: when did you ever hear a zombie claim that reducing tax rates would increase tax revenue? Or that abstinence-only education works? By contrast “HRRR! HRR! BLEAAAH! BRRRRAAAAIIINNNSSS! GRRROWWG!” is the very essence of clarity and veracity.

  2. JMP says:

    But people living in deserts are entitled to green lawns year-round and full large private pools! And of course we need tons of sprawling, perpetually green exapanses of grass where rich men can hit little balls with a metal stick into a hole in the grass; that’s the most important, efficient use of both land and water we can have.

  3. Josh G. says:

    I’ve never understood the point of lawns for most homeowners. Maybe if you have kids, they might serve some purpose, but 95% of the time they sit unused. They waste lots of time, effort, and money in addition to the water they use, and a good rock garden or xeriscape is going to be just as aesthetically appealing in most instances. I suspect the only reason they are as widespread as they are is because of tradition and HOAs. In most neighborhoods, you must have a lawn – if you try something else, or if you just let it go brown and don’t water and cut it regularly, the HOA will go after you. These local covenants need to be banned as an environmental hazard.

    • Manju says:

      Well you can’t go around saying “get off of my concrete”, can you? It has no ring.

    • wengler says:

      Some people like mowing their lawn. I am not one of them. It is a pointless waste of time, money and resources.

      • NonyNony says:

        In my mind I imagine that someday someone will come up with a way to generate vast amounts of power from grass clippings and suddenly all of those suburban lawns will become useful. Or at least generate enough power on their own to run the mowers being used to mow them.

    • Jameson Quinn says:

      Of course rock gardens can be prettier than lawns. But lawns are not supposed to be pretty; they’re supposed to send a message: “I’m gentry”.

      • NonyNony says:

        Gentry are supposed to have people to take care of the lawn for them. As well as their gardens, their woods, and their children.

        American lawns are part of the American Dream – where everyone lives in a house in the suburbs that is owned by a bank and they spend their weekends maintaining the damn thing to keep up the resale value for the inevitable day when they pass that hot potato on to some other sucker – and they move to an even bigger house in an exurb that is owned by a different bank.

    • rea says:

      One gains status by conspicuous consumption of scarce resources. Lawn = prime sheep pasture without sheep = conspicuous consumption.

      But, given that the point of lawns is status-gaining conspicuous consumption, of course people aren’t going to want to do without lawns and thereby lose status.

      • tt says:

        I think lawns are too ubiquitous to serve as conspicuous consumption. I live in the West, and even lower class neighborhoods have lawns. Never having been a homeowner, I don’t know how expensive lawns are, but water for residential use is still really cheap compared to other expenses.

        • Richard says:

          I’ve been a homeowner several times in the West. Lawns are not expensive to keep. A gardener will run about $60 a month to mow the lawn once a week and water to irrigate the lawn is cheap – at very most, about $80 a month. Maybe it should be higher but its just not the case that lawns cost a lot or indicate that the homeowner is wealthy. They are not symbols of status.

          • Erik Loomis says:

            I’d have to disagree here. Lawns aren’t symbols of conspicuous consumption. But they are status symbols of the middle-class dream and not everyone has access to them. Middle-class status symbols are important too.

        • Murc says:

          I think lawns are too ubiquitous to serve as conspicuous consumption.

          This is a bit silly. You might as well say ‘I think cars are too ubiquitous to serve as conspicuous consumption.’

          You will never meet a more catty and status-conscious group of people then a bunch of suburban homeowners who are having a few drinks and talking about their lawns. “Oh, I saw you had a little patch of crab grass by the front walk. That’s a real… pity.”

          • tt says:

            Well, I would say that cars are too ubiquitous to serve as conspicuous consumption. That’s a strange comparison because, unlike lawns, cars are genuinely useful or necessary in most places in the US, and therefore definitely do not serve as conspicuous consumption for many buyers. Obviously, there are some kinds of cars, and some kinds of lawns, which are primarily status symbols, but most do not serve that function.

    • Denverite says:

      This is silly. As you note, a yard is great if you have kids — I’ve got three of them myself, am currently stuck at home with two of them, and we’re going crazy because they can’t play in the yard until I mow, which won’t happen until I get my lent-out lawnmower back this afternoon.

      A yard is borderline essential if you have a dog of any appreciable size. (Ours passed away in the spring, alas, but we buried her ashes with her frisbee underneath her favorite tree — but don’t tell the city.)

      A yard also makes a garden feasible, and it’s nice to eat fresh foods you grow yourself.

      • L2P says:

        Right. You can’t play catch with your kids on your cactus garden. Plus you can’t put towels down and have a picnic on your xeriscape or put fold up chairs on your rock garden and watch the stars.

        There’s lots of nice things about a lawn. They might not be worth the water and that’s an important debate, but it’s silly to just assume way the problem by saying there’s no need for lawns.

        • Jordan says:

          “or put fold up chairs on your rock garden and watch the stars.”

          … why not?

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          So, from the original comment:

          Maybe if you have kids, they might serve some purpose, but 95% of the time they sit unused.

          Second yard != lawn per se. I’ve had yards that were mostly or entirely non-lawn (e.g., wooded lots). These can be great fun.

          If your yard is mostly garden (which I’ve also seen), er.., that’s fine and Not Lawn.

          Maybe you can’t play catch in a wooded lot, but you can play hide and go seek. And does everyone need a lawn so some people can play catch some of the time? Do you need to play catch on your own lawn?

          I’m failing to see why you can’t put down towels on sand (like at the beach) or that people do many lawn picnics in their back yards (don’t you usually have a table?).

          A lawn is typically easy to walk/run across and good for playing a variety of sports. And obviously a wide expanse of unobstructed, mostly smooth and soft, surface makes it easy to put other things in on a temporary basis. But that hardly makes it essential. And I really don’t see the need to keep it trim unless you are doing such things regularly. So, the park next door? Trim it. People play football on it and picnic on it. Vacant lots I like to walk through: Way more awesome when overgrown. Paths are fine.

          • L2P says:

            I have, too. I’ve had yards with nothing but pine trees. I’ve had a backyard that was nothing but vegetables and compost. That doesn’t make them better than houses with lawns. It makes them different.

            No one’s arguing lawns are “essential.” But it’s silly to argue that they are “useless.”

            That’s awesome that you like wooded lots. It’s great that you’d rather play hide and seek than catch with your kids. I’m thrilled you like sand better than grass. That’s truly, truly wonderful.

            For you.

            I’d suggest that a lot of people see value in a grass lawn. To dismiss those desires because YOU don’t see the point is . . . condescending, to say the least.

            • Bijan Parsia says:

              Might I say that you seem unreasonably defensive about this to the point of accusing me of things I did not say.

              The point of all my talk about alternative yards is that the poster above you conflated yard and lawn.

              Secondly, you were the one making exclusionary and totalising claims about desirable activities and landscape compatibilities, well, and my psychology (where did I say that I preferred sand to grass?; or that I preferred hide and seek to catch? oh, right, nowhere). My point is that you 1) selected very specific activities to the exclusion of others and 2) recast them in ways that made lawns (and personal lawns) not just nice to have, but more or less essential. None of that is true.

              Furthermore, I suspect (as I hinted in my comment) that you grossly exaggerate private yawn utilization by families with children. We had a big lawn and I enjoyed it with my brothers. My neighbors had large lawns and no kids. We used the lawn, but we also used the driveway and other people’s lawns. Does everyone need a mostly acre lawn? Or even a half acre lawn?

              Even with the giant lawn, we went other places for picnics or even for sports.

              Lawn versions of some things are fun, but it’s unlikely that most people are using them so intensely or with such attachment to that specific modality of enjoyment that their lives would be significantly diminished by the lack of lawn.

              And if you are one of those sorts of people, I thank you for your future sacrifices.

              (And really, I obviously saw the point. You just edited those bits out.)

            • Lurker says:

              A yard with pine trees cannot really have a lawn. They are not mutually compatible. Decomposing pine needles make the soil too acidic for most species of grass, and removing them manually takes a lot of work. In addition, it tends to be a bit too dark under the trees for the grass to grow, when the trees are relatively mature (more than 30 years old).

              However, this is a non-issue for most neighbourhoods.

      • Jerry Vinokurov says:

        Which is why no one lives in Manhattan, and certainly doesn’t have children there.

        • N__B says:

          Mini__B is an unperson. I am sad.

        • Jordan says:

          They have summer homes with ginormous lawns.

          … Or, uh, vast Alaskan estates with good ol permafrost.

        • L2P says:

          Again.

          You don’t want a lawn? Knock yourself out. But what you want? Not necessarily what other people want.

          It’s condescending to argue that people should just stop having grass lawns because they have no value. They do. Lots of people like them. We all like different things.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            Again, people obviously enjoy them. But they are not essential to the activities you listed unless you qualified them with “on a lawn”. They are indeed impossible to perform-on-a-lawn without a lawn.

            Which is fine, but then your “think of the children and their childhood memories” pitch rings hollow.

            • Bijan Parsia says:

              Let me add that I’ve now skim 6 to 10 papers and a few more websites about American lawns and very rarely are leisure activities using the lawn (rather than maintaining it) mentioned. The social forces and attitudes are not primarily about organic use of the lawn but of social pressure and duty.

              So, meh. I couldn’t validate the 95% stat, but I’d be willing to bet its higher. There’s a *lot* of lawn.

            • Lee Rudolph says:

              Some live in towns where they roll up the sidewalks at night. Why should some others not live in suburbs where they roll up the Astroturf when they aren’t desirous of performing-on-a-lawn?

          • mds says:

            It’s condescending to argue that people should just stop having grass lawns because they have no value.

            How about arguing that people in arid regions of the American West should just stop having grass lawns because they’re being fucking pigs with ever-scarcer water resources? This is also known as “What the original post and linked article are primarily about,” as opposed to horseshit about snooty elitists trying to take your lawn away purely because it offends their arbitrary sense of aesthetics.

            • Denverite says:

              Um, I was just responding to the “no one uses lawns 95% of the time” spiel above. We haven’t turned on our sprinklers in about three years — haven’t needed to, because Denver’s been getting rain most days in the late afternoon/early evening. (This happens about every other year — some weird Chinook weather pattern, I think). It’s great when it does happen, though, because the rain cools everything down and keeps it green. Which is great, because literally the only thing wrong with the weather here is that it gets too dry some years.)

        • Karate Bearfighter says:

          No one lives in Manhattan. It’s too crowded. #commentsYogiBerrawouldleaveonthispost #jokesbeatenintotheground

      • LeftWingFox says:

        In Denver, maybe.

        Not in Palm, fucking, Springs.

      • witless chum says:

        I almost fear to ask, why can’t they play in the lawn until you mow?

        As a kid, I always loved going over to my sorta god parents after church because they had an awesome rock garden on the side of the hill that was fun for me to clamber on and to use as mountain warfare terrain for my GI Joes.

        • Denverite says:

          Too many critters or potential critters (we just got back after being out of town for an extended period, and the grass/weeds are approaching a foot high). Also I just generally need to inspect the lawn to make sure there isn’t crap I don’t want them dealing with. Apparently our neighbors decided to open up a low-scale grow operation while we were gone (it is legal here now), so I want to make sure that the weeds aren’t, well, weed.

        • Halloween Jack says:

          my sorta god parents

          Demi-agnosticism?

      • MH says:

        As someone who grew up in a house with no grass anywhere near the house I can assure you that it is entirely possible for children to play on a sandy desert style expanse. (No xeroscaping or rock garden necessary.)

        We even had a cactus patch and a large dog at the time. Grass is irrelevant to playing or pets.

    • Anonymous says:

      Considering the amount of dogshit deposited on a typical suburban lawn (whether the homeowners have a dog or not) lawn’s aren’t that great for kids, either.

    • firefall says:

      These local covenants need to be banned

      ,
      period. Talk about noxious weeds.

    • efgoldman says:

      We don’t have a HOA. The nice retired guy across the street spends much of the week babyig his lawn, we just have whatever grows, mowed wvey two weeks. Nobody complains. We even let the neighborhood kids sit on our lawn, as long as they don’t smoke or drink.

    • Johnny Sack says:

      I wish we could outlaw HOAs. Truly among the dregs of society.

      • Rigby Reardon says:

        Again, this depends. I’ve lived in soulless exurban subdivisions where the local HOA saw itself as an auxiliary Sheriff’s Department / Codes Enforcement Office and acted accordingly. That sucked, and that’s something that really should be stopped.

        On the other hand, the older, inner-ring neighborhood where I live now has a Neighborhood Association (not even an HOA, so renters can have the same influence as property owners), and our preferred approach is to work with the city’s Codes Department to simply enforce the rules that are on the books already. Nobody drives around measuring people’s lawns – we’re more interested in making sure that boarded-up buildings stay boarded up, for example, or that houses with suspected drug dealing and prostitution issues are brought to the attention of the PD (it’s kind of a transitional neighborhood).

        I think the syndrome of the power-mad HOA has more to do with the fact that those people have no reason to exist as an organization most of the time – and they know it.

  4. Jameson Quinn says:

    For a lot of the Southwest, it’s worse than that. It’s not just agriculture and suburbia as we know them that have to change. When the top temperatures regularly stay above 120F for days, a lot of that area simply won’t be suitable for human life as we know it.

      • Murc says:

        It’s entirely possible to live in the southwest without extreme technological intervention; people did it for thousands of years. There are PARTS of the southwest that aren’t suitable for habitation without that, of course, but it isn’t like tons of people historically lived up on top of places like the Matterhorn either.

  5. Warren Terra says:

    I read a very good, and terrifying, article on the state of our Midwestern aquifers a couple of months ago – in Mother Jones, I think. We’re using water at a massively greater rate than it gets replenished.

    • catclub says:

      And we have legally promised more water to various groups than there actually is. How to go about saying “These promises were based flawed assumptions and cannot be maintained.” will be very hard in our legal world. Interstate compacts, lawsuits galore.

      Although I think the case between Georgia and Tennessee worked out reasonably well.

      • Jordan says:

        “Although I think the case between Georgia and Tennessee worked out reasonably well.”

        I … wasn’t under that impression

        • catclub says:

          Have they declared war yet? I rest my case.

          • Jordan says:

            Not yet.

            Indeed, this may have unexpected positive consequences. Anything to break up the solidarity of the south!

            • catclub says:

              Wasn’t part of the dying down of friction that the drought ended?

              I heard on NPR this morning that much the southeast has had way too much rain this year, so the farmers will have a _different_ disaster to declare.

              • Jordan says:

                Well, it has been my asshole-internet-commenter experience that farmers will complain about absolutely everything. Too little water?: drought. Too much water?: flooded. Just the right amount of water?: low crop prices because everyone else is doing great.

                That said: the friction will start up against absolutely as soon things get drier again. Which, of course, will happen more and more often in the future.

        • Halloween Jack says:

          I think it would be hilarious if Tennessee built a dam 100 feet north of the “correct” line, filled the resultant lake full of coal mine tailings, and said, you want to move the state line north? Knock yourself out, Ace.

  6. Shakezula says:

    Step 1: Nuke Las Vegas from orbit…

    • Joshua says:

      Vegas has taken real steps to limit water usage. They use about the same amount of water as they did around 2000, even with the population boom.

      Yea, it might not be enough, but Vegas is way ahead of other cities in the region.

      • Shakezula says:

        The question isn’t about whether they’re using less water, it is whether they’re using the amount of water that makes sense for that environment?

        Vegas is in the middle of the desert and most (if not all) of the casinos have swimming pools. To say nothing of the fountains, bathrooms, kitchens and so on that a giant mass of hotels creates.

        So, no.

        When water use is closer to levels in the early 1900′s that will mean something.

        • Warren Terra says:

          A swimming pool at a large hotel doesn’t necessarily bug me, not like a private pool, especially as the swimming pool at the casino may be under glass. In general, most water uses spread among a hundred workers and a few hundred guests probably are fairly efficient. And the swimming pool at the casino probably gets used. It’s every Tom, Dick, and bigger Dick having a quarter-acre of thirsty grass and aspiring to ore plus a private pool they’ll use once a month that bugs me.

          • Shakezula says:

            especially as the swimming pool at the casino may be under glass.

            This hasn’t been the case at three hotels I’ve had to stay in. And in two instances Swimming Pool = three pools of varying sizes, complete with fountains and water falls and lots of other shit that does not belong in a stinking desert.

            In general, most water uses spread among a hundred workers and a few hundred guests probably are fairly efficient.

            A few hundred guests? You’ve never been in a casino. Lucky you. Until I had to go out there for work, I had no idea exactly how obscene the place is. Just go on line and take a tour of some of the places.

            Yes, individuals with pools out there bug me too. But part of the reason they can have a pool is because Las Vegas squats there like a carbuncle and it has lots of pools. No legislator is going to allow one and not the other.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      The thing about Vegas is that it’s the one place in the West that people actually SEE the massive waste of water. Agriculture, golf courses, and swimming pools are much less visible than the fountains at the Bellagio but they are just as profligate of the resource.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        And let’s not forget of course growing orange trees in people’s yards in Phoenix.

      • Jordan says:

        I dunno, flying into Phoenix and seeing all those pools, all those lawns, and all those golf courses is pretty jarring. Much more so than the Bellagio or whatever.

        Right about agiculture, though.

        • JMP says:

          I just had a stopover in Phoenix on Friday, and yeah, landing there I was amazed by the sheer number of perfectly green golf courses, complete with ponds for water hazards, surrounded by the desert landscape that makes it clear the greenery and water are all completely unnatural and just a complete waste of resources.

          Also the actual downtown area had to be have of the ugliest skylines I’ve seen, with just a small scattering of skyscrapers all within a line, and each an unnatractive box type of building. And tiny; the city was mostly just vast sprawling suburban-type neighborhoods.

      • Shakezula says:

        But you can’t ignore the fact that it is really hard to argue that you can’t have something allegedly useful like orange groves and alfalfa fields in the desert when there’s a city full of swimming pools just over the horizon.

        (And what’s the big deal about one little golf course when you have a few hundred hotels and millions of visitors per year sucking Lake Meade dry?)

  7. c u n d gulag says:

    Back about 10-11 years ago, when I was living in Chapel Hill, NC, we had a very severe draught.

    And the Governor and state legislature set up heavy fines for people caught watering their lawns, among other restrictions on the use of water.

    This was back before I became as physically handicapped as I am now, so I used to still be able to power-walk in the streets in the very wealthy subdivision of homes, called Southern Village, in which my small apartment complex was housed.

    And every morning, I’d go walk about 2-3 miles.
    And what I saw, really pissed me off. The rich homeowner were watering their lawns with the sprinklers that were built into them, very early in the morning – even before daylight – so that the water would dry up when the sun came out – leaving no evidence.
    I don’t know whether their water usage was metered or not, so the government could check for people who weren’t paying any attention to the restrictions.
    But I never heard of anyone in that subdivision getting fined.
    I read about other abusers, in other town around us, in the Raleigh News and Observer – but not in that rich enclave.

    Of course, these were the same “Real “Murkan” Patriots who, after 9/11 flew their flags all day – AND ALL NIGHT, AND WITHOUT A LIGHT BEAMED UP AT IT!!!
    IOne morning, I took some copies of a nasty note I wrote, and when I walked, I taped them to the gates of the assholes who were watering their lawns, in the pre-dawn hours.
    I suppose I should be thankful that I wasn’t caught.
    But the notes had no effect, since the next morning, the same assholes had their sprinklers turned on again.
    And the next day.
    And the next.

    Assholes will be assholes.

    • catclub says:

      Um, wouldn’t it have been more useful to report them to the authorities that were trying to regulate usage? Or write a letter to the editor with video attached?

      • c u n d gulag says:

        Yeah.
        It just didn’t occur to me, back then.

        Stupidly, I thought taping a sign on their gates saying, “This homeowner is abusing OUR water during this drought, by watering his lawn early in the mornings!” would embarrass them in front of their neighbors.

        Which, of course, it didn’t. Mostly because their neighbors were doing the same damn thing.

        I moved to Southern Pines shortly after that.

    • Murc says:

      The rich homeowner were watering their lawns with the sprinklers that were built into them, very early in the morning – even before daylight – so that the water would dry up when the sun came out – leaving no evidence.

      Sidebar: also because during times of drought, that’s really the only effective time to water if you’re using a wide-disperal sprinkler. If you try and do it during the middle of the day, two things will happen; the stuff will evaporate before it soaks into the soil even a little bit, and the sun shining through the droplets on the grass will act just it like does shining through greenhouse glass, causing your grass to scorch.

      • Katya says:

        I get that watering at all was against the rules in this example, but yeah, you should water at night to avoid wasting water through evaporation. My parents’ automatic sprinklers come on at 4:00 in the morning.

        • c u n d gulag says:

          Yes, I’m aware of all of that.

          But this was during a period of SEVERE drought, when people were asked not to water their stupid lawns, AT ALL!!!!!

  8. J. Otto Pohl says:

    Ending water subsidies that allow farmers and ranchers to profitably grow rice, cotton, and alfalfa in the desert would be a good start. They aren’t so much making money on the production of crops as they are simply milking the federal and state governments. Ending the subsidy on cotton and rice would also do more a lot more to help Africa than the current scheme of foreign aid. Its hard to make a living as cotton or rice farmer in West Africa when US farmers can produce the same products for a fraction of the price including transport costs due to heavy government subsidies.

    • L2P says:

      In the West, “water subsidies” are simply property rights to water. We can’t “end” them under current law without massive payments to property owners.

    • Confused says:

      Yes! This absolutely. Lawns and golf courses aren’t really the issue, rice and cotton production are. The latter use vastly more water and the implicit subsidies actively contribute to poverty for developing country farmers by suppressing prices. And arguably higher incomes for developing country farmers might reduce the pressure that pushes people to migrate to urban slums, and might help increase wages in the cities too.

  9. SteveHinSLC says:

    In most of the West, though, the problem isn’t lawns, it’s agriculture. I haven’t looked at the stats recently, but in the dry states past the 100th meridian, agriculture uses something like 85% of the water, and mostly for stuff that doesn’t make sense to grow out here.

    And FWIW, if you are going to water a lawn, it is more water-efficient to do it in the morning darkness, so the water is absorbed by the roots instead of evaporating in the sun and wind.

  10. Tnap01 says:

    I bet’cha these real ‘Murkans are super patriotically thrilled about the new Super Walmart right down 15/501 on the Orange/Chatham CL!

    If that was the attitude in SV I could only imagine what was going on at the CH Country Club, don’t the State Troopers water Roy Williams’ lawn?

  11. namekarB says:

    Here are 3 big water users in no particular order
    Fracking
    Cotton irrigation
    Golf Courses

    • Jordan says:

      I’ve always kinda wondered about the relative replenishment rates of the underlying aquifers for stuff like this. If anything, fracking probably averages out best: indeed, one of the major problems with fracking is the *contamination* of the aquifer, where the water mixes with all the nasty things that are also used.

      Presumably gold courses do better than (most) agriculture, do better than swimming pools. But, of course, this is really, really just talking out of my ass.

      • FMguru says:

        The really deep aquifers recharge in geologic time – that water in the Ogllalla was laid down in the time of the dinosaurs. Once it’s gone, it’s gone, and the Great Plains will go back their original name, the Great American Desert.

        In California, the coastal Salinas valley has drawn down its aquifer so much through intensive irrigation that seawater is starting to seep in. The wells closest to the ocean are being shut down as the salinity level rises to make the water useless for agriculture – or for human consumption.

        For even more fun, check out how much of India’s fresh water comes from glacier runoff, how much of their growth over the last couple of decades has been made possible by increased glacier melting, and what is going to happen when those glaciers finally disappear.

        The second half of this century is going to a friggin’ blast, I tell you what.

        • Jordan says:

          Absolutely: all of those things are drawing the aquifers down. I just am pretty ignorant about their relative impacts.

          But, yeah. The second half of the 20th century’s decline of the rust belt will have nothing on the population upheavals and misery of the second half of the 21st centuries (just talking about the US).

      • Jordan says:

        Sigh. Well, gold courses *would* be nice, I guess.

      • Timothy Fescue says:

        A swimming pool is a closed system; the same (initially huge) outlay of water is circulated indefinitely. With a cover and well-maintained plumbing, very little ever needs to be added.

        A golf-course, on the other hand, sees all of its water lost to evaporation or soaked into the ground and needs to have it replenished constantly. The Coachella valley (Palm Springs and environs) had over 60 eighteen-hole golf courses back in the 80′s. Probably more now. Crazy in one of the dryest places on earth.

  12. Manju says:

    The Venture Capital industry, particular in Israeli, have been on this for some time now. See here for example:

    http://www.aquagrofund.com/About.aspx

    We’ll innovate out way out of this. Don’t worry. Be happy.

  13. Megan says:

    You know, it would be so easy to check on this stuff. The Dept. of Agriculture puts out acreages of every crop every year. The real debates are so much more complicated and interesting than tired remnants of Reisner: less rice, alfalfa, cotton, and pasture with flood irrigation.

    There are roughly 9 or 10 million acres of irrigated agriculture in California. The big players:

    About 800,000 acres of alfalfa. It is a moderately thirsty crop, but it is also the reason that Americans eat cheap meat and have cheap dairy. When you say “no more alfalfa” what you are really saying is that it would be OK with you if meat were a very expensive, rare luxury. If that’s what you mean, that’s fine, but acknowledge that.

    About 900,000 acres of almonds, 95% of the world’s supply. A nice commodity good, stores well, brings good prices, supports a lot of Californian farmers. But would we rather supply the world’s almonds or have nice rivers and lawns at home? How should that choice get made.

    Depending on the price that year, about 400,000 to 600,000 acres of rice. Rice in the desert, you say?!?! No. Rice in northern California, grown in what are essentially clay ponds (left over from historical flooding) that also serve some function as wetlands. Nothing, literally no other crop, else would grow on ricelands, because the paddies don’t drain (which is what makes them good for rice). With new practices, it isn’t especially more thirsty than any other crop. It is a primary food for humans, not fed to animals, stores and ships well.

    Irrigated pasture I actually don’t know that much about, but realize again that you’re talking about the American pattern of meat consumption, not the pasture itself.

    Cotton. This one always kills me. You know how much cotton we grow now? About 200,000 acres. Out of ten million. It is about 2% of the irrigated acreage in California. It isn’t a large driver of water consumption. Californian cotton is very high quality and no more thirsty than any other crop. Why not grow a small amount of a luxury crop that again, goes directly to human use rather than being fed to animals?

    There are really good questions to ask about California’s agricultural water use, like why we are providing all of the world’s almonds and how important wine and meat are. But the usual buzzwords about rice and cotton don’t get anywhere near the real issues.

    • Murc says:

      Rice in northern California, grown in what are essentially clay ponds (left over from historical flooding) that also serve some function as wetlands.

      I had been under the impression that they do quite a lot of rice growing in southern California, drawing from the much-abused Colorado River. Am I mistaken?

      • Megan says:

        In the Colorado region? No rice. I don’t know of any rice south of the Sacramento River.

        • L2P says:

          No, using irrigation in California from the Colorado River.

          I could be wrong but I think most of the water used for rice comes from the Delta.

          • Megan says:

            Sorry, “Colorado Region” is the hydrologic region in California including Imperial, Coachella and closeby, irrigated out of the Colorado Aquaduct. I meant the same thing. I don’t know of any rice in California irrigated with Colorado River water, unless it is a specialty garden in Los Angeles or something.

            The water used for rice is released from Shasta and diverted upstream of the Delta. It “comes from the Delta” in the sense that it doesn’t all reach the Delta, but it doesn’t originate there. (No fresh water originates in the Delta; the Delta is a terminus.)

        • Megan says:

          Also, rice used to be crazy thirsty, about 14 af/acreyear (meaning that if you stood it tall, over 14 feet of water would pile up over the year at every spot on the field). But that was when growers did flow-through rice, where it continually came in the top of the field and flowed out the bottom, back eventually to the Sacramento River, hotter and saltier. But they had to stop doing flow-through irrigation because of new pesticide laws (not water conservation), and now contemporary rice is about 4 or 5 af/acreyear. Not that much more than the 3.5 or 4 af/acreyear it costs to grow most crops (including suburban lawn).

      • L2P says:

        What do they mean by “Southern California?” Some people mean anything south of Shasta.

        Over 95% of all the rice in California is grown within 100 miles of Sacramento. There’s virtually no rice grown in SoCal if you mean that to be something like south of Bakersfield.

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks for the information provided here. However, a couple of points.

      One, wouldn’t those clay ponds used for rice that “serve some function as wetlands” go back to being full time natural wetlands? And wouldn’t that be a good thing?

      Second, a lot of that alfalfa goes to feed CA’s huge dairy herd (not meat) and any slack in dairy production could be picked up in areas like the upper midwest, and northeast that are naturally suited to dairy production without aggressive irrigation practices.

      • Megan says:

        They could go back to being wetlands all the time, if you don’t value producing calories for people and having a farming community there. If you do like those things, then the follow-up questions start to be about whether you like the nature of what is grown and how much we trust the demand represented by the market (which currently supports a lot of rice growing) and whether you want to support the old water rights given to Sac Valley farmers, who do have old governmental promises from all of us.

        Sure, dairy could be shifted to the upper midwest. I believe alfalfa in the upper midwest gets 4-6 cuttings a year. Californian alfalfa gets 9-12 cuttings a year. I presume the dairy industy is here because it has some comparative advantage (which could be as ridiculous as milk laws) and moving it would forfeit that advantage and cost would rise accordingly.

        • Anonymous says:

          The point of the whole discussion is that water use in the west has negative externalities that are not captured in the cost. So arguing that alternatives with higher costs taht do not share those unaccounted for externalities is missing the whole point.

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      Awesome comment. Very interesting…thanks!

    • wjts says:

      Except the American West is more than just California and cotton agriculture is more than California’s 200,000 acres. West Texas grows around 4 million acres of cotton every year, a million acres in the Lubbock area alone. Cotton farming isn’t a buzzword; it’s a major driver of the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer.

    • J. Otto Pohl says:

      They grow quite a bit of cotton and alfalfa in Arizona as well. It is not just California that is a problem. Growing raw cotton for export is only profitable for US farmers because it is heavily subsidized. Under the Clinton administration the total subsidy reached a peak of about $6 Billion a year. It is less now, but still substantial. The only other countries that export raw cotton are places like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Mali, Togo, and Burkina Faso. African countries have a hard time competing with the US despite lower labor costs due to the unfair practice of subsidies. Places like Turkey and China use almost all of their domestic cotton in value added textile industries and import raw cotton on top of that. It really is an unfair trade practice to subsidize cotton for export in the US. In 2004 the WTO ruled against the US in a case brought by Brazil specifically on the use of cotton subsidies as an unfair trade practice.

    • Lee Rudolph says:

      Californian cotton is very high quality and no more thirsty than any other crop. Why not grow a small amount of a luxury crop that again, goes directly to human use rather than being fed to animals?
      You haven’t met the moths in my closet, have you?

  14. Megan says:

    If you want to be able to speak about this stuff with contemporary information, I highly, highly recommend subscribing to the NASS Field Crop Review. Every year you get planted and harvested acreage and every week you get reports on how the crops are doing. It’ll give you a lot of perspective and a head’s up on what is about to be expensive.

  15. md rackham says:

    We just need to revive the plan to divert the Columbia to California. And once that’s oversubscribed, there’s always the Athabasca!

    And towed icebergs. And giant underwater pipelines.

    There’s always an expensive, environmentally destructive solution to every problem. (Said problem usually being caused by some other expensive, environmentally destructive project.)

  16. Peter Gleick says:

    Thanks for reposting this, but a small correction. I’m not a “journalist.” I’m a scientist working on these issues, with a blog at National Geographic ScienceBlogs.

  17. José Arcadio Buendía says:

    This is actually one problem that science can solve without the Malthusian doomsaying suggested here and that’s through desalinization. Of course that’s connected with the energy problem.

    So, as much as it was a #slatepitch to say peak water not peak oil is the problem, in fact, they are all connected: we need to find a non-fossil fuel energy source.

    Hmmm……

  18. Bijan Parsia says:

    Some interesting factlets:

    Lawn care alone accounts for an average of 50 percent of all house- hold water use nationally.

    Office buildings also use significant quantities of water for land- scaping. According to the USGS, “lawn watering and air conditioning use more water than san- itation or cleaning”15 in commercial buildings.

    The wikipedia article has a lot of nice, scary bits:

    It has also been estimated that more herbicides are applied per acre of lawn than are used by most farmers to grow industrial crops.

    It has been estimated that nearly 17 million gallons of gasoline are spilled each summer while re-fueling garden and lawn-care equipment in the United States; approximately 50% more than that spilled during the Exxon Valdez incident.

    In the United States, lawn heights are generally maintained by gasoline-powered lawnmowers, which contribute to urban smog during the summer months. The EPA found, in some urban areas, up to 5% of smog was due to small gasoline engines made before 1997, such as are typically used on lawnmowers. Since 1997, the EPA has mandated emissions controls on newer engines in an effort to reduce smog.

    I’m not finding much about typical use patterns. Ah google scholar, sometime you reward me and sometimes not.

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      Oh, but this paper is “fun”:

      When Ketha Robbins decided in 1999 to restore the forest in her back yard in suburban Reynoldsburg Ohio by ceasing to mow and pull weeds, she violated both the written and unwritten laws of contemporary urban ecology and was soon censured by her community. In the next few months, her neighbors went to the city to insist on forcible mowing, took her to civil court for lowering property values, and finally trespassed on her property to mow her lawn and pull up the saplings there. While the city found in Ms. Robbins’ favor and did not enforce the 6-inch maximum lawn height mandated by municipal law, the civil case remains pending in the Environmental Division of Franklin County Municipal Court

      And this!

      One 31-year-old survey respondent is indicative. He has mortgaged his house for a $10,000 loan to cover the expenses for the purchase of a riding mower, push mower, weed whacker, leaf blower, hedge clipper, chainsaw, tree pruner, hoses and attachments, roto-tillers (including walk-behinds and tractor models), broadcast fertilizer, and other equipment. This package is designed to manage his 2-acre all-grass lawn, into which he puts approximately 12 hours a week during the growing season. His input choices include weed and feed mixes of 2, 4-D and nitrogen as well as doses of Grub-ex®, which he uses to drive off moles. The active ingredient of this last product is imidacloprid, a systemic, chloro-nicotinyl insecticide that is moderately toxic to humans and has been shown to be toxic to upland game birds, very toxic to aquatic invertebrates, and a hazard to bees and other benign non-target insect species.

      The logic behind his efforts are consistent with that of most consumers; he describes direct increases in housing value from the health of his lawn but also notes the community value of his efforts and his own joy in the product of his highly public work. The resulting landscape is, therefore, a moral one, where consumption is imagined to create a greater public good. More generally (and more radically), the lawn reflects Debord’s notion of a general post-industrial transition from “being into having” leading to a “generalized sliding of having into appearing” (Debord, 1983: Sec 17, emphasis in original). This, in turn, is a function of a larger transition in the cultural economy from industry, where labor was rationalized and capital mobilized as the moral force of production, to a post-industrial context where credit and social norms are mobilized for normative consumption. High-input lawns colonize old land use regimes through a complex combination of instrumental economic logics and socialized norms of moral behavior.

  19. Warren Terra says:

    I remember a couple of years ago Texas (the area around Midland) had a massive drought – it hadn’t rained in more than a year – and so they really cracked down, and how: they instituted a policy that you could only water your ridiculous lawn wice a week (three times for athletic fields, because you’ve got to prioritize high school football over people). Oh, and because this was Texas and Gummint is evil, the restrictions were voluntary: there were no provisions to penalize anyone who flouted them.

  20. Major Kong says:

    Whiskey’s for drinkin’ water’s for fightin’ over.

  21. Johnny Sack says:

    So how long until Phoenix is abandoned?

    I see an interesting scifi movie about old conservatives stubbornly staying in an abandoned Arizona desert town, forgotten by the rest of the country, slowly turning on each other as the water runs out.

  22. Shakezula says:

    We just need to require all non-job creators to undergo drug testing in exchange for the privilege of having water. To encourage water thrift, water will only be available from centrally located pumps. This will encourage people to leave their homes and get exercise, just like Michelle Obama is always going on about.

    Locating communal outhouses beside the wells will also encourage exercise, limit water use and make it easier to collect the daily testing samples.

    Besides, I saw a person who looked homeless drinking bottled water the other day, so clearly there isn’t a water shortage. And this mania for daily bathing and regular washing of clothes is only feminizing America, it needs to stop. And did I mention privatization? If you get the nanny state out of water completely and let the free market do its thing we’ll have this so called water shortage licked in no time.

    /not terribly over the top libertoonian wingnut parody.

  23. [...] “We have to stop assuming that the water available for future use is the same as in the past.” [...]

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