By Larry Gfeller
This is no usual story. The ending hasn’t been determined yet. In this story, the choices we make will decide how the story ends. I sit on my back porch, stare at my pine trees, and wonder about water. . .what I’m actually thinking about is the concept of tipping points. A tug-of-war just slightly off-balance, enough to pull us in a new direction—the moment of collapse, the creation of a new reality, unstoppable and irreversible. I’m wondering, have we already passed it? A disturbing truth is that Texas is getting more populated, warmer, and drier. Will central Texas be a desert in another century? Parched, desiccated, the earth crunchy and cracked like old leather? Can you imagine Bastrop County—scrub vegetation, a vast expanse of dunes, the wind gusts and sand dances across the road? A bit extreme you say? The thing about water is, where it exists there is life; where it doesn’t, there’s no life. And our water future is not guaranteed.
Scientists have been warning us for years that a water crisis is coming. According to Sea Metrics, between 2050 and 2100, there is an 85 percent chance of a drought in the Central Plains and Southwestern United States lasting 35 years or more. Right now, the Texas Water Board says that without additional supplies, approximately one-third of Texas’ population will have less than half of the municipal water supply it needs by 2070. But it’s not just Texas.
Already over 2 billion people worldwide live in countries experiencing high water stress. Drought affects more folks than any other natural disaster. It’s also expected there will be about 1 billion more mouths to feed in the world by 2025 and global agriculture alone will require additional water resources equal to the annual flow of 20 Niles or 100 Colorado Rivers (1 trillion cubic meters). According to the U.S. Intelligence Community Assessment of Global Water Security, by 2030 humanity’s annual global water requirements will exceed “current sustainable water supplies” by 40%. That means we will be using 40% more water than is being replenished in the world. What happens to all this water?
Our planet has a relatively constant supply of water; it just gets distributed differently based on the global Water Cycle. It’s like one giant Monopoly game. The total amount of money in circulation stays constant but player amounts change as the game goes along. In this case, the players are the oceans, the land, and the atmosphere. Unfortunately, in this game, the oceans keep most of the wealth—97.5% and it’s too salty to drink. All the Earth’s drinkable fresh water amounts to only 2.4%. The atmosphere contains all the rest, only .001%, in the form of water vapor and clouds. Clouds get pushed great distances by atmospheric winds, and when they drop water in the form of rain, they transport fresh water somewhere else. But this has been going on for eons. What’s different today?
One difference is climate change. The warmer the air, the more water it can hold. And the warmer the oceans, the faster water evaporates from them. This has a catch-22 aspect to it because the more water in the air, the more the sun’s energy is trapped, making things still warmer. Anyway, clouds now transport heavier loads, contributing to extended droughts and violent floods. Rain events tend to be bigger and happen more often—maybe you’ve noticed? In fact, super cells are 1/3rd more common than 25 years ago, and they drop 10% more moisture. In 2018, Hurricane Florence broke 28 rain and flood records. The storm stalled over the Carolinas while it took water from the ocean and dumped it all on those two states. It’s a growing problem. Flooding is 4 times more likely in the world today than 10 years ago.
The other big issue is population growth. As our population expands, there is less water to go around. By 2035, the world’s energy consumption will increase by 35%, which in turn will increase water use by 15% (International Energy Agency). More water exists in underground (aquifers) than all the lakes and rivers on the surface of the earth. Some of it is considered “fossil water,” meaning it accumulated thousands of years ago. More than ½ of agricultural irrigation comes from aquifers using fossil water. Most of this water is used to grow grain to feed livestock. We are draining our aquifers at rates that exceed the recharge rates and have been doing so for 50 years now. If farmers in Kansas keep irrigating at present rates, 69 percent of the Ogallala Aquifer will be gone in the next 50 years. Of the 37 aquifers around the world, more than half are already past the tipping point.
So, what happens when people run out of water? Well, like a thundering herd of wildebeests they follow it; they migrate. During the Arab Spring, dwindling water resources forced 1.5 million farmers, herders, and others to lose their livelihoods and leave their land, move to urban areas, adding to Syria’s destabilization. Palestine and Israel have been fighting over water for decades, and water scarcity in Gaza is currently acute. Saudi Arabia is already dependent entirely on grain imports—they used to grow all they needed. Africa and the Middle East are especially vulnerable to instability and societal collapse due to water stress.
Global superpowers like the U.S., China and India face increasing water risks of their own. So does the continent of Australia. Statistically at least, Gaza may be our future! Worldwide, as drought moves into new areas food production will be reduced, high prices and hunger will increase and, as population continues to climb, people will follow the water. When there’s not enough water to go around, we have trouble (with a capital “T”) right here in River City. The distribution of water on our planet can change us into a new world order.
Of course, this all begs the question, what should be done? New York City pulled off a masterful answer to a water problem they faced in the 1990’s. Aging city water infrastructure left planners looking at investing $6 billion into high energy use water filtration and treatment technology. Instead, they asked, “where does our current water come from?” Answer: the Catskill Mountains. Today, with considerably smaller investment, they rely on the natural filtering and purifying effects of the spongey foothills of the Catskills to provide them sustainable clean water without having to be excessively processed. They let Nature do what it does naturally. This couldn’t work in Chile, or Botswana, or Namibia—but it shows what thinking outside the box can do.
NYC isn’t the only city facing problems. Today, nearly 90% of Texans live in metropolitan centers and, as population continues to climb, water distribution is a problem. A potential solution is called One Water. The Daily Texan wrote about it in 2018. One Water thinks about all kinds of water as the same, whether it be drinking water, runoff, wastewater, or groundwater. It’s the view that all water has value. Texas could, for example, invest in green infrastructure which works much like the natural water cycle, implement closed-loop water systems which capture all forms of water, and create comprehensive water conservation and recycling programs (Israel already recycles 90% of its water). According to the newspaper, the One Water approach has been successfully implemented in cities like Rotterdam, Singapore, Tucson and Los Angeles.
There are certainly trade-offs and decisions to be made. It’s complicated. Every water-stressed country is affected by a different combination of factors. The bottom line is—short of a major breakthrough like successfully desalinating the ocean—humankind must work with whatever freshwater already exists. We must stop mining this finite resource. We should not pump a drop more than the recharge rate! We know what these numbers are, so we know when to stop.
We’ve got to start valuing water as a resource. Municipalities need to raise the cost of water to the point where people value it enough to conserve it. Next, we must change our ways of doing things where we are clearly heading off the tracks. Industrial agriculture may need to embrace growing less meat and more grain crops for human consumption. We need to be developing drought resistant strains of grains, fruits, and vegetables. The only energy systems that do not require cooling water to function are wind and solar. We have to make electric cars work.
How ironic. . .Texas was once completely under water. But we’ve known this was creeping up on us for years. As a people we could do better, but we don’t. Leaving the Paris Climate Accords was as irresponsible as giving forklift keys to a six-year-old! None of the right things will happen until we respect our water and our climate. We need to see water for what it is—the essence of life on this planet. Truth is, it’s probably already too late!