Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Water supplies arenít inexhaustible

   California is caught in a drought, possibly the worst in 500 years. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, areas south of San Francisco are currently suffering from “exceptional drought.”
    Three-fourths of California plus Nevada and the Snake River plain in Idaho are suffering “extreme drought.” Estimates are that some small cities in northern California could actually run out of water completely in as little as six weeks. Gov. Jerry Brown has asked his constituents to cut back water usage by 20 percent.
    Water is not just another commodity, like pork bellies, copper or aluminum. Using it cannot be determined by the usual outcomes of more use and larger profits. Without water, it will be more than a “lifestyle” that disappears. There will be no life and no tomorrow, profitable or otherwise.
    We Americans, however, consistently treat water as if it were inexhaustible, like we treat our energy resources. Rivers are treated like dumping grounds for garbage, leftover pharmaceuticals and manufacturing byproducts without much thought to the long-term implications. When the rivers run dry or the water gets too dirty to use, wells are simply drilled deeper to use ancient aquifers.
    Perhaps that’s because national policy makers are headquartered in the East where water scarcities are rare and one heavy rain can refill rivers and reservoirs. A California drought is hard to get your head around when storm after storm piles snow up throughout the Midwest and East Coast.
    In the late 1980s, Santa Barbara nearly ran out of water. Water rationing was imposed in Los Angeles and other southern California communities. Then it rained. Southern Californians, and the rest of us, went back to old habits.
    Most resource fights have been over energy—to drill, to dig, to cut down or to preserve, instead. Somehow, we seem to believe, the future will take care of itself. The current drought should disavow us of that delusion.
    We need to think more seriously for the long term. If the rains don’t come in time, or there isn’t enough water in the aquifer, who will get the water that is left and who will not? Will money be the deciding factor, or will military power? Will we as a nation, as a world, choose conservation or trust that technology will save us all somehow?
    Change is hard and often painful. We had better begin to make that change very soon in how we think about and use water resources. Alternatively, it may rain or snow enough in time, maybe. Maybe not.

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