Water

Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over. (Un-provable, but attributed to Mark Twain)

BILLIONS!  A word rarely used during my youth but now a daily term applied to annual corporation profits; sales of small software companies; the US defense budget (with a 682 preceding it); numbers of consumed McDonald’s hamburgers; and…yes…the personal wealth in dollars of a growing number of private individuals (442 in the US alone and you may even know one or two or at least heard them speak while running for public office).  It’s also a term astrophysicists commonly apply in multiples to the number of galaxies and their associated planets in our solar system and maybe even to the number of solar systems out in the beyond (possibly “infinite” is a better word).  Yet, for all we currently know, there is only one planet in these billions and billions and billions of possibilities that supports life: our earth.  And why is it so unique?  Two elements combine to provide one compound, H20… water!

No living thing can survive without water.  Be it plant or animal, lichen or redwood, flea or camel, water is its key to survival. Humanity in particular needs water, not just that 60% of our body weight is comprised of it, but we need fresh water sources to replenish that and to allow our food sources–plants and animals–to thrive.  Humans survived for many hundreds of thousands of years without oil; without steel; without uranium or gold (and even without iPads!!!).  In our evolutionary beginnings we even survived and prospered without fire.  But without water it would have never happened.  The first amoeba to have sprouted claws and learned to climb trees would not have happened (or if you’re religiously inclined, Adam and Eve would have died of thirst before Cain and Able were born).  Yet since water is available to many of us by the simple turn of a faucet or flush of a toilet, it seems ubiquitous.  And seeming so we treat it thusly… haphazardly; a commodity we can waste, abuse and pollute with essentially no repercussions.

If you are to believe the 99% of the earth’s educated scientists (which I do), the earth is warming and rapidly so.  In doing such, water is not disappearing but it’s changing in nature.  As an example, glaciers that currently provide the primary source of water for societies living in the foothills of the Andes and Himalayas may well disappear in our children’s lifetimes.  What then?  Granted, there will be more water in our oceans (no problem to Oklahomans but devastating to many Floridians or those on Manhattan Island) but large supplies of fresh water are needed to grow crops, water lawns, and simply to put in plastic bottles to sell at Costco.

Yet the influx of global warming with its changing weather patterns provides wonderful arguments for the uneducated.

  • “Hey, it rained 24 inches in a day in Florida last week, so what’s the problem?”  True, but how do you get that water to the turbines at Bonneville Dam; the alfalfa crops in Utah; the golf courses in Palm Springs; or the swimming pools in Phoenix?
  • “We can tow ice bergs in from the Arctic and Antarctic!”  Better hurry, they’re melting too.  Scientists have now provided evidence that the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet “…has passed the point of no return.”

Flying from Tucson to Sacramento last week was eye-opening, especially as we crossed California’s Imperial Valley where miles upon miles of desert lands are in agricultural production, ALL of the water coming from the Colorado River system, a watershed suffering its worst drought in 1,250 years.  Then it was on up the Central Valley that produces well over 75% of most of our nation’s fruit and vegetables.  Yet looking east at the Sierras, the valley’s dependency of summer runoff, all but the highest peaks were devoid of snow and the big reservoirs in the foothills had wide tell-tale shoreline rings.  Entering the Sacramento Area where, even today in one of our worst droughts, lakes of flooded rice fields extend for miles and sprinklers were pumping water onto the thirsty alfalfa fields.    So where will this summer’s agriculture water come from?  Local farmers say that’s a silly question, “From the ground, pumping from our infinite ground water supply.”  So…where does the ground water come from?  From rainfall that has seeped into the earth over eons.  Oops…no rainfall this year…or last…or…  So what happens if the ground water runs out?  Already, in southern California’s Cuyama Valley the groundwater has been depleted to the point where irrigated agriculture is no longer viable.  But, not to worry, our local Congressman, Doug LaMalfa (likely with the help of the Koch Brothers) has it all figured out as his campaign posters read “Water, Jobs, Liberty!” (yet no one’s clear on how he plans to provide for any of the three).

In years past the California Department of Water Resources regularly spoke of the “new water” they had located.  At one meeting a number of years back I was loathe to ask the speaker, “Where did you find it?  I thought we knew where all the rivers and lakes were already.”  The answer was they’d developed a “new” equation for estimating runoff.  This worked well until the drought hit.  Oops again!

In his must-read book, The Cadillac Desert, regarding the history and future of water in our western states, Marc Reisner prefaces the book’s beginning by quoting the poet, Shelley, with his poem, Ozymandias.  This seems as good place in which to end my concerns (or solidify them):

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear —

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

 

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