Monday, April 19, 2010

Water, The Next Big Thing

While I know that spring arrives with a large list of work to be done to resolve moisture issues, repair damage and repair our gardens, I would like to draw your attention back to larger environmental issues on a rainy afternoon. Interest in the Cap and Trade is waning, especially as California struggles to come to terms with AB 32. Global Warming lost much of its urgency when it became Climate change and will continue to lose urgency as the coalition of believers breaks apart into its underlying camps. Nonetheless, Al Gore was incredibly effective in convincing a generation that carbon footprint was the key to saving the earth. Don’t get me wrong, the climate of earth does change. Energy use matters. The earth’s resources should not be squandered or mismanaged. However, carbon offsets are shell game.

Water is real. Our quality of life and life itself is dependent on our access to water. Mankind cannot survive without water. One of the world’s most critical problems is a lack of quality water. More than a billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and at least 1.5 million deaths, mostly among children underage five, are attributed to unsafe drinking water each year. The World Bank attributes 12 million deaths annually to the combination of foul water and poor sanitary conditions. People are dying today for lack of clean water. The projections for 2030 are for significant and potentially life threatening water shortages in certain parts of the world despite the fact that the earth as a whole has adequate fresh water supplies. Mankind expands and builds and fouls until he has surpassed the carrying capacity of the location. We do not stop when we should. Though I tend to distrust all long term modeling efforts for their simplifications and straight line projections; water planning ten and twenty years out is a standard practice in the US west and other water critical areas of the world. Water supply projection a decade or two out is a much simpler model than say climate projections, but still are impacted by non-correlated variables and limited knowledge of groundwater recharge and reserves that would make it difficult to accurately project water demand and availability. Nonetheless, water is a real issue and its importance will grow as continuing mismanagement of water resources is highlighted by growing populations. I point out the National Geographic Special Water Issue and the WWF glossy on Sustainable life for evidence of this.

In California, the combined demand for irrigated agriculture, expanding suburban footprint, habitat protection, and drought have stressed the water supply to the breaking point only pulled back from the brink of disaster by the heavy rains that came late this past winter. For more than a half a century the Central Valley of California has been one of the most productive agriculture regions of the world. However, irrigation uses about 80% of California water and there is no longer enough water to survive the seasonal and climatic variability that threatens a reliable water supply. On less than 1% of the total farmland in the U.S. the Central Valley produces 8% of the agricultural output (as measured by value). This is all made possible by a combination of surface water diversions and groundwater pumping. Approximately one sixth of the irrigated land in the United States is in the Central Valley (Bureau of Reclamation, 1994) and approximately one eighth of all groundwater pumped in the United States is pumped in the Central Valley (USGS, 2000). Though California has adequate water for human consumption, it is likely that this irrigated agricultural model is not sustainable since California is clearly mining their groundwater and has diminished the storage capacity of the central valley due to subsidence. The California papers have been filled with water issues, opinions, and arguments.

Suddenly, Bolinas, California is looking more prudent and less fringe with their limit on the absolute number of water meters for the town. (For the record it has been 580 meters for 30 years.) The town’s water supply comes from Arroyo Honda. The town has two backup reservoirs, but by late last winter, before the late season rains, it appeared as if Bolinas might run out of water before the next rainy season. In a rational attempt to live within their available resources, mandatory rationing went into effect last February, but was lifted after the rains restored the reservoir reserves. The rationing plan required that every household (or water hook up) use 150 gallons a day or less, regardless of how many people it supported. All businesses and the town's school were told to cut usage by 25 percent. To enforce this plan home meters were checked randomly every day. Exceed the limit and you got a written notice. Residents were allowed only two notices. The third time, a household’s water could be shut off. The town is a very closed community and succeeded in having 98% compliance with the rationing plan. The town is viewed in parts of California as a leader in water conservation and an indication of the future of the state. The water movement is forming. Mismanagement of water resources will set the stage for this movement.

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