Our government is setting us up for a life of water wars between communities and between people and wildlife. We need to stop thinking that solutions to water shortages in a climate change world can be solved by resolutions used in the past in a pre-climate change world. Resolutions beneficial for isolated droughts, isolated dust storms, isolated flooding or isolated extreme storms will not prepare us for multiple extreme events of greater intensity, frequency and widening geographic scope. Instead, we need to discuss how to prep for living in a climate change world where our finite water supplies will become so stretched that water wars will be commonplace unless we take action now to develop a national water supply policy designed to minimize or avert climate change impacts on our water resources.
Climate change is here now. Western States are heating up at almost twice the rate of the rest of world. A recent federal government report found climate change is now affecting our water resources. Nationwide there has been higher precipitation and streamflow except for the West and Southwest, which suffer increased drought, reduced mountain snowfields and earlier spring snowmelt runoffs. In parts of our nation, water resources are presently over-allocated and scarce. At least 36 states will face water shortages in the next 5 years as supplies decrease due to drought, rising temperatures, population and inefficient management.
Other impacts on water resources include an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme storms. Sea levels will continue to rise (parts of California coastline already lost) and “exacerbate storm surge flooding and shoreline erosion.” Rainfall patterns are “already shifting” due to GHG, and continuing climate change will cause extreme rains to be stronger and more frequent than previously forecasted. A recent study concluded that “[f]or every 1.8 degree Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) rise in global temperature, heavy rain showers became more common, with most intense category jumping 60 percent.” Such extreme rains could make “floods fiercer” as the earth can not absorb the water.
Communities are also prepping for the now inevitable increased water scarcity caused by climate change by passing laws to try to keep water supplies in their area. For example, Bush will sign into law the proposed Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact which protects the Great Lakes area by banning water transfers to any area outside of the basin. The objective is to prevent water being sold to the Southwest or Asia as many may soon “covet their vast quantities of water for an increasingly thirsty world.” Water law is generally based on doctrines designed to keep water in the watershed so that the basin is replenished. However, water hunters will not adhere to laws. Rather than battening down the hatches, we need to develop a national water policy that creates more water supplies so that all have affordable water.
As water supplies decrease, there is less water to apportion amongst the various users of a supply, including wildlife. Courts are willing to turn off the pumps to people in order to force compliance with the law or to maintain sufficient instream flows to protect endangered or threatened species. In 2001, the federal government shut off water to Oregon farmers because a drought-induced shortage mandated higher levels of instream flows for endangered fish in compliance with the Endangered Species Act, thus reducing water available for people. The farmers fought a mini-war for their livelihoods:
Farmers and their families, furious and fearing for their livelihoods, formed a symbolic 10,000-person bucket brigade. Then they took saws and blowtorches to dam gates, clashing with U.S. marshals as water streamed into the canals that fed their withering fields, before the government stopped the flow again.
Aside from the ecological impact, such decisions also affect our food supply and individual livelihoods. Cheney stepped in to tinker with the science so that instream uses were canned in favor of diverting water to the farmers. The collateral consequences of this tinkering were 77,000 dead salmon, the federal government declared a “commercial fishery failure”, Congress provided disaster aid of $60 million to the fishermen and $15 million to farmers to not farm in order to reduce water usage.
Our government knows that “chronic water shortages, dramatic population growth, and aging water facilities” are not only “increasing the potential for conflict over water resources around the nation,” but that “water wars have spread to the Midwest, East, and South.” Interior Secretary Kempthorne admitted that climate change and drought are creating conflicts now “within states, among states, between states and the Federal government and among environmentalists and state and Federal agencies.”
One federal report finds that “increased water use efficiency” can “help mitigate” climate change impacts on water resources. Mitigate? Clearly, efficient water use and management practices can help, but are not the answer to our water crisis.
One California county is now serving up “drinking” water created from sewage that is treated by a number of processes and chemicals.
The county was forced to turn sewage into “drinking” water because there were no other available water supplies due to saltwater intrusion caused by overpumping the groundwater basin in the hunt for water. Saltwater intrusion will increase with climate change, degrading more water supplies. Additional considerations leading to drinking sewage water include the drought, rising cost of importing water, and the difficulty of finding water. As the hunt for water continues and climate change impacts decrease available supplies, more communities (Los Angeles, San Diego, DeKalb County, GA, Miami-Dade County) are now considering turning our sewage into water. Is this the best we can do?
Mobile National Aqueduct Capture, Storage & Water Creation Proposal
This proposal only addresses new water supplies from captured, developed and conserved waters and does not address allocation of existing water supplies. We need a national water policy that is developed with certain principles in mind. One, past remedies that worked in a pre-climate change world may not work in a climate-change world. Two, water is a public trust resource for each person and the right to affordable drinking water is a human right. Three, dividing the allocation of water supplies by region or economics will encourage conflicts and wars rather than unifying all toward our common goal of providing a necessity of life. Four, climate change should not be the excuse for killing wildlife by depriving them of water needed to survive. Five, climate change should not be the excuse for exempting compliance with environmental laws. And, six, the interrelationship of climate change impacts needs to be considered and reconciled rather than focusing on resolutions for one impact as a mutually exclusive event to the detriment of a coordinated policy. For example, allowing oil companies to destroy wetlands to provide energy ignores the beneficial functions of wetlands as buffers to storm surges.
My proposal is to construct a mobile national aqueduct with hubs in the Northeast, South, Texas, Midwest and California. The hubs would have a reservoir system to store and treat water. There would be a mobile capture system to collect floodwaters and stormwaters for conveyance to the reservoirs. When there is a strong storm event, such as extreme rainfall or hurricane, the system would capture the excess waters in towns and farms and convey by pipeline to the reservoirs. The mobility of the aqueduct and local capture systems would enable relocation around the country as weather patterns change or storm events are forecasted so that the system was in place before the storm.
The reservoirs would be filled with natural rainfall waters, captured storm waters, developed waters and conserved waters so that our existing water supply would be increased by new water sources. Conserved water is water that was developed as a new water supply that was not previously part of the water allocation system. For example, if a farmer is irrigating by an earthern ditch, much water is lost to seepage. However, if the farmer lines the ditch with concrete, then the seepage water is conserved and may be used to water crops, thus decreasing the amount of water that the farmer needs from the general allocation system, and freeing up some of that water to be allocated to another beneficial user.
Developed waters, such as the use of desalination plants, could be added to the national reservoir system. Technology has also provided us with mobile water creation facilities which capture water vapors and dew to develop additional water supplies. These water creation devices are being used in Iraq to supply water to our troops and in Israel. The mobility of the facilities enables placement throughout the US in areas conducive to the most efficient creation of water, and then this developed water can be stored in the hub reservoir system during times of low water production from natural events.
Water creation devices will not only provide potable water, but also may prevent some of the severe rainfalls or decrease the intensity. As our temperatures increase, the air becomes warmer, and warmer air holds more moisture. This moister air will mean more heavy rainfalls. If we create water from air, we may reduce the moisture content of the air, and perhaps reduce the predicted more severe rainfalls.
We also need legislative changes to stop harming our existing water supplies. To cite just a few examples, we have a finite natural water supply, yet Bush has changed the law to legalize the dumping of waste into streams, wetlands and waterways as waste dump sites as long as man-made streams are “created” to “replace” natural stream systems killed by the waste.
We also need legislation to provide defenses against climate change events. For example, we need to protect our wetlands that serve many functions, including a natural buffer from storm surges from hurricanes and tropical storms.
Waters stored at the national reservoir system would then be available for transfer by the national aqueduct to areas in need. If Texas or the Midwest was experiencing drought, then those states could buy water. Guidelines may be established so that water transfers must comply with reasonable water laws, such as the Constitutional requirement in California to avoid waste of water and that all water be used for beneficial purposes. Guidelines may also require that areas requesting transfers impose conservation requirements on water users.
There are several benefits from my proposal:
1. Creating Additional Water Supplies with Captured, Conserved and Developed Waters. Given that our existing water supplies are dwindling, we need to create new water supplies rather than fight over the little water available in our streams, rivers and lakes.
2. Avoidance of water wars. Communities are already prepping for hoarding water to a specific geographic area, but not all communities have that option. Moreover, it is not likely that the hoarded water supplies will be sufficient given climate change and population increases. We need to remember that the right to drinking water is a human right of a natural resource which is essential for life. Water wars in the past have often been motivated by allocation of supplies when there has been a shortage. The nature of the shortage around the corner will dwarf the past. Finally, we need to remember that in some jurisdictions, like California, a water right is a usufructuary interest or a right to the use of the water, not a right to the corpus or molecules of the water. The corpus of the water is owned by the state on behalf of all the people as a public trust resource existing for the benefit of all.
3. Saving lives and property. Each year, storm events kill and injure people, kill animals, and damage or destroy homes and businesses. A water recapture system may minimize or possibly eliminate some of these devastating impacts from storm events.
4. Economic benefits. The national aqueduct would be expensive but could be paid from the returns of reducing or knocking out current expenditures to address the economic damages from storm events. Each year, the federal government spends millions or more to pay for the reconstruction, recovery and damages from storm events. Why not use this money to create a system to prevent the need for recovery?
In addition, there are collateral economic consequences from extreme climate events. When we have a drought in Texas, the Midwest or California, this affects the agricultural industry, which means less food produced and price increases. If we have a national aqueduct, then when Texas has a drought, Texas could buy water transfers from one of the national water hubs thus preventing harmful human and economic impacts from the shortage.
This is a preliminary proposal, but we need to start thinking about doing the best we can to live in a climate change world, rather than just waiting and watching as things become worse.