Saturday, August 11, 2012

Terminal Shortage of Water for U.S. Agriculture.

Cheap light crude oil production has already peaked and the resource will be all but gone within a decade. It is a matter of ebullient debate exactly to what extent that gap might be filled by unconventional sources of hydrocarbons, e.g. from tar-sands, ultra-heavy oil, oil shale, shale oil (they are not the same thing) and fracking in general. This spectral shadow looms, of the intermediary era that straddles then from now - dearth from plenty - a highly uncertain transitional period within which, either by design or default, we must gear-down our use of transportation, since there is no alternative technology that could be brought on-stream in time (if ever) to match the gargantuan 30 billion barrels of oil that are used by the world each year to quench its thirst for liquid fuel and essential chemical raw materials for industry.

Water too, is a resource that given its careless usage will begin to run-short within a few decades, as is espoused in the book entitled "Mirage", written by Cynthia Barnett, which focusses on water-use in the United States and in Florida particularly. Years ago I read "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck which draws-out in painful detail the tribulations of families trying to survive in the dust-bowls of the mid-west during the Great Depression era of the 1930's, struggling toward California in a search for jobs and land, but mostly land... on which crops would grow. It is well known that to the east of the longitudinal line along the 100th meridian rainfall is plentiful, while to the west of it the climate is relatively arid. Indeed it was once believed that farmers in the "east" would never have to worry about watering their crops, but in recent years demand for water has surged with calamitous environmental consequences.

Barnett is an experienced journalist and a reporter for Florida Trend Magazine, and her investigative and journalistic skills are aptly suited to handle this important topic. In the first part of the book, she outlines the history of water and development in the US reflecting back from an opening scene from 1981 where a house falls into a "sinkhole", which is a collapse in the limestone rock that underlies Florida as a consequence of its natural dissolution by underground water, but which can be opened-up as a result of human activities such as highway construction, excavation of "fill-dirt" (gravel), well -drilling and especially the excessive pumping of groundwater.

She discusses the complex politics involved in "development", and the overpopulation of that southern tip of the Florida peninsular particularly by retirees ("seniors"), thus requiring an infrastructure - including very green and hence heavily watered lawns and golf-courses etc. - of an extent that surpasses even what can be provided by the greatly abundant rainfall there. Meeting the shortfall necessitates the extraction of groundwater on a huge scale with environmental, economic, political and social consequences, including at least one death as she describes in the chapter "Water Wars". Indeed the history of water-supply in the United States is wryly inscribed in the quotation (attributed to Mark Twain), "whiskey's for drinkin' and water's for fightin'."

A central theme in the book is of water as a commodity. Often the real costs of water provision are borne by states or municipalities rather than by corporations, who cash-in on a cheap resource for which no regard is consequently engendered, nor for the environmental actions such as damming rivers as mighty as the Colorado for various "aquatic" projects. Bottled "spring" water is an immensely priced-up designer toy, costing around 10,000 times as much as tap water and often with much the same analytical composition. Not all spring-water does in fact come from a spring, and is to a large degree once again that good old pumped groundwater.

The Ogallala aquifer flows for 174,000 square miles under the great plains from South Dakota to the Texas panhandle, and it is the main source of water for the US collective national breadbasket, supplying as it does one third of all the groundwater used for irrigation in the entire country. However, Ogallala is not replenished as most aquifers are. Instead it contains "fossil water", set down from the melt of the last ice-age 10,000 years ago. Put another way, once it is gone it is gone, and the analogy with a vast oil-field could hardly be closer. Access to cheap electric pumps in the 1950's permitted farmers to draw this legacy upward at increasing rates and to the extent that the Ogallala has fallen by 100 feet in parts of New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma ("Grapes of Wrath" territory) and Texas. It is inevitable and a mere matter of time that all wells sunk into this huge aquifer will run dry. Not good I presume for the US corn-crop which is increasingly being grown to provide corn-ethanol in that desperate exercise we are all of us involved in, to resolve the issues of how we will survive in the "Oil Dearth" era, as world supplies of crude-oil run relentlessly short.

The Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) technology is given especial mention. The idea is that during wet-periods, when water is plentiful, water is pumped into gigantic underground aquifers set deep into Florida's limestone, and which can be pumped-up again during dry months. Some 36 million gallons a day are sucked from Peace River, which starts in Central Florida's Green Swamp and ends 105 miles further south in the Charlotte Harbour Estuary. There are almost 1,700 ASR wells in the US altogether, most of them in the states of California, Nevada, Texas and Florida, all particularly short of water. However, caution is urged, certainly that a decent hydrogeological survey is forked-out for, as the first well sunk at Peace River became seriously contaminated with arsenic, present naturally in the aquifer.

Desalination is another technology often invoked as a solution to water-shortages especially in near-coastal regions, even though it is very costly to set up a desalination plant in the first place, and it takes a lot of energy to run one; nor is the technology guaranteed. A $110 million plant at Tampa Bay suffered all kinds of difficulties and finally the high-tech membranes required to separate water from salt by reverse-osmosis clogged up. However, groundwater pumping was reduced by one third in the region anyway without using one drop of desalinated water, purely through more conventional means of reservoir and surface water treatment combined with aggressive water-conservation measures. Now this takes us on neatly to the final chapter entitled "redemption and the river of grass".

I found this chapter truly inspirational, since it refers to possible solutions to the problem which are based around taking a more respectful approach to our environment. Some wonderful human stories are mentioned, such as that of Clyde Butcher, who turned his son's tragic death into a positive campaign for the choking Everglades, through his photography, and began a change in attitude which may save the day. What Barnett writes about water and how we might preserve our world by giving it due respect applies as well to all the other resources we are now plundering into extinction.

As a published poet, I appreciated her choice of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" to quote from rather than "The rime of the ancient mariner" as it usually done when seeking some cultural reference to "water", since the context is much closer in its "A stately pleasure-dome decree" to the problem of inexorable human demand on nature in the fallacious assumption of limitless growth while draining resources that are only all too limited. In conclusion, this is a most informative and timely book and I am grateful to Mary Bisbee-Beck at The University of Michigan Press for giving me the opportunity to review it.

Professor Chris Rhodes, Independent Consultant on Energy and Environment Issues.


Mark said...

Water is a problem for the United States, especially out here in the west. One issue that is rarely mentioned in the media is the archaic water rights system we have in this country and a lack of political will to update it. There are many cases in California's Central Valley where one farmer has to plow his field under because of a lack of water while his neighbor will receive a greater allocation of this resource because a long passed relative was able to get water rights in perpetuity. Instead we will blame this problem on the Snail Darter or some other enviromental concern rather than take a comprehensive review of this issue.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

It seems likely that water - or the lack of it - is going to be one major resources issue in the future. In the U.K. we have been inundated with rain this summer - if you can call it that! - due to a shifting in the Jet Stream, which is much further south than it should be.

There is speculation as to why it is so low, but naturally climate change gets the blame, although it's not clear what the mechanisms is.

I used to be far more skeptical about climate change and certainly our role in causing it, but the changes do seem real, and it seems likely that some regions will become dryer while others have very heavy rainfall.

I think dealing with the problem of water resource will require changes in - and the establishment of new - legislation, and for that matter, changes in farming practices to overall conserve water.