From Sea to Shining...Puddle?


  China, Indonesia, India—all developing countries. Like many industrial nations, they face numerous environmental challenges. Yet, while dangerous levels of smog in Beijing capture the headlines in the Western world, nine other Chinese cities experienced far more days of severe smog than the notoriously-polluted capital did. And the air quality isn't the only problem: water contamination abounds in these developing countries, with virtually all of India’s bodies of water suffering from pollution.

This is the typical 'environmental path', so to speak, that developing countries tend to follow. Take the United States, for instance. During its “industrial age”, huge tracts of land were deforested, toxic waste was dumped into rivers and lakes, poor farming practices quite nearly damaged the Great Plains irreparably, and carbon emissions skyrocketed to unprecedented levels. By the 1930s, the situation was dire enough to prompt President Roosevelt to create a task force to mobilize the nation into improving America’s environment. Similarly, the Clean Air and Water Acts under Nixon further established America’s preeminence in new conservation tactics. As the U.S. grew into a developed country, it reduced its environmental impacts, reforested vast tracts of land, and lowered its carbon emissions per capita to historically low rates.

Despite this happy ending for the U.S., a looming crisis—one that scientists have been monitoring for years—still remains. Simply put, the American West is drying up.

We've all heard about the drought California has been suffering through this past year. It isn't an unusual occurrence for the region: the West, especially the Southwest, has always been dry. Droughts, major or minor, are ubiquitous in the Western way of life, and thus they have adapted accordingly—during wet years, heavy rainfall and snowmelt from the Rockies provide essential water resources, and during dry years, Westerners rely on groundwater for their agricultural, industrial, and municipal purposes.

However, demographic changes are beginning to complicate the provision of water resources in the West, which has witnessed nearly unbelievable population growth in the past half-century: Nevada, for example, has seen an increase from less than half a million people in 1965, to nearly three million citizens in 2012; Utah grew by two million in the same interval; Arizona, a whopping five million. Obviously, this growth has put groundwater resources in these areas under tremendous pressure. In Diamond Valley Nevada, for example, the water table (a measure of how far below the surface groundwater lies) has dropped by nearly 100 feet; consequently, surface-level resources have dried up and potential water sources have sunk deeper into the ground.

Despite these gloomy numbers, the American West's 49'er mentality of continual and aggressive resource consumption still persists. While the particular resource in this case is largely abundant (at least when compared to other natural resources) it is in no way infinite, much less renewable in the short-term. If it continues down this path, the West could be in serious trouble.

Just how dire is the water situation on the other side of the Mississippi?

The term “safe yield” is used to describe the amount of water that can be drawn from underground reserves, over the long term, without substantially depleting the overall water reserve. It is set to the annual recharge rate, the specific amount of water that percolates into the groundwater at a specific location each year. A dry climate leads to a lower recharge rate, and thus the West's “safe yield” rate is correspondingly low.

(Many scientists, however, refute the idea of a “safe yield”, citing the already-occurring natural use of groundwater reserves by plants and surface-level bodies of water as examples that distort the “safe yield” rate—this has led to the introduction of the term“sustainable yield”, which is definitively less strenuous than the “safe yield” measure.)Terminology aside, how long do we have 'till the West dries up?

Estimates vary widely. It could be ten years, it could be 100 years. The range of possibilities depends on the rate of contamination of current aquifers, and also on the discovery of deeper, older aquifers. However, the deeper the wells, the more expensive it will be to pump water up to the surface; it won’t be long before living in the West is economically infeasible.

The solution is simple: use less water. One of the problems is that more water rights exist than can possibly be sustainable, a major governmental oversight that occurred at a time when groundwater seemed infinite. Despite this complication, water caps must be established if there is to be a sustained population in the West over the long haul.