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Water, water everywh—Oh dear.
October 26, 2007 5:18 PM   Subscribe

So you've all heard about how global warming will lead to rising sea-levels, but what about falling freshwater levels?

The New York Times ran an in-depth piece about the disappearing freshwater reserves for the Western United States last week, that being one of the more underreported effects of global warming. With the area's population projected to rise substantially over the next few decades—60 million in California alone by the mid-21st century!—the water demands are going to be a logistical nightmare without even considering a reduced capacity.
posted by Weebot (43 comments total)

 
So long as they keep their grubby paws off of my great lakes, we won't be having any problems.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 5:21 PM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


If only my tears weren't saline.
posted by DenOfSizer at 5:22 PM on October 26, 2007 [5 favorites]


Population control. All comes down to population.

And will it be pleasant to live in a world with a non-growth economy? Do we even have the political will?

Scary times.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 5:37 PM on October 26, 2007


How prescient was Chinatown? The great story of America, thirty years ahead of its time and unrivaled as filmmaking as allegory.

The American West, though I love her so, is simply unsustainable at current and future population levels. Most resources can be transported with discretion but divert a river or two and people get pissed. Funny how that works.
posted by billysumday at 5:41 PM on October 26, 2007


I feel certain this issue will be ignored until it's much too late.

That is unless some Mideast nation is discovered to have a massive freshwater lake beneath it.
posted by SaintCynr at 5:48 PM on October 26, 2007


Well, I wouldn't go so far to say that Chinatown was prescient. Water has always been an issue here in California. It's either Southern California fighting with Northern California, or California fighting Nevada and Arizona for the access to the Colorado River or whatever. It goes on and on. This is just a new (and bleak) chapter.
posted by Weebot at 6:16 PM on October 26, 2007


grubby paws off of my great lakes

The Federal Water Resources Development Act of 1962 created a sort of treaty among the Great Lakes states that would prevent any one state from siphoning off water outside the basin. Any western state trying to make a deal would have to deal with all the Great Lakes states at once, a sort of balkanization.
posted by stbalbach at 6:20 PM on October 26, 2007


This was linked in the comments last week, very interesting piece. I find it astonishing that they essentially say the Colorado River reservoirs will never refill, given water use and expected precipitation, even if we had a spate of "normal" years.
posted by maxwelton at 6:24 PM on October 26, 2007


* North American drought worst in 500 years. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the current drought in the West of North America is the worst that has occurred in the last 500 years, with water flow levels at close to half those of the drought in the dirty thirties of the previous century.

* North American Drought Monitor. Interactive maps and graphs from NOAA.
posted by stbalbach at 6:30 PM on October 26, 2007


There's a technological fix, and it doesn't involve aquaducts. San Diego has a working pilot plant that repurifies sewage and converts it to clean, potable water. In fact, you can't tell the difference.

But the "yuck" factor has led to people resisting the idea. That'll change eventually. There's no reason why the water should only get used one time.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:58 PM on October 26, 2007


The problem is most water is used by agriculture, which can't be easily reclaimed (*) Public water is a small number.
posted by stbalbach at 7:18 PM on October 26, 2007


Well, I wouldn't go so far to say that Chinatown was prescient.

Chinatown was a historical drama.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:47 PM on October 26, 2007


they can stop watering their lawns any time
posted by pyramid termite at 8:17 PM on October 26, 2007


"Agriculture now uses approximately 80 percent of California's developed water supply... Alfalfa, the biggest water user of any California crop, soaks up almost a quarter of the state's irrigation water [ie, 1/5 of all water used in the state].... harvested mostly for hay to feed dairy livestock....About 26 percent is grown in the state's parched southern deserts and despite the existence of demonstrated techniques for achieving high crop yields with water-saving methods -- such as drip irrigation and bedded alfalfa -- most California growers use inefficient irrigation techniques such as flooding."
posted by salvia at 9:12 PM on October 26, 2007


Also, before anyone suggests it, I would like to pre-emptively say that desalination is a bad idea because it uses lots of energy and sucks fish in to be ground up in what's called "impingement and entrainment" (and fish shortages are another problem with global warming). (I put a supporting link up on one of these threads but have to run now.)
posted by salvia at 9:14 PM on October 26, 2007


San Diego has a working pilot plant that repurifies sewage and converts it to clean, potable water.

Steven: the article says that Las Vegas is one of the luckiest communities in the Colorado basin, because it's rich enough to eventually build desalination plants for coastal cities like Los Angeles and San Diego, who could then give Las Vegas the equivalent from their rights to the Colorado.

Desalination, however, is still costlier than recirculated and treated water, so that may be decades away. I don't know if this is part of the conversation in San Diego yet, but it should be; it is in Vegas. They're already in wide use in the Sunbelt, with the largest US facility in Tampa Bay.
posted by dhartung at 9:29 PM on October 26, 2007


i've been thinking about this for a while lately...up until (relatively) recently, the rivers and streams were the only way water would make its way from land to sea. now, however, we have a bazillion (one bazillion=1.25 billion) drainage ditches and sewer pipes and etc basically sucking the water off of the land. the engineering projects required to make the human water supply a closed one (ie 100% recycling of all sewage and farm runoff and etc)...well, it's just staggering in scale...if even possible.
its another example of previous generations 'improvements' (like the forestry department stopping all forest fires=more underbrush growth=bigger, deadlier fires) leaving us suffering the death of a thousand cuts.
and, oh yeah, the real problem isn't 'the environment' its population. when i saw 'an inconvenient truth' i was struck by gore's argument that we could reduce our co2 emissions by half over the next 20 years and how that will never happen as our population will double (or more) in the same time frame, also doubling our co2 output.

sigh. yeah. we're fucked.
posted by sexyrobot at 9:44 PM on October 26, 2007


desalination is a bad idea because it uses lots of energy and sucks fish in to be ground up in what's called "impingement and entrainment"

Not necessarily. We discharged enough waste heat to almost drown ourselves with fresh water.
posted by Mblue at 9:56 PM on October 26, 2007


End-of-the-world fatigue.

Yes global warming sucks, yes we should do what we can to stop it, yes freshwater is in danger, yes air quality is horrible, yes the oceans are full of garbage and toxins, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

I'm so full up on the horrors we have wrought that I'm not spurred to action to improve things. Much more likely I'm going to hole up and wait for the end while attempting to not have a totally shitty life.

I'm full of destruction now, thank you. Please make posts about how practical and wonderful solutions are being proposed or implemented?
posted by Kickstart70 at 9:57 PM on October 26, 2007


I heard desalinated water described as bottled electricity. Nice call.

My home town politicians have recently been patting themselves on the back for building such a beast (*.pdf). Thoughts of a second. Gotta do something I suppose. Anything but stabilise or reduce population.

Not 10 minutes ago I finished ready an article discussing the TRIPLING of Perth's population. "Stack or sprawl?" was the theme. CRIKEY!
posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:10 PM on October 26, 2007


"... Please make posts about how practical and wonderful solutions are being proposed or implemented?"
posted by Kickstart70 at 12:57 AM on October 27

RTFA, man. The over-arching story thread for this FPP is how Aurora, CO, a suburb of Denver that I used to live in as a kid, is going 34 miles downriver on the South Platte river (one of it's major water sources), to reclaim flows of its own treated wastewater, previously injected upstream, as a "new" source of drinking water. Ingenious, practical and, uh, "wonderful" I guess...
posted by paulsc at 10:15 PM on October 26, 2007


stbalbach, salvia. Take it one step further back and ask why agriculture is a problem. What does it feed?

Any discussion that doesn't mostly focus on population is only trying to cure symptoms, not the cause.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:20 PM on October 26, 2007


i'm for sandblasting emma lazarus off the statue of liberty.
posted by bruce at 10:24 PM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


uncanny hengeman, no, it's not sheer number of people. What does it feed, you want me to ask. The alfalfa? It feeds dairy cattle. Which feed dairy drinkers. And maybe meat eaters. Not everyone's on those lists.
posted by salvia at 10:32 PM on October 26, 2007


I heard desalinated water described as bottled electricity.

You, not mincing words, are an ignorant. It takes high pressure (steam in my case), to turn a turbine, I can make distilled water exhaust energy.
posted by Mblue at 10:32 PM on October 26, 2007



posted by Mblue at 10:33 PM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


with
posted by Mblue at 10:34 PM on October 26, 2007


My wife and I decided to not have children. Aside from taking a machine gun down to your local gathering place of choice, what else can two people do to reduce the population?

A quick tally of the folks I regularly come in contact with yields this count, most of whom are now beyond the cusp of natural conception:

0 kids: 6 couples, 2 singles
1 kid: 6 couples, included two who adopted
2 kids: 8 couples
3 or more: 1 couple

So either my peers are more thoughtful, busier, or less fecund than I recall. I agree wholeheartedly that we need to bust the population down, not just stabilize it, but a non-growing population terrifies the powers that be and corporate interests.
posted by maxwelton at 10:36 PM on October 26, 2007


Dang, so, the southwest is ruled out as a place to live, due to water shortages. The southeast is out because of hurricanes. Where to? Ohio? North Dakota?
posted by salvia at 10:39 PM on October 26, 2007


You, not mincing words, are an ignorant. It takes high pressure (steam in my case), to turn a turbine, I can make distilled water exhaust energy.

You "can". Good for you, sizzlechest. But are the desalination plants being so clever? Why is my link dodging this issue and banging on about future renewable wind power to operate the plant, and not this oh so obvious "exhaust energy"? When are the non-ignorant ones going to be built?

And for someone brandishing the word "ignorant", that certainly was an interesting three-posts-in-a-row of yours. Ya gotta laff, eh? As we say in Australia: you idiot.


a non-growing population terrifies the powers that be and corporate interests

That's the money shot, maxwelton IMHO. It terrifies me, too. For some reason I can't help but think "great social unrest and lots of disabled and/or old, non productive people being cracked on the head with a big ol' hammer."
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:26 PM on October 26, 2007


I've NEVER read this guy's blog. Honestly. But I absent mindedly clicked on another link from another blog and what's the first thing I read?

We are [...] refusing to say anything sensible about the biggest single challenge facing the Earth; and no, whatever it may now be conventional to say, that single biggest challenge is not global warming. That is a secondary challenge. The primary challenge facing our species is the reproduction of our species itself.

Depending on how fast you read, the population of the planet is growing with every word that skitters beneath your eyeball. There are more than 211,000 people being added every day, and a population the size of Germany every year.


As long as they're not meat eaters, eh, salvia. :-)
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:48 PM on October 26, 2007


uncanny hengeman
But are the desalination plants being so clever?

In my heat plant,we make are own make-up water. We make more than we need and sell the excess, it helps with the bills.

Sorry I used the word ignorant, I should have used uninformed.
posted by Mblue at 12:02 AM on October 27, 2007


My woman and I also chose not to have any children, so we're doing our part to reduce population. I've also been in combat and killed at least one enemy soldier, who was young enough that he was probably going to impregnate a few women, had he been given time and opportunity. So, we have exerted a slight downward pressure on population growth. Not much else we can do; we're just hoping that the world wakes up and realizes that 6 or 7 billion human beings (or more) is not a sustainable population level unless we don't care about throwing the balance of the ecosphere out of whack and dooming future generations to a nightmarish existence. Sadly, it may already be too late to avoid a planetary correction that greatly reduces human population, involuntarily. Translation: it may be too late to prevent massive human die-off.
posted by jamstigator at 2:38 AM on October 27, 2007


??? So why isn't this the magic bullet, Mblue? Why are we building desalination plants and not using your excess, high purity make-up water?
posted by uncanny hengeman at 4:47 AM on October 27, 2007


I am thinking smart personal choices are good and all, but of little benefit overall. This person didn't have kids, that one's a vegan, this one doesn't drive a car, etc etc but have you noticed what we don't even know we're consuming? We require bold, sweeping, strictly enforced legislation immediately. But that's not going to happen so there is going to be a massive ugly population "correction" and good will towards others and stuff, yo, but I am going to look after my family and go down shootin' if I have to.

Especially the free market wankers.
posted by DenOfSizer at 6:03 AM on October 27, 2007


Never said is was magic. We use are excess heat to good use, now imagine if most leftover heat was used this way?

This isn't a new idea, by the way, my Dad uses his furnace heat (chimney) to pre-heat the water going into his hot water heater. If everybody did that, the New England area could cut their power use by at least 20 percent.
posted by Mblue at 6:13 AM on October 27, 2007


go down shootin' if I have to.

Heh.
When's the last time you actually shot to kill? I assume you don't eat venison

Before you ask, I didn't rifle BULLET (though I have before), I KNOCKED an arrow. It was delicious.
posted by Mblue at 6:37 AM on October 27, 2007


My wife and I decided to not have children. Aside from taking a machine gun down to your local gathering place of choice, what else can two people do to reduce the population?

Support the war in Iraq?
posted by IndigoJones at 7:46 AM on October 27, 2007


uncanny hegemon and maxwelton, here is why I don't focus on overpopulation myself:

1. it makes it seem like the problem are all those quickly-reproducing people down in the developing world
2. that's untrue -- the problem, over and over, is overconsumption and wastefulness in the developed world
3. cutting population is the least politically viable solution ever
4. the discussion distracts attention from many solutions that are actually politically viable.

On point 3, I'm sure you're not personally suggesting some campaign of genocide, nor wishing for plagues and famine. Slowing population growth is easier and more politically viable -- educating and empowering women in the developing world and raising standards of living there are all great ideas. But still, I don't see it as the fastest way to address environmental problems when there are still destructive things being done (bottom-trawling) to sell things (fish) to people in the developed world.

In 1990, the average US water use [pdf] was 185 gallons per person per day. But some states were closer to 100, and some states were up around 300. So, we can sit around saying "too many people drinking!" or we can cut some states' water consumption by 1/3 without ever reducing their population.
posted by salvia at 9:02 AM on October 27, 2007


This was the coolest quote from that article:
Pulwarty wonders how many tourists will want to visit a state full of dead trees. “A crisis is an interesting thing,” he said. In his view, a crisis is a point in a story, a moment in a narrative, that presents an opportunity for characters to think their way through a problem. A catastrophe, on the other hand, is something different: it is one of several possible outcomes that follow from a crisis. “We’re at the point of crisis on the Colorado,” Pulwarty concluded. “And it’s at this point that we decide, O.K., which way are we going to go?”
posted by salvia at 9:03 AM on October 27, 2007


"Tell me where they’re supposed to go. Seriously. Every community says, ‘Not here,’ ‘No growth here,’ ‘There’s too many people here already.’ ... We have an exploding human population, and we have a shrinking clean-water supply. Those are on colliding paths."

Sure sounds like it's about time to give some priority to doing whatever is possible to help slow down population growth. I expect it will become more of a political issue everywhere in the next decade or two as global demand for food exceeds the supply.

Already there are 120 people for every square mile of land on the planet, including deserts, mountains, arctic tundra, and parking lots. Seems a bit crowded to me, but then I've always liked to have some personal space.
posted by sfenders at 2:38 PM on October 27, 2007


Yeah, no offence salvia. I ain't no expert so I shouldn't get so preachy. But I reckon it's such a no-brainer.

I'm with all the pessimists in this thread.

Here are some Midnight Oil lyrics from over 20 years ago. It's more about irresponsible land clearing than overpopulation. It's a great song. The words by themselves don't do it justice.

When the Spinifex hit Sydney it was the last thing we expected
When the desert reached the Gladesville we tried to tame it
When the emus grazed at Pyrmont it suddenly dawned on us all
High and mighty the world was silent the door was shut!


1. The lead singer is running for Federal Parliament and could very well be the next Minister for the Environment. Some people are saying he has sold out and is already kissing ass to big business to ensure he wins.

2. Spinifex is a desert plant in Oz.

posted by uncanny hengeman at 5:51 PM on October 27, 2007


No offense taken, uncanny hengemen, just a difference of opinion. And I just noticed I misspelled your name above -- sorry.
posted by salvia at 8:06 AM on October 28, 2007


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