“A nation that fails to plan intelligently for the development and protection of its precious waters will be condemned to wither because of its shortsightedness. The hard lessons of history are clear, written on the deserted sands and ruins of once proud civilizations.” -Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) 36th President of the United States,
Letter to the President of the Senate and to the Speaker of the House
Transmitting an Assessment of the Nation’s Water Resources, 18 Nov 1968
As the next generation of scientists and engineers, we are faced with the repercussions of enormous environmental exploitations throughout the last century. As we struggle to protect the Earth from global warming, seek to find alternative sources of energy to replace our diminishing supply of fossil fuels, and race to rescue the global economy, we cannot forget that our most precious resource, water, is being depleted at an alarming rate. The threat of an impending water crisis affects all individuals around the world and must be addressed immediately. It is our responsibility to plan now for the conservation of the current fresh water supply and seek new sources of water for the future. We need to find a sustainable solution that will save the global population from a massive water crisis and can be sustained for many years to come. Moreover, we must first address this crisis at home, in the arid region of western North America.
In the next century, the United States’ population is expected to increase dramatically from its current population of 300 million. By 2050, the population of California alone is expected to double its current 36 million. These trends can be seen across North America, and are especially troubling in the arid and semi-arid southwest where demand is applying increasing stress on water supply.
As demand for water supply continues to grow, water sources are being severely depleted. Groundwater in the western region of North America is being withdrawn from aquifers at a higher rate than it is being recharged. This is especially apparent in the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest aquifer in Western North America. At the current withdrawal rate, the Ogallala will soon be depleted, bringing the area’s largely agriculture-based economy to a halt. Urgent action is needed to avoid passing a ‘point of no return’ past which the capacities of these dependable, natural water containers are reduced.
Similarly, the Colorado River, on which the Southwest is heavily dependent for its fresh water supply, is overspent. The seven Colorado Basin States (AZ, CA, CO, NM, NV, UT and WY) currently use 21.1% of water withdrawn in the entire United States (85,970 out of 408,000 million gallons per day) [Hutson et al., 2004, 10]. This water is supplied by the Colorado River and has enabled water-demanding growths like urbanization, tourism, hydroelectric power generation and even irrigation in arid areas but is unsustainable at current levels.
Climate change is also contributing to water shortages by reducing precipitation and increasing evaporation. There has already been a two degree Fahrenheit (1.11¡C) increase in average temperature since 1976. Snow is far more manageable than other forms of water and can be allowed to melt gradually over a long time, ensuring year round supplies. The overland flow of the American Southwest relies on snow-melt but the above process is severely compromised by temperature fluctuations.
Human water requirements in the Southwest appear to have come to a fragile equilibrium, with the needs of industry, residents and agriculture carefully balanced against one another. Unfortunately this is not the case as the entire system depends on overusing our finite water resources. We are facing an extreme water crisis that can only be prevented when American individuals taking strong positive action backed by national policies.
As a class we were challenged to devise a solution to the imminent water crisis in western North America. Our multifaceted solution centers on altering people’s perception of water. Water can no longer be seen as an unlimited source, but must instead be thought of as a precious resource worth conserving. Our solution will focus on the different aspects of economic incentives, agriculture techniques, desalinization and recycled water usage and most importantly, showing people how to conserve water in everyday life.
One of the larger portions of our solution addresses the economics of water. We plan on implementing a revenue-neutral cap and trade system for water rights. This will allow better monitoring of the total water usage of the United States and will also encourage more efficient water usage. Currently, an individual living in the United States uses approximately 575 L of water per day. The UK, for example, uses only 150 L/capita/day (UN Human Development Report, 2006). Clearly, average water usage per person in the United States must be addressed. Our class has developed a cap and trade plan that encourages every individual to decrease their average daily water consumption to more sustainable levels. All money gained from the cap and trade system will be put back into the system in the form of poverty relief, new technology research and implementation, and public awareness campaigns.
Agriculture is another big aspect of our solution since agriculture uses the largest percentage of water in the United States. Our proposed plan includes cutting water subsidies, reducing beef consumption, implementing more efficient irrigation technologies, and crop shifting.
Investing in alternative recharge and purification systems is another one of our proposed solutions. We feel that there is a future in desalinization and effluent water treatment. However, more cost effective systems are needed to make these options feasible to implement on a large scale.
In addition, public awareness is a significant proponent of our class’ solution. Educating youth and exciting them about water conservation will radiate outwards and percolate downwards. Public awareness programs will raise interest in and knowledge about the water crisis. Our Save America’s Water Youth Competition will increase awareness of water’s value and its scarcity.
Reducing North America’s dependence on depleting groundwater was also forefront in our mind as we formulated our solution. Better aquifer monitoring, artificial recharge, and regulation of groundwater withdrawals are our proposed solutions and will be discussed in detail in our solution section. Our solution aims to strike the delicate balance between agricultural and environmental needs.
Addressing the current water crisis in Western North America is a major challenge facing our generation. If the United States continues on its current path, water will become scarcer and scarcer and the problem will escalate to a point of no return. Finding a solution to the water crisis is a critical issue that the Mission 2012 class hopes to shed light upon.