Opinion: Water Wars

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By Peter Chow

The Ogallala Aquifer is one of the world’s largest aquifers, underlying eight states, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas.

Primarily used for irrigation, the aquifer is critical to the West and Midwest, where agriculture represents a huge chunk of the economy.

The aquifer is running dry – it has decreased by more than 50 feet, a decline of more than 60 million acre-feet since 1969. An acre-foot of water is the equivalent of 1 acre of surface area covered by water 1 foot deep – 325,853 gallons. That 60 million-acre-foot decline in the Ogallala Aquifer equates to about 20 trillion gallons of water.  Wells all across the Midwest and West are starting to run dry.

When you turn on your faucet in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, or California, you are probably drawing water from the Colorado River.

From its source high in the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River channels water south nearly 1,500 miles, through deserts and canyons, to the lush wetlands of a vast delta in Mexico and into the Gulf of California.

That is, it did so for six million years.

Today, the mighty Colorado River comes to a dribble and ends some 60 miles north of the sea.

Beginning in the 1920s, Western states began divvying up the Colorado’s water, building dams and diverting the flow hundreds of miles, to Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas and other fast-growing cities. The river now serves 60 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico, with 70 percent or more of its water siphoned off to irrigate 3.5 million acres of cropland.

The damming and diverting of the Colorado, the nation’s seventh-longest river, may be seen by some as a triumph of engineering but by others as a crime against nature.

Boaters still roar across Nevada and Arizona’s Lake Mead, 110 miles long, formed by the Hoover Dam and supplying Las Vegas’ and Arizona’s water needs. But at the lake’s edge they can see lines in the rock walls, distinct as bathtub rings, showing the water level far lower than it once was—some 130 feet lower, since 2000.

Climate change will decrease the Colorado River’s flow by 40 percent in the next 40 years. Increased disappearance of ice and snow with global warming in the Rocky Mountains will yield less water to begin with. Droughts will last longer. Higher overall air temperatures will mean more water lost to evaporation.

Experts are no longer talking about a temporary (if prolonged) state of drought in the Colorado River Basin: they refer now to a permanent state of aridification.

Demand for the Colorado River’s water has outstripped supply for the past two decades.

This deficit threatens the freshwater supply of some 60 million people and the food security of the whole nation: water from the Colorado River is used to grow 90 percent of the nation’s winter vegetables.

The Colorado River Basin drives a $1.4 trillion economy—if the 242,000-square-foot basin were its own country, it would be the world’s seventh largest by economic output. But providing freshwater to growing cities and farms carved out of an unforgiving landscape (around 70 percent of the river’s water is used for irrigation) is unsustainable.

Inevitably, the US will look to the Great Lakes.

Diversions of water from the Great Lakes are currently negligible. The major diversion so far is in the Chicago River, where the US Corps of Engineers has reversed the flow, diverting the water from Lake Michigan into the Mississippi.

However, an increasing number of droughts from global warming will result in more arid conditions in southern, central, and western US.   Moreover, the US population will swell by 50 percent – an additional 150 million people – in the next few decades, thus exacerbating water needs. As fresh water supplies are dwindling in the American West and South, states are under increasing pressure to divert water to dry parts of the country.

It is only a matter of when and it will likely be sooner rather than later.

The Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact (the Compact) bans large-scale diversions from the Great Lakes and establishes a consensus-based process for managing the region’s waters. It is a deal signed between the eight Great Lakes states and whose governing body includes Ontario and Quebec. The agreement aims to keep Great Lakes water from being diverted to areas far beyond the Great Lakes Basin, but it also requires that any water that is diverted be used to serve the public, and not industry.

Last year, a Wisconsin judge upheld the Foxconn decision, undermining the ‘Compact’ designed to prevent Great Lakes diversions. The judge upheld a decision by the State of Wisconsin to authorize a massive diversion of Lake Michigan water, 7 million gallons a day, by the Foxconn Corporation, a multi-national electronics manufacturing company, who would make liquid crystal displays, more commonly known as LCDs, in a factory just outside Racine, Wisconsin.

The decision threatens the integrity of the compact’s ban on diversions and is likely the beginning of diversion of massive amounts of water from the Great Lakes basin.

Canada’s looming water problem is set in the context of a global crisis. We’re not just water wealthy in Canada, but we live in what the United Nations has stated as being the best country in which to live. Consider the serious droughts in Jordan, Syria (and its extreme violence), India, Brazil and North Korea, to name just a few countries.

Nevertheless, succumbing to future pressure from the United States to allow companies and states access to Canada’s water resources is a slippery point from which no return will likely be possible.

This raises the acute need for national leadership, supported by provincial leadership. And it requires an engaged electorate and leadership from Canada’s business community as part of a coalition of interests to demonstrate the country’s intent and will to protect and preserve its water resources from the United States. Donald Trump, who has amply demonstrated an uncanny ability to appeal to the emotional instincts of Americans and steamroll over concerns of close allies, will make mincemeat of Canada’s attempt to save its water.

Forewarned is forearmed.

“Canada has probably one of the largest resources of fresh water in the world. Water is going to be — already is — a very, very valuable commodity and I’ve always found it odd that Canada is so willing to sell oil and natural gas and uranium and coal, which are by their nature finite. But talking about water is off the table, yet water is renewable.”

— Paul Cellucci (U.S. ambassador to Canada, 2001 to 2005)