“The West’s most important water supply is drying up. Soon, life for 40 million people who depend on the Colorado River will change.”
That’s the headline from this past week’s Denver Post. Well, what the hell happened to my dear old Mighty Colorado and why didn’t anyone warn me? “We thought we could engineer nature… huge mistake,” says the general manager of the Colorado River District.
They did warn us. Huge mistake they say, but it’s been coming for at least two decades, as we watched Lake Mead drop lower and lower and lower
Oh, sorry ‘bout that, I guess I wasn’t paying attention.
Don’t apologize, it’s not really your fault, there’s a lot to worry about these days and we all have to pay the bills and keep the home-fires burning.
Our water management in the United States is a matter of politics, both local and national. Politicians take the short view, which is why they’re short-sighted, short on ideas, terribly short on intellectual courage and always short on solutions. Short on morals as well, as they can only see as far as the next election and promises are cheaper than listening to all those experts that work for the government. Experts don’t put any money in their pockets.
Access to clean water and air, as well as plans to decrease wildfires and floods, keep the electric grids in good shape and oversee industrial agriculture are all long-term responsibilities. That’s tiresome and a headache to contemplate. Don’t look for any creative thinking from politicians—it’s not their circus, not their monkey. Winston Churchill once said, “You can always depend upon Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve exhausted all other possibilities.”
But hey, I’m one of those 40 million. What am I supposed to do?
Well, I guess you have to hope someone will finally listen, after lettuce production in California and Arizona ceases to exist and we all go back to root-vegetables. As smart as we are and as accurately as scientists predict our ignorance, we are a nation that responds to disaster and gives not a shit about preventing it. Even there, we’re not very fast-on-the-draw. When houses in California burn down every year, we build them again in the same place every year and wait for them to burn down again every year.
But diverting the Mississippi River westward isn’t a solution
That’s just a way to kill another great river that’s already in decline and serving too many masters. The problem is that we simply use more water than falls out of the sky or melts out of the mountains. You can’t blame the sky or the mountains for that. Yet for decades we drew down the aquifers that took millions of years to form and took way too much water from the Colorado River, for way too many purposes, across way too many states and are somehow surprised that Lake Mead, Lake Powell and all the western watersheds have given up on us.
Or, did we somehow give up on them?
Oh shit, could that be?
Yeah, I’m afraid so. If you’re twenty years old today, Lake Mead began to drop from its normal levels before you were born. And we watched it happen. Those magnificent ancient aquifers dropped as well—slowly, ever so slowly that an eager politician breathlessly seeking re-election and looking under the rug for a campaign contribution or two hardly noticed.
But hey, there’s hope. We’re Americans, and hope is more of a mantra for us than dedicated purpose
You never heard a politician run on dedicated purpose, did you? “Ladies and gentlemen, my friends and neighbors, if you choose to elect me, I promise you eight glowing years of unending dedicated purpose.”
“Wuzzat? What the hell did they say, Martha? Man, I want some hope that the plant won’t close and there’s turkey for Thanksgiving, and, and…?”
Well, brothers and sisters, have I got news for you. There is hope
You probably haven’t been told this since grade school, but this planet upon which we live is 71% water-covered, and the oceans hold about 96.5 percent of all Earth's water. That water’s closer to California than the Mighty Mississippi. And it’s free. We know exactly how to reclaim this free ocean-water—and make it drinkable for humans, other animals, lettuces and carrots.
As an example, Saudi Arabia is the largest producer of desalinated water in the world. In 2011 the volume of water supplied by the country's 27 desalination plants at 17 locations was 3.3 million m3/day (1.2 billion cubic meters a year). Okay, that might take 60 years to top up Lake Mead, if there were no other source.
But of course there is another source, which is the tired, but still partially reliable Colorado River. The past two decades of shortages proved the Colorado insufficient. But we don’t need to replace the Colorado, merely make up the insufficiency—so it’s a building process, no doubt way short of 60 years.
This is not a new and unknown process
Tampa, Florida has been desalinating Gulf water since 2007, providing a drought-proof, alternative water supply that provides 25 million gallons of drinking water per day to the region. Its desalination plant has provided more than 26 billion gallons of clean, safe drinking water to the Tampa Bay region since the plant went online.
Drinking and irrigation water is both a current and continuing international crisis. We either damn well solve it, or give up on the human experiment. We know how to do that.
We don’t need 27 desalinization plants like the Saudis have. We need 270 at a minimum
The damned things are expensive—so who’s going to pick up the bill for that? The government could print the money tomorrow afternoon and not be out a nickel. But everyone’s immediate response is that that’s inflationary!
Well it’s damned well not. Now pay attention for a moment. When government prints money for expendables, like social programs and such, it’s inflationary because there’s no useful product remaining at the end. We still do that because there’s a useful societal benefit, but we have to be careful with such things and usually support them by increased taxes.
But when there is a product at the end, such as bridges and schools and Eisenhower’s interstate highway network, that’s what we call an asset—and investing in assets is non-inflationary because it makes you (or a country) richer.
Desalinization plants are a desperately needed asset
It might be well past time to get our ass in gear. We’ve already wasted half a century.
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