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The incredible shrinking water supply in the USA  RSS feed

 
Bryant RedHawk
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Over the last 17 years water has been diminishing in the USA. The Western States, who all get water from the Colorado River Basin, have seen a trend towards draught and thus their main water supply.
This is all because of not understanding the physical world properly.
These states all need water, they see the Colorado River as the place for all of them to get it. Lake Mead was created just for this purpose.
Formed by the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead is 112 miles (180 km) long when the lake is full, has 759 miles (1,221 km) of shoreline, is 532 feet (162 m) at greatest depth,
with a surface elevation of 1,221.4 feet (372.3 m) above sea level, and has 247 square miles (640 km2) of surface, and when filled to available capacity, 26.12 million acre feet (32.22 km3) of water.
The states involved; California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Montana, all get a piece of this water supply, with California being the heavy hitter.
These states have a big problem however, they are faced with the reduction of water contained in Lake Mead, which is now 141.36 feet shallower than it should be (full Pool).
The level is fast approaching 1000 feet (currently it is 1087.64), and when it gets there many people served by that water, will no longer have much if any to use.
When Lake Mead gets to 900 feet in depth, no one, not even California will be able to get any of that water, it simply won't be accessible.

The states are focused on water availability but have seemingly forgotten that Lake Mead also provides most of their electricity too, via Hoover Dam.
Lake mead, and the whole River Basin, is dependent upon large snow falls, that have been becoming smaller and smaller since the 1980's.
In 2015 the snow pack survey found that there was no snowpack in some areas.
While science is trying to understand the phenomenon of draught cycles, populations continue to expand, farms continue to irrigate to grow food for the whole country and world, and water rationing days increase.
The Colorado River flow gets smaller every year and Lake Mead continues to shrink.
What this means is that the western states are soon going to be facing power and water shortages like they have never experienced.

Mean while, farms continue to use outdated methods, wasteful water practices and don't seem to be trying to change, except in a few cases where the farms have gone to greenhouses for growing.
Many farms are using the ground water resource, which will not replenish in our life time. The water tables of all states are in the same situation, they are being used up faster than they can replenish.
This means wells have to be drilled deeper and deeper. To continue this method is madness, it will run out and when it does, sink holes will appear in places they are unknown to occur.

In this diminishing water scenario, cities use around 2% of the available water with the rest going to Agriculture.
This is the norm all over the USA. Meanwhile, waste water is flowed to the oceans instead of being treated to become potable water again.
Models being used fail to take into account evaporation, so the figures every state uses to develop contingency plans are inflated, this will lead to shortages not expected.

The up side is that permaculture techniques, which can address a lot of the current issued of Ag. water usage, will eventually begin to be paid attention to by the populace.
It is rather disturbing that in western states, water collection by home owners is regulated so much that the majority of people simply don't want to get into the expense of installing a system.

Currently most of the produce in all US Supermarkets comes from California and the other western states, with diminishing water availability prices at the super market will continue to rise.
When Lake Mead gets down to minimum pool, the west will change, Las Vegas will no longer have all those lights at night, many of the fountains will go dry and people will have to hope they can buy food.

I find the whole thing incredible, that people have to have water to survive is a truth of life, but we are very late at grasping the fact that water may not always be around for us to use.
This whole issue also can be looked at from the "feed the world" attitude many people have, how do you do that when you don't have the water needed to grow those crops?
It is far past time to be thinking more along the grow local foods for local people to consume model than just a few countries growing all the food for the world.
These same issues are cropping up in China and the other giant food producing countries, it will affect the planet and it won't take more than a few decades to be at the critical implosion point.

Redhawk
 
John Weiland
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Bryant R. or others,

This brings up an interesting question I was pondering recently.  Do maps of the US exist showing "water availability", either as snow-melt from snow-pack or from ground water?  What I'm envisioning is a color-varying map showing regions that have high versus low 'water availability', even if that water may be tied up in different ways (i.e., groundwater depth, water "rights", snow-pack versus springs, etc).  A desert region may get low rainfall, but perhaps some of these regions have an aquifer that resides below making it a better possibility for location versus another.  Likewise, a different region may have abundant groundwater, but of questionable quality due to man-made or other contaminants present within that water source.  Do you or others know of USGS maps or those from other organizations that take factors like this into account?  Thanks.

"I find the whole thing incredible, that people have to have water to survive is a truth of life, but we are very late at grasping the fact that water may not always be around for us to use."

Unfortunately, "out of sight --> out of mind" still rules.  Until the taps run dry, brown, or full of lead, nothing or little will be done with the exception of small pockets of insight or action through legislation.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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domestic water

USGS maps

National Geographics maps

world resources

USGS water survey

USGS water by region

These are some of the most reliable data resources I have John.

Legislators are not looking at the whole picture, they are focused only on the water supply as it pertains to human consumption.
Until the legislators get a grasp that this is far bigger than they can imagine, there will be no real solution through legislation, if there actually could be one.
The maps on global temperatures show that temps are rising everywhere, which also has an effect on water use by people and farms.

While there is no "easy solution", it seems that it is a problem where multi-faceted approach is definitely needed otherwise there will be no Water security.
Israel is one country that actually has addressed the problem well, they currently have water security because of their efforts in desalination plant constructions.
A proper approach for the USA will be a blend of collection, conservation and improved desalination on a region by region model.
Because of the conditions variations across the country, there isn't going to be a single best fit solution.

Redhawk
 
Kyle Neath
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Growing up and living in California, water has always been on my mind. The past five years have been an especially interesting learning experience as we've had a good stress test of our social and political systems with low snowpack years. One of the things that's struck me is how technically solvable many of our problems are, but how hopeless our efforts have been to solve them.

I think one of the best examples of this is the Glenn Canyon dam and Lake Powell, the nations second largest reservoir. I like to call it America's biggest engineering failure. Not only did the dam flood some of the most magnificent slot canyons in the world, it represents the largest loss of water on the Colorado, and fails to generate enough power to fund the dam's repair. This is because the engineers did not take into account the type of rock much of the lake sits on:

But it is not just the reservoir’s overuse that is causing it to shrink. More than 160 billion gallons of water evaporate off Lake Powell’s surface every year, enough to lower the reservoir by four inches each month. Another 120 billion gallons are believed to leak out of the bottom of the canyon each year into fissures in the earth — a loss that if tallied up over the life of the dam amounts to more than a year’s flow of the entire Colorado River. —  Unplugging the Colorado River


So to recap: destroys natural beauty, results in a net-loss of water, and fails to generate enough electricity to pay its own bills. This is one of those easy technical solutions: get rid of the dam, increase water supply, save money, and restore a natural treasure. But I do not think I will live to see this happen. There's just too much corruption and greed in our social/political systems. While the dam generally runs at a loss, it provides wealth to some, and that is enough to stop a good solution from going through.

Here in California, that problem is magnified by the fact that we do not have anyone in control of our water. While the governor can declare things like "farmers only get 65% of their allocation" — how do you think that allocation gets enforced? It's completely up to the farmer's themselves and private corporations like PG&E (who own most dams) to voluntarily comply (spoiler: they don't). Big Ag in California has leaned hard on water-thirsty crops like rice and almonds for this very reason. The companies know that they can get the water regardless of what regulations are in place. If push comes to shove, they make a deal with PG&E and they get the water they want. This happened a few dozen times last year, and resulted in millions of dead fish as PG&E drained reservoirs.

As an engineer, I want to say our future is hopeful. Yes, our weather is changing and that's having a dramatic effect on our snowpack. But we still get plenty of water, even for those almonds. There are plenty of solutions to our problems. But then I talk to my state representatives and I want to cry. On the right, they claim we are "flushing water into the ocean" and favor killing all river life in order to prop up agriculture needs. My current representative sees no reason that the Sacramento river should reach the ocean. On the left, they claim that all dams are works of pure evil and we should let rivers run wild again, and that it's all the fault of people washing their cars in Los Angeles. Both these viewpoints are sufficiently insane that engagement is futile. Our social/political structures are not in any kind of shape to solve these problems.

My solution? Seek higher elevations. Get upstream. Be in a place where I don't have to rely on others doing the right thing.
 
Kyle Neath
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John: Here in California the two most useful maps I know of are the reservoir levels and snow water equivalent maps.
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Bryant RedHawk
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hau Kyle,  I too grew up mostly in California (8 years total in Sacramento, 2 years in L.A.). In the 1960's deals were made for the farmers to get all the water they said they needed.
I have not noticed the state changing them from priority number one and don't really see that happening, ever. California makes too much revenue from farming as a whole.

I know solutions are out there, it is getting those who have the "power" to see the entire scope of the issue that has been the problem.
Humans are prone to "fast fix" solutions, always going for the path of least resistance.
Times are dictating a different mind set is needed.

In 1970 the state was all gung ho on putting a Nuclear power plant in Petaluma, a bunch of my colleges and I protested strongly to the legislature.
We provided scientific proof that the outflow from such a plant would decimate the ocean organisms in a far greater area than the power companies reports suggested.
We were shoved aside because those elected officials were more interested in the jobs such a plant would provide.

Redhawk
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Kyle, do you have current info on how much of the needs of California those reservoirs supply?
Water from Out of State is currently over 4.4 million acre feet so I am curious of how much water California needs in reality vrs. what they take from the out of state reservoirs.

Redhawk
 
Kyle Neath
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I can't say I've found that information before. I do know that 30 to 46% of our water comes from groundwater reserves and the rest comes from "surface water". I suspect in Southern California some of this comes from out of state, but I'm less familiar with watersheds outside the Sierras. USGS does have pretty detailed water use data which gives pretty accurate numbers for use.

Personally, I'm less worried about out-of-state withdrawals (the Sierras are an incredible water harvesting machine and I suspect the vast majority of our water comes from them) and far more worried about unchecked groundwater pumping. In recent years we've gotten much better at measuring the subsidence (amount the ground is sinking) w/ better satellites and the results are terrifying. In the image attached below, you can see that some areas south of Fresno dropped TWO FEET between May 2015 and September 2015. At some point, these aquifers are going to run out. Given that we pump 2-3x the amount of water that the entire public uses from the ground, that's going to dramatically redefine our "needs" whenever that happens.
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Bryant RedHawk
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Yes I am aware of the ground water reserves being used up at an alarming rate, that seems to be happening all over too. Texas has reduced its ground reserves over the last 20 years to a point of the remaining aquafers being low enough as to require deep wells where before this deep drilling was not required. Texas has also put restrictions on number of gallons pumped per well according to some friends in the western badlands.  I am concerned that the current "since we have it lets use it" mind set is going to have consequences so dire that we will drop from being a world producer of foods, China is in this same boat from what I have found out.

Most of the elected officials I have talked with don't seem too concerned except in the western states, most feel like it is not as big a problem as reports make it out to be.

It will come to the point that people will scramble to find water, then, once they have used that up, they might get around to water sequestering in the soil.
On my farm we do little irrigation, the rains soak down and the water is held there, making us rather draught proof. Last year we used far less irrigation than those around us. This year I hope to do even better.
We also do rain collection from the roofs of our buildings which provides over 1/2 the water required for our animals. As I add more tanks, that number will go up with the end goal of being water independent. 

Redhawk
 
Tyler Ludens
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:
I know solutions are out there, it is getting those who have the "power" to see the entire scope of the issue that has been the problem.


I feel the power lies with people, and that much of the solution can be tackled on a small scale.  Not counting on those in power to do something, but all of us doing something.

https://www.harvestingrainwater.com/



http://www.watershedartisans.com/Erosion_Control_Field_Guide.pdf
 
John Weiland
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Thanks for the map links above.  Completely by accident, we wound up in a region with abundant clay and fertile soil as well as rainfall and ground water (at least for now).  Funny though,.....we recently were visited by a 95 year-old who had grown up in our house, built in 1915.  When we inquired why one of the old junk piles was on the other side of the river he replied "You know....the dry years, ....when we just walked across the dry riverbed with the junk..."
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Hi John, funny you mention "the Dry Years"  Here in Arkansas, prior to the River Navigation System of Locks and Dams on the Arkansas River, it would run dry enough for wagons to be used to cross the river bed.

I have a photograph from 1915 that shows five wagons doing this, along with around 100 people walking from one bank to the other.

Even the Mississippi River can and has run low, It is also a provider of water, for many states, with the current climatic disruptions from what we know as "normal" it is possible that the mighty River could have reduced flow rates between flooding events.
It was not but a few years ago that Florida experienced massive numbers of Sink Holes coming up from a draught period of only one or two years.
Since no one is prepared for what will come, many people will find themselves affected by the previous bad water conservation habits all the years of plenty have created. That is the problem we face here in the Land of Plenty.

Redhawk
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Great Thread (as always), Bryant.
It is far past time to be thinking more along the grow local foods for local people to consume model than just a few countries growing all the food for the world. 
Indeed. 
I have to say that growing up and living where I do (Central B.C. Coastal Rainforest, or Inland Rainforest respectively), I was educated young that we don't take water for granted, even in abundance, but the more important point is that the majority of our food comes from California, and we need to be growing this food locally, and doing it appropriately with permaculture to increase water retention in the soil and aquifers.

There are only two things that can solve the water problem.  An Ice Age or permaculture

The continents have been slowly drying out since the last Ice Age; after which the ice melted to massive lakes, and these became wetlands and these became prairies and forests.  We (Eurocentric/non permacultural thinkers, I mean) removed the beavers (the fur trade), the bison (for sport and to clear the land of unwanted nuisance) , and the trees (for building, paper, and because they were in the way), and then expect the land to just put up with continuous extraction, depletion, and erosion and a pattern of endless growth.  Well, it shouldn't take an Indigenous American Agrologist to point this out to us, it's staring everybody in the face, if only we as a collective mass would open our eyes. 

I personally believe with permaculture on the grand scale, we could reverse this trend, and at least bring it back to something resembling the pre-colonial times as far as water retention.

Not only did the dam flood some of the most magnificent slot canyons in the world,
  Another important group of things that were flooded in Glen Canyon were a large number of Ancient Indigenous Village sites, which may have held treasures in the information on how to live properly on the landscape.



 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau Kola, funny you should mention Glenn Canyon, most of the big dams submerged lots of historical sites.

We have the knowledge to live properly on the land, we just have to get people to see the need to do it.

For now, the more people that turn to rain collection, increase water retention in their soils, reduce waste of potable water, the better.
If we can get the commercial farms to follow, all the better, when you study the big wasters of water most of the time farms are in front, from bad irrigation practices mostly.
Sprinklers only get about 1/2 of the water used down into the ground, the other half is either runoff or evaporation, both not good for water conservation.

Just a couple of years ago, the indigenous people of Northern California took a valley and rejuvenated it via the old ways.
In that process they met with a ton of opposition, because "science" didn't agree with their methods.
Once it was completed, science had to admit it worked just as we knew it would.

Perhaps part of the current problem is believing that science has all the answers or can find them through the scientific method.
As a scientist, I have found that most of the time scientific method is not really followed by scientist, they want to prove their point, not find the facts, that leads to "fudging" or slanting the experiment so their point is proved.
Science is probably to rigid for the Earth Mother, she uses a multi-tiered approach to all things, diversity is her mantra as she works in many different ways but always reaches the same end, abundant life.

Redhawk
 
Steven Kovacs
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:
Just a couple of years ago, the indigenous people of Northern California took a valley and rejuvenated it via the old ways.
In that process they met with a ton of opposition, because "science" didn't agree with their methods.
Once it was completed, science had to admit it worked just as we knew it would.


Bryant, that is fascinating (and hopeful!)  Is this the Coachella valley?  Do you know of any good articles that cover what the tribe did to rejuvenate the valley?  Stories like this could open and change minds.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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I believe it was the Tachi Yokut Tribe, that took a Northern California mountain valley that was not holding any water at all from logging disruptions over many years.
The area was a disaster, nothing was growing and the runoff was taking what little was left. The State had tried various methods with out success.
The Tribe took it upon themselves, without sanction of the government, that is what got attention.
There were several lawsuits over it.
I think that NOVA did a story, but I am not certain.
The Tribal news had a short blurb, but I don't currently have that article in my possession.

The valley now has the wetlands and pre-forest plants back as they were when the tribe managed the valley previously.
Beaver are back, deer are back, trees are growing again as are meadows.
The water soaks into the soil and the soil is fertile again.
The Tribe started with the creek and worked backwards up the mountain.


Redhawk
 
John Weiland
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:
As a scientist, I have found that most of the time scientific method is not really followed by scientist, they want to prove their point, not find the facts, that leads to "fudging" or slanting the experiment so their point is proved.
Science is probably to rigid for the Earth Mother, she uses a multi-tiered approach to all things, diversity is her mantra as she works in many different ways but always reaches the same end, abundant life.

Redhawk


Yeah, I agree with the notion that bad scientists and good lawyers are cut from the same cloth:  They both are trying to prove a point that serves some agenda other than the 'truth', blurry as that word can be sometimes.  It reminds me of discussions had with many retired physicians who have noted that most back problems do not require surgery....they just require rest, time, and a judicious rehab effort.  But employers (and hospitals!) don't like that plan....they will say "We provide you with good health insurance....go get the surgery and get back here to work ASAP!..."  So the surgical agenda is often pushed even when observation suggests it is not needed.

Right now lots of hand-wringing over Minnesota's new "Buffer Strip Law" requiring 50 ft of buffer zone along streams and lakes: http://dnr.state.mn.us/buffers/index.html
This is going to be interesting to watch in our region where some growers have been observed in the past to ditch right down to a river bank to drain their fields.  Let's hope that law stays in place and even gets more rigorous with time.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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I would like to see all states invoke something like that, at least it gives a little relief, even better would be to require those buffer zones to be mycoremediation/ reed filter beds. That would go much further in reduction of contaminates making it to the water way.
 
Kyle Neath
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I feel the power lies with people, and that much of the solution can be tackled on a small scale.  Not counting on those in power to do something, but all of us doing something.


Tyler, as much as I would love to believe this, in California it's just not a practical way of thinking. The basic problem: people only use 15% of all our water (wherein "people" also includes retail & commercial users). If every single person in California were to stop using water completely, we would still be pumping 10-30% of our water out of non-renewable groundwater sources, as well as all of the water in our current reservoirs. If every person in California refused to buy any produce from Big Ag, that also wouldn't have an impact. We export most of our food around the world.

Personally, I feel the only individual action that can have an effect is to vote and engage with your state legislature. We need to reshape the power structures to get this problem in check. We need to reshape what Big Ag looks like with power, because Big Ag has no reliance on us.

But that's also my source of hope. We have tremendous leverage of this problem because it is so isolated in Big Ag. If we could reduce their water usage by 50%, we could stop pumping groundwater entirely.  Driving around and seeing so many factory farms and bare dirt orchards, I don't think 2x water efficiency would even be that technically difficult to achieve. Maybe some day California will live up to its projected image as a protector of the environment and bastion of sustainability. But until that day, I'll keep writing letters and calling representatives.
 
Devin Lavign
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:Humans are prone to "fast fix" solutions, always going for the path of least resistance.


Sadly your right. I fear the fast fix will end up being a lot of the CA farmers moving up to the Willamette Valley of OR, where water is less an issue. While not all the CA crops can be grown further north in OR, plenty of them can and I suspect as soon as this is realized by them they will start buying up the farm land up there and moving operations there. Right now the Willamette valley is amazing agriculture land that is mostly used to grow grass seed. Yep, some prime agriculture land used to grow the grass seed that keeps producing all those waste of space lawns going.

I suspect in the next 5-10 yrs we will see a migration of CA farmers to the Willamette Valley. But will they have learned from the mistakes they made in CA? Probably not. They will repeat the same failed practices for the most part, and start the cycle of wasting water once again.
 
John Weiland
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Just adding this link here.....please move it if it needs a better home:  http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/04/new-solar-powered-device-can-pull-water-straight-desert-air

"You can’t squeeze blood from a stone, but wringing water from the desert sky is now possible, thanks to a new spongelike device that uses sunlight to suck water vapor from air."
 
No. No. No. No. Changed my mind. Wanna come down. To see this tiny ad:
FT Position Available: Affiliate Manager Who Loves Permaculture & Homesteading
https://permies.com/t/69742/FT-Position-Affiliate-Manager-Loves
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