The War on Water Is a Very Real Crisis

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March 21, 2017 | 33,224 views

Story at-a-glance

  • In California expanding agriculture as well as urban growth is leading to increased pumping of groundwater that, in turn, is causing land to sink
  • If water prices continue to rise in the U.S., nearly 36 percent of Americans may be unable to afford water within the next five years
  • Plastic, along with pollution from industrial waste and the agriculture and aquaculture industries, is also adding to pressure from overfishing, leaving once-rich marine ecosystems largely depleted and struggling with dead zones

By Dr. Mercola

One of the hidden costs of industrial agriculture is its intensive water usage. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), about 80 percent of U.S. consumptive water (and more than 90 percent in many Western states) is used for agricultural purposes.1

Only about 3 percent of the water on Earth is fresh water, which is dependent on rain for replenishment. Fresh water stored in aquifers, meanwhile, is being increasingly depleted, at a rate that cannot be naturally restored.2

In some areas, pollution has left water largely undrinkable while industry (often the same ones responsible for the pollution) is draining underground aquifers at alarming rates. Irrigation is necessary to grow crops (including alfalfa hay used primarily for cattle feed) in arid regions of the U.S., but experts say it's unsustainable.

Some farmers are responding by using new forms of irrigation technology and farming methods to improve water efficiency, but will it be enough to offset the impending water crisis?

Farmers Attempt to Use Less Water in the Southwest

Farmers in the Southwest are using methods such as laser-leveling technology, which ensures smooth fields to prevent water pooling, and cover crops to help reduce water usage.

However, strained aquifers, droughts and lack of verification of farmers' water usage is resulting in less-than-impressive gains. The Christian Science Monitor reported:3

"One way or another, farms are likely to have to keep getting more efficient with their water resources, as … drought years [become] more common in this region. Despite a wet winter in the West, the groundwater aquifers upon which farmers rely remain strained.

That will likely be the case for decades. Efforts to reduce water waste might need to come through policy.

Western water rights are awarded to users on a 'first come, first served' basis and typically require rights owners to use all their allocation to maintain their rights. On top of that, most states have incomplete data on groundwater or can't easily verify whether farmers are using more water than allowed."

Flood irrigation, which drenches fields with water, allowing the excess to run off into nearby streams, is one of the top water wastes and facilitates pollution.

While laser-leveling technology may help reduce waste, drip irrigation, which delivers water directly to roots of the plants, is much more efficient and could cut such water usage by 30 percent to 70 percent.4

Cover crops also help to enrich soil and reduce water waste, while other farmers are adding magnesium and clay to soil to help reflect sunlight and reduce the effects of the heat.5

Lawsuit Over Water Rights in Kansas

In the U.S. Midwest, meanwhile, corn and cattle are kings, but both require large amounts of water to be sustained.

This double blow to water supplies in the region has led to the rapid depletion of one of the most important water sources to Midwestern farmers — the High Plains Aquifer System, also known as the Ogallala aquifer.

It is this extensive underground aquifer that allowed farmers to grow crops in what was previously known as the "Great American Desert."

However, it's been estimated that within the next 50 years, 70 percent of the High Plains Aquifer System may be depleted.6 Already, many wells in southwestern Kansas are dry, putting strain on the region's farmers.

The state uses a "first-in-tie, first-in-right" water rights system, which means those who have owned wells the longest get first dibs on water. In 2012, a farmer filed a lawsuit alleging that his neighbor's pumping was impairing his own water supply. The farmer who filed the suit also held "senior" water rights over the neighbor.

In 2017, a judge ruled in the filing farmer's favor, calling for two wells to be shut down in order to protect the water rights of the plaintiff. Ultimately, however, the issue is one of too much demand for water and too little supply in return.

The Desert Sun cited Haskell County District Court Judge Linda Gilmore, who noted the area aquifer drops by an average of 6 feet every year while being naturally recharged at an estimated rate of 1 inch per year — or less.7

Pumping Groundwater Is Leading to Sinking Land in California

Meanwhile, in California expanding agriculture as well as urban growth are leading to increased pumping of groundwater that, in turn, is causing land to sink.

Richard Howitt, a professor emeritus of agricultural and natural resource economics at the University of California, Davis, described underground groundwater as "the reserve bank account."8

However, anyone living in the state can drill a well in their backyard. With water becoming more scarce, a drilling company in Fresno, California, told NBC News they have a year-long backlog of customers waiting and are drilling deeper wells on properties, "taking water that hasn't been touched in millions of years."9

Land subsidence, or the sinking of the Earth's surface, has since become a serious problem in areas of California.10 In the San Joaquin Valley, an agricultural mecca, for instance, groundwater pumping has caused land to sink by one foot a year.

The resulting sinking is uneven, which means drops upstream or downstream can affect surface water canals that carry snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada to area farmers, essentially crippling the delivery of surface water that's available.11 The U.S. Geological Survey California Water Science Center explained:12

"Reduced surface-water availability during 1976-77, 1986-92, 2007-09, and 2012-2015 caused groundwater-pumping increases in the San Joaquin Valley, declines in water-levels to near or beyond historic lows, and renewed aquifer compaction.

The resulting land subsidence has reduced the freeboard and flow capacity of the Delta-Mendota Canal — as well as the California Aqueduct and other canals that transport floodwater and deliver irrigation water — requiring expensive repairs."

There are other risks of land subsidence as well, including damage to buildings and infrastructure and increased flood risk.

Mexico City Is Also Sinking and Struggling With Water Stress

Like areas of California, Mexico City, plagued with rising demand for water, high temperatures and drought, is struggling due to subsidence. The New York Times reported:13

"More heat and drought mean more evaporation and yet more demand for water, adding pressure to tap distant reservoirs at staggering costs or further drain underground aquifers and hasten the city's collapse.

In the immense neighborhood of Iztapalapa — where nearly [2] million people live, many of them unable to count on water from their taps — a teenager was swallowed up where a crack in the brittle ground split open a street. Sidewalks resemble broken china, and 15 elementary schools have crumbled or caved in."

An estimated 20 percent of the city's residents also lack a reliable water supply from their tap. These people depend on water trucked in via delivery trucks at a price that's often much higher than what residents in wealthier neighborhoods pay.

Even then, residents may have to wait days (even 30 days) for water deliveries, and must plan their lives around being home when the truck arrives, lest the delivery be canceled. Mireya Imaz, a program director at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told the Times:14

"Women in Iztapalapa can spend all night waiting for the pipas, then they have to be home for the trucks, and sometimes they will ride with the drivers to make sure the drivers deliver the water, which is not always a safe thing to do.

It becomes impossible for many poor women to work outside the home. The whole system is made worse by corruption."

Nearly 36 Percent of Americans Could be Unable to Afford Water in Five Years

Water affordability is a serious problem in the U.S. as well. A new report from Michigan State University suggests that if water prices continue to rise in the U.S., nearly 36 percent of Americans may be unable to afford water within the next five years.15 The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that water and wastewater should account for no more than 4.5 percent of household income, but nearly 12 percent of U.S. households may surpass this level. The report found:16,17

"Mississippi has the highest concentration of 'high-risk' areas with families that make less than $32,000 and cannot afford water bills. Southern states dominate the "high-risk" list, though Ohio ranks ninth and Michigan ranks 12th. Further, water rates have increased 41 percent since 2010, and if they continue at that pace over the next five years the number of households that cannot afford water and wastewater services could soar to an estimated 40.9 million, or 35.6 percent of all households."

Farm Runoff and Pollution Has Tainted the Mississippi River

The Mississippi River was named the second-most polluted waterway in the U.S. in 2012,18 but it still maintained swatches that were considered to be relatively pristine, particularly in the Upper Mississippi in Minnesota.

However, hundreds of miles of forest, marshes and grasslands in the area have been lost to agriculture (mostly corn, soy and potato fields) and urban development in recent years. As a result, the natural areas that played a part in keeping the Upper Mississippi pristine are being quickly lost.

Remember, what is upstream will travel downstream, so pollution in this area — the headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi — will quickly become pollution throughout much of the U.S. Among the environmental assaults already being seen include increased nitrate contamination in drinking water, which is the result of fertilizer pollution. Park Rapids, Minnesota spent $3 million to dig deeper wells due to nitrate contamination.

It's estimated that 10 percent of private drinking wells in the area may have nitrate levels that pose dangers to pregnant women and infants.19

In a report released by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, they noted, "It's hard to overstate the river's importance as a drinking water source to millions of Minnesotans and (other) Americans downstream."20 The PCA identified the major threats facing the upper Mississippi in northern Minnesota, including:21

There Were 295 Chemical Spills From Trains Into the Mississippi River in 2015

The U.S. Coast Guard manages, and the EPA uses, the National Response Center database to track oil and chemical spills.22 It listed 295 chemical spills from trains into the Mississippi in 2015, for instance, which is noteworthy because more than half of them do not contain information on the amount spilled.

This omission of data is not unusual, unfortunately. As Reveal of The Center for Investigative Reporting stated, the database also lists "0" as the amount of metam sodium, a pesticide, spilled into California's Sacramento River due to a train accident in 1991. The disaster actually contaminated the river with 19,000 gallons of the toxic chemical.23

Lark Weller, water quality coordinator with the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, called the lack of data concerning, noting "it's sort of difficult to get information" from rail companies after spills, even though they're required to report such data to the Coast Guard. According to Reveal:24

" … [F]ive spills alone dumped nearly 190,000 gallons of toxic chemicals into the upper portion of the Mississippi. Chemicals flow downstream toward the Gulf of Mexico until a response team arrives at the scene.

… Weller is a lead author of the 2016 State of the River Report, an assessment of the Mississippi and its ecosystem published in September. The report found the greatest source of chemical contamination to the Mississippi is agricultural runoff. Although train spills are also a source, Weller said her team doesn't receive much information regarding this means of pollution, including spill volumes."

Tiny Pieces of Plastic Are Polluting the Ocean

In addition to chemicals, it's estimated that 165 million tons of plastic are polluting the world's oceans, but when you calculate microplastic, the kind that's found deep beneath the surface, the number is probably far higher.25 Plastic trash is of particular concern, as bits and pieces of plastic are mistaken for food by birds and sea animals.

Debris in the ocean also blocks sunlight from which plankton and algae sustain themselves, and this has negative implications on up the food chain as it eventually becomes micronized and winds up in some of the seafood you eat. Also, once in the waterways, plastic particles also act like sponges for waterborne contaminants such as PCBs, pesticides like DDT, herbicides, PAHs and other persistent organic pollutants.

This phenomenon makes plastics far from benign, and scientists have yet to determine the full extent of the dangers posed by their consumption, or the effects higher up the food chain — which is where you are. As noted by Scientific American:26

"The worry now is these tiny toxic pieces of plastic may affect more than just fish — possibly causing cancer in humans, altering our hormones and maybe even killing us. 'In a little more than 60 years, we know we've littered more than 150 million tons of plastic into the oceans,' says Henrik Beha Pedersen, founder and president of the Danish nonprofit Plastic Change.

'Where does it all end up? Is it in the fish? Is it in the birds? Is it on the beaches? Is it on the deep-sea floor? Where has all the plastic gone? Is it in us, us humans?'"

Plastic, along with pollution from industrial waste and the agriculture and aquaculture industries, is also adding to pressure from overfishing, leaving once-rich marine ecosystems like the Bay of Bengal in India largely depleted and struggling with dead zones. The Guardian reported:27

"What is unfolding in the bay is a catastrophic convergence of flawed policy, economic over-exploitation, unsustainable forms of waste management, and climate change impacts that are intensifying in unpredictable ways.

The scientists who identified the bay's dead zone warn that this stretch of ocean is approaching a tipping point that will have serious consequences for the planet's oceans and the global nitrogen cycle. Should the bay's fisheries collapse there will also be very serious human consequences, including intensified conflict and mass displacement."

A Simple Way to Conserve Water

It's going to take change on a global scale — to industry, agriculture and public policy — to stop the water pollution that's already taking a health and environmental toll, but you can also act on an individual level to help the problem and protect yourself. For starters, choose organically grown foods, which are grown without the synthetic fertilizers that are now devastating so many waterways.

In addition, it's best to assume yours is less than pure and take steps to remedy it, such as using a high-quality water filtration system (unless you can verify the purity of your water). If you have well water, it would be prudent to have your water tested for nitrates and other contaminants. If you have public water, you can get local drinking water quality reports from the EPA.

To be certain you're getting the purest water you can, filter the water both at the point of entry and at the point of use. This means filtering all the water that comes into the house, and then filtering again at the kitchen sink and shower. In addition, adding a rain barrel or two to your backyard is a simple way to help conserve water. This is simply a large container that you use to capture stormwater (that would otherwise be lost to runoff) from your roof.

The collected rain water should not be used for drinking water unless you filter it as it is contaminated with pollutants, but you can easily collect thousands of gallons of water in a season — plenty for watering your flower beds and vegetable garden. Be sure you choose a natural material, such as food, for your rain barrel, as plastic versions have chemical-leaching issues.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 USDA, Economic Research Service, Irrigation & Water Use, Overview
  • 2 Pacific Institute February 4, 2014
  • 3, 5 The Christian Science Monitor March 3, 2017
  • 4 The Economist November 5, 2016
  • 6 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences August 26, 2013
  • 7 The Desert Sun February 2, 2017
  • 8, 9, 11 NBC News July 15, 2014
  • 10, 12 USGS, California Water Science Center, USGS
  • 13, 14 The New York Times February 17, 2017
  • 15, 16 Michigan State University January 11, 2017
  • 17 Truthout January 28, 2017
  • 18 St. Louis Post-Dispatch March 22, 2012
  • 19 Star Tribune October 2, 2016
  • 20, 21 Duluth News Tribune January 25, 2017
  • 22 U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center
  • 23, 24 Reveal February 6, 2017
  • 25, 26 Scientific American February 1, 2017
  • 27 The Guardian January 31, 2017