Water: managing a precious resource

In North America, we take water availability for granted. This may not be our future.

One of our greatest challenges over the next several decades will be meeting our water needs, whether globally or in the USA. We can live with less oil or coal, find alternative fuels, or develop new technologies. Not so with water, an element vital to sustaining food production and keeping ourselves alive. Though as humans we can be a narcissistic lot, the truth is we’re composed of up to 90% water.

I was reminded of this fact several weeks ago after a three day bout with the stomach flu, with all its unpleasant symptoms. One of the first things you learn is to replace lost fluids quickly and amply. If you don’t, you risk dehydrating and its ultimate consequences, kidney damage and even shutdown.

When Americans think of drought, they probably think of Africa, certainly in the news lately and in past decades with its devastating water shortages. The reality is that what Africa is experiencing is becoming increasingly apropos for earth’s more prosperous regions as well. Take Australia, for example. Sydney draws its water primarily from capacious water storage facilities, drawn from rainfall and held in check by dams. In fact, Sydney’s reservoirs exceed New York’s storage capacity 4:1. Even so, the water flow into Sydney’s nine dams fell 45% between 1996 and 2003. The situation, even now, remains critical. It hasn’t rained plentifully in New South Wales for a very long time.

In the U. S, particularly California and the Southwest, water sufficiency, always a problem for essentially desert regions, has become a gnawing challenge. Southern California depends for much of its water on Northern California, to the latter’s consternation, since it’s also become plagued with serious water shortages. Normally dependent on melting snowpacks from the mountains, this source is proving unreliable, with snow melting earlier before it can consolidate in yet another link with rising global temperatures. Elsewhere, while Los Angeles is certainly under threat, one of America’s fastest growing cities, Las Vegas, may well run out of water, and very soon.

Consider the Midwest. Beneath America’s agricultural heartland lies the Ogallah aquifer, stretching through eight states, South Dakota to Texas. Used as a primary irrigation source, it’s now seriously depleted through over pumping. We are producing agricultural bounties drawing on tomorrow’s water.

If I had time, I could explore with you the causes for increasing drought and, ironically, for some areas like my native New England, unprecedented rain and snow with ensuing floods such as Vermont recently encountered. I wish I also had time to explore proposed solutions such as building more dams, which actually create other dilemmas. My focus here is on conservation, the wise use of water to make it go round and last longer.

1. Get rid of your lawn, or, reduce it sharply.

A 2008 NASA study concluded that grass lawns in the U. S. exceed the entire land area of New York state. In fact, one third of our water use is spent on our lawns or, shockingly, 200 gallons of water per person, per day. Lawns can be replaced or reduced with native, drought-resistant grasses of short height, needing little water. Attractive ground covers such as Irish moss or creeping thyme can help do the job. You’ll save on your water bill while reducing gas mower pollution and insecticide run off as well.  If you’re a garden keeper, plant varieties of flowers and vegetable with lesser water needs.

2.  Install water barrels.

Think about this: an inch of rain falling on a 1000 square foot roof generates 600 gallons of water, which can then be used for your flowers and vegetables. I installed one last summer with a eighty gallon capacity and found it filled up after a brief shower. More and more communities are imposing restrictions on water usage and water rates have been rising as new treatment plants become needed. I’m hoping to plant several raised garden beds accessed to this barrel through a hose.

3.  Be conservative in using water in the house.

In buying water products such as shower heads, faucets and toilets, look for the EPA’s WaterSense label. You can find such products online at

If you’re planning to build a new home, a family of four can save up to 50,000 gallons of water annually in a certified WaterSense installation. That’s sufficient to do 2000 laundry loads a year and a savings up to $600 on water bills. Savings can also be had by confining washer/dryer purchases to Energy Star products. (Tankless water heaters, by the way, can save up to 20% in energy costs per year and don’t require periodic flushing.)

Repair dripping faucets promptly.

4.  If a city dweller, opt for a green roof.

All of the applications I’ve mentioned have business and industrial applications as well. In Chicago, green roof gardens are catching on, with some 200 now in existence, including City Hall. Green roofs provide not only space for growing vegetables, but capture storm water while simultaneously cooling the urban landscape.

5.  Stop eating meat.

This recommendation may surprise you, sounds crazy, and is least likely to be adopted, given our cultural biases. But I mention it anyway, just for the record. A recent study by the Agricultural Water Management indicated that cutting animal product use by just half would result in a national reduction of dietary water requirements of 261 billion cubic meters annually by 2025. To put this in perspective, this is the equivalent of 14 times the annual flow of the Colorado River.e ample

The point in all of this is that you and I can take steps now to assure we have ample water at minimal costs in a world where this will be a decreasing reality.

Lebensraum in Texas

On October 31, the United Nations Population Fund announced that world population had reached a watermark 7 billion.  This couldn’t come at a worse time, given global warming. Combined with diminishing economic and natural resources, it possibly heralds a doomsday scenario of accelerating species extinction, famine, and mass starvation.  Some would argue our demise has already begun, given the continuing rise in sea levels, devastating drought, and declining resources as more humans compete for their place at the table.  In the 19th Century, it was clergyman Robert Malthus who provided the first numerical analysis of exponential population growth, and he lived in a world not facing the spectre of climate change as the great complicator. 
For the most part, science has been able to keep Malthus at bay with its progress in developing new crops less impervious to insect and drought.  Such gains, however, have now slowed, given their inability to stay even, or ahead, of population growth.  Adding to this developing tragedy is its impacting the world’s neediest, those living in Africa or developing nations such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.  As I indicated in one of my first posts back in January, the unrest in North Africa has been essentially over rising food prices, now consuming up to a third of a family’s budget.  To the South, or African Horn, starvation threatens several million Somalis, Ethiopians, and Eritreans.
While Northern Hemisphere nations scramble for oil, the major crisis in resources, namely water availability, dwarfs all other resource challenges. By 2025, the International Water Management Institute projects that nearly 2 billion people will live in areas lacking sufficient water to sustain agriculture.  But this crisis will affect the wealthier nations as well.  In the U. S., the rich underground water table that feeds the generous corn and wheat bounties of the Midwest is dropping precipitously..  In Australia, huge areas, particularly near Perth in the west, once known for their wheat and vineyard harvests, haven’t seen rain in several years.  Less wheat and corn translates to less surplus available for third world nations.  While the wealthy nations will work out coping strategies, it’s the already poor who will suffer yet greater degradation. Uncurbed population growth exacerbates their suffering.
Not everyone agrees with the dismal portrayal I’ve given here.  In a lead Time Magazine article (Oct. 26, 2011), writer Bryan Walsh argues we have the resources to not only take care of 7 billion, but many more. Moreover, there’s good news on the birth control front. In 1950, the average woman had 5 children, now down to 2.5.  Present world population growth is just 1.1  a year. True, population continues its rapid rise in sub-Saharan Africa, but this is offset by their low impact on resources. “[The] real problem for the world is that each of the 300 million people in the U. S. consumes as much as 32 Kenyans do,” Walsh argues.
Personally, I think people like Walsh are living on another planet. More people means more environmental degradation in the form of carbon emissions, declining wildlife habitat and loss of fauna and flora, more competition for oil, gas, and, yes, food.  We may be able to feed ourselves now to the point of waste and obscene obesity, but this doesn’t help distressed populations in Africa and Asia.  Soon we will not even have sufficient grains to export and alleviate our guilt, or is it our complacency?  Have we forgotten the spectre of global warming that is fast changing the equation?
I have to laugh at those who argue like Walsh that we could fit the entire world population into Texas and wouldn’t exceed the density of New York City, a place he finds tolerable.  Personally, I shudder at the prospect of every place looking like Jersey or NYC. Has this guy ever been to India, a nation with just a third of China’s land size, yet destined to surpass China’s population in the next decade?
United Nations population projections (2010):
United States:  310m400m  478m 
Russia: 142m130m  110m  
Nigeria: 150m425m  740m 
China    1b,300m1b,200m  941m 
India    1b,225m1b,692m  1b,551m
Afghanistan 31m76m 111m 
Uganda  33m94m  171m 
Pakistan 174m275m261m
More people–more pollution, hunger, poverty, resource depletion, habitat loss, flora/fauna extinction, accelerated climate change.
Hot off today’s environmental news: Africa’s western Black rhino now officially declared extinct.
More:  25% of mammals now headed for extinction.
No problem:  We could fit the entire population of the world, both now and later, into Texas.  Hmm, wonder how Texans might feel about that.

Reflections on the Occupy movement

Yesterday marks a month ago that the Occupy Wall Street movement began. Modeled after the protests of what’s become known as the Arab spring, it seems to have taken its start from a Twitter post on July13 that slowly gathered interest via other Twitter posts and with numbers, momentum, spreading to other large American cities and, lately, to other parts of the world, particularly Europe. It remains a social media-driven phenomenon. One of its oddities is that it was initially fueled by environmentalists and organic food enthusiasts, among them vegans rather than by the Left. I’m one of those, so from the beginning, I have liked this movement.

As I see it, it’s primarily kindled by resentment that the wealthy along with corporations don’t pay their fair share of taxes and that the banks continue in their public-be-damned parochialism. As such, the movement claims to represent the 99.1 of us denied a place at the table.

One of its oddities is the lack of defined goals amidst a motley of mindsets ranging from far Left to Libertarians, including Tea Party advocates who share an antipathy towards banks, though not corporations, per se. As a whole, however, the occupiers see government as needing reform rather than dismantling.

This movement reminds me of the protests concurrent with the Vietnam War back in the 60s and early 70s, composed largely of young people. This comes as a surprise, as the present generation has been vastly silent, though not so in Europe and North Africa. But “the times are a changing,” given our economic doldrums, the worst since the Great Depression, with a stagnant 9.1 percent unemployed, a figure much higher among young people and minorities. In supposedly one of the richest nations in the world, growing poverty now engulfs more than 20% of our population. In some of our cities, nearly 40% of Blacks and Hispanic under 24 can’t find jobs. This is social dynamite that could escalate into the race riots we saw in the 60s.

Meanwhile, it’s business as usual on Wall Street. The banks that perpetrated our economic downturn, bursting the bubble their speculative greed had created, were
bailed out with huge cash infusions by the government, beginning with Bush but vastly accelerated under Obama. Our national indebtedness consequently has swelled, threatening to turn America into a Greece, Italy, or Ireland, unable to pay its bills. In an effort to keep the steam engine from derailing, we now see austerity measures, both local and national, exacerbating the job crisis. Meanwhile, there’s the continuing rampage of globalization with its consequence of out-sourced-jobs.

Fighting two questionable wars doesn’t help either, diverting huge sources of capital that are vitally needed to rekindle confidence in the economy, leading to job growth through increased consumer spending. You don’t make things better by laying off teachers, police and fire fighters, curtailing libraries, and closing parks.

The banks, of course, haven’t mended their ways. To get around some scrutiny measures recently passed by Congress, the banks have cunningly found ways to circumvent, inventing new income sources through initiating higher interest, fees, and restricted borrowing. Few couples have the 20% down payment required for most mortgage loans, crippling the housing industry which along with car sales, provides key impetus in encouraging a robust economy. The obscenity of huge CEO bonuses continues. Concurrently, they’ve gotten their paper work together and are now foreclosing on delinquent mortgages at a blitzkrieg pace. In short, it’s business as usual, the public be screwed.

Actually, there’s been this gargantuan transfer of wealth going on for some time, with the middle class its victims. The rich don’t pay their fair share of taxes, yet some 37% of Americans don’t pay any tax whatsoever, buttressed by numerous exemptions. It’s a vast simplicity to put all the blame on the wealthy. In fact, this poses one of the dangers for the Occupy movement: that it simply becomes a self-pitying indulgence in envy, rather than meaningful effort to ameliorate; a dangerous wedge masquerading class warfare.

This, of course, may hint at two other dangers, the offshoot of opportunists:

1. That the movement will become politicized by a political party and/or trade unions. This would dilute the movement’s effectiveness as a voice for the people. If anything, we need a third party, say a Green Party. Appropriately, most interviewed participants are suspicious of both major parties. No party should have us in its hip pocket and commit identity theft to advance its own agenda.

2. That the anarchist and Marxist spectrums will infiltrate and nullify through calculated violence such as we saw in Rome last week as hooded, masked street toughs burned and looted. I still believe in a market economy, with safety nets in place.

I am for this protest, though I wish it had a third party corpus. Romanticism can be a beautiful thing, but it needs boots on the ground. As is, I fear that come winter’s icy wind and falling snow, the movement will lapse into memory.

An empty spot

I finished Carl Safina’s The View from Lazy Point yesterday, and I’m feeling an empty spot, or something missing, after spending several weeks in silent discourse with this eloquent work.  Safina, a MacArthur Prize recipient, is well known in the conservation movement.  Recently, Audubon magazine listed him among the 100 leading conservationists  of the last century. He’s the founder of  the Blue Ocean Institute.

Safina could have been a poet, given his metaphoric penchant and passion for seeing what most of us miss in the delicate tapestry of nature and our role in its weave.  If the book has a constant, it laments humanity’s increasing indifference to that world beyond itself, a callousness to its intrinsic connection with nature at large, and a harbinger of its penchant for self-destruction.  With coal-fired power plants belching carbon in exponential quantities into the atmosphere, our insatiable appetite for material goods, our conflation of growth with well-being, the explosion in our numbers, we are depleting our resources, accelerating climate change, and imperiling our children and grandchildren.  We live for today, impoverishing tomorrow

Every act has its consequence for good or bad, and now we live in a world where flora and fauna lie increasingly threatened, the seas emptied.  Even our trees, those sentries protecting us from breathing carbon dioxide’s toxic fumes, are in decline, decimated by disease, drought and a chainsaw pursuit of material gain and comfort.  Each year, the birds are fewer, the water tables of nations more contaminated or declining, the seas relentlessly rising.

At times, Safina nearly loses it, tongue-lashing market greed and political connivance.  He’s traveled to all the world’s environmental hot spots and, universally, the message is the same: man’s degradation of  the planet with its calamitous consequences.

Several scenarios standout in the book, one of which had all the earmarks of potential violence when Safina and a friend find themselves confronting a pick-up driver who’s  come to the Long Island shore to shovel horseshoe crabs into the bed of his truck.  Horseshoe crabs have been here for 450 million years, surviving even the extinction of the dinosaurs.  Individuals can live up to twenty years.  After all that, even these well-adapted creatures are facing depletion as a consequence of humans. They are now used for bait.

Shafira manages to drive him off, only to find he’s been replaced by scores of pick-ups in the early morning.  New York state may have reduced its quotas, but who’s watching?  As Safira remarks, “There is something in man that hates natural abundance, and something that clings to excess” (p. 196, Kindle edition).  Without horseshoe crab eggs, migrating shore birds cannot find the sustenance to complete their journeys.  We live in a world of delicate linkage.  Destroying one entity in that linkage doesn’t confine its results.

This book isn’t for the faint-hearted.  It gives you the trenchant truth; still, it also offers hope.  After all, when man has cared, he has succeeded.  Peregrines, bald eagles and red-tailed hawks show increased numbers.  Once they were threatened species.  But such successes are all too few.  Between 199 and 2005, horseshoe crab eggs have declined 90 percent along Delaware Bay.  Concurrently, Red Knots have declined 80 percent, or from 150,000 to around 30,000 (p. 138, Kindle edition), and here we’re considering just two species.  By 2021, some two thirds of animal and plant species will be gone.

Safina sounds the alarms at the end of his book:  “For twelve thousand years or so, humanity has lived in a period of very stable climate.  That stability has been the climate envelope for all of civilization so far. Now we are committed to leaving that stable period for points unknown. It’s humanity’s most hazardous journey yet” (pp. 349-50, Kindle edition).

Not many seem to be listening.


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