By C.F. (Chubb) Michaud, CWS-VI
GARDEN CITY, Kan.—The sun spun through the broad prairie sky, day after day after merciless day. The corn wilted. The soybeans withered. Those farmers who had wells drew on them day and night, spraying each parched field with 300, 400, 500 gallons of water a minute—every minute, around the clock, for months. All that water scarcely dampened the soil. Most evaporated before it hit the ground. — Stephanie Simon, L.A. Times, Sept. 11, 2002
Summary: Droughts like last summer’s, to which the above news clipping refers, remind us as to the limits of our resources. Contrary to popular belief, though, water is not scarce. In fact, it’s in great abundance across all continents. Getting to the water is another matter altogether—as is what the quality of that water will be. A simple but often overlooked solution to the problem may one of the keys that holds our survival in the balance—groundwater.
Although floods are more prevalent and responsible for tens of millions of lives lost in the past century, drought is by far the most devastating natural disaster. Without water, crops die, cattle die, economies die and people die. Even when rains come, recovery can take decades. I believe the ultimate natural disaster will come from starvation—caused by drought.
Most of us who grew up in a northern climate will recall stories told by our parents about how much colder the winters were when they were kids. Our grandparents told the same stories to them. The Presque Isle Stream (Maine)—where I skated during the winter months as a teen—doesn’t even freeze over these days.
One thing you’ve got to love about Mother Nature is that, except for earthquakes and hurricanes, she doesn’t move very quickly. Changes are often so slow they pass unnoticed until compared on a generation-to-generation scale.
Weather conditions aren’t only changing, but we’re seeing larger swings in the extremes. Having an average year-round temperature of 68°F doesn’t mean much if you see 100+°F in July and -30°F in January. Blame it on global warming and greenhouse gases, if you will. Everyone else does. Regardless of contributing factors, part of the credit could be simply the ebb and flow of the planet’s rotation in its orbit around the sun.
Still, a United Nations climate science panel announced last year that worldwide temperature averages could climb as much as 10°F over the next century. This observation was generally confirmed by other reliable studies. Weather and climate, and corresponding floods and drought, are driven by uneven global heating. Our weather will worsen as the extremes widen.
Due to this global warming or climatic cycling, from Canada to Mexico, along the western seaboard of the United States, scientists are predicting available water supplies will drop by 30 percent by the year 2050, irrespective of population demands. The physics are simple—higher temperatures mean there’s more rain than snow. Snowmelt is what keeps the rivers flowing during the summer months. Flowing rivers is what grows our food.
KABUL, Afghanistan—A four-year drought in Afghanistan has wiped out more than 80 percent of the cattle, sheep and goats in the north of the country. Officials have warned that the drought poses a serious threat to the country’s meat supply.
Associated Press—The World (2002)
There’s plenty of water on the planet—an estimated 326 million cubic miles of it. There’s enough to supply every human with 60 billion gallons based on current population. This water is constantly re-circulated through the hydrologic cycle, a system of water purification ultimately responsible for the existence of life, which converts seawater to fresh water—all without electricity, pumps or the assistance of mankind.
Fresh water accounts for only 2.8 percent of the Earth’s total supply and three-quarters of that is ice, locked in the polar caps. Nonetheless, fresh liquid water is still available to the tune of 420 million gallons per person.
Where is the fresh water?
All the fresh water you see contained in lakes, rivers and streams accounts for only 2.5 percent of the total liquid fresh water—still more than enough for all of man’s needs. In fact, the Earth’s atmosphere alone contains over 575,000 gallons of water for every human alive. Annual precipitation over the living land mass (excluding the Arctic and Antarctic areas as well as Greenland) amounts to 4.8 million gallons per capita. Why then is there a belief of water shortage? Why is there drought?
As I’ve said many times before, there’s plenty of water. What we lack is the proper distribution system and a proper system of government priorities. But wait! If all of this water we see only accounts for 2.5 percent of the total fresh liquid water, where is the rest? Look down, as 97.5 percent of all free flowing fresh water is under foot. It’s groundwater.
Yes, desalination is another option growing increasingly more affordable. But think. The Earth’s crust consists of a layer of solid rock resting on a molten core. That mass of rock is irregular with peaks and valleys. Over time and as the peaks wore down and became rearranged by wind and rain, those valleys filled with sediment and debris and eventually gave us a fairly flat land mass. Just beneath our feet there are 250,000 gallons of fresh water for every square foot of the Earth’s surface. As incredible as it sounds, that’s over 33,000 acre feet of water per acre of land—more water than man has consumed since he first walked on the planet. Might groundwater be the source of the future?
How much is enough?
For survival, man can get by on two liters of water per day or about half a gallon—a mere 175 to 200 gallons per year. Many high-yield crops, however, require 0.2 to 0.3 inches of water a day during the growing season. Therefore, with a 150-day growing season, 30 to 45 inches of water is needed. Potatoes are among the least needy crops, requiring only about 20 inches per year. If the crop yield for potatoes is 200 barrels per acre at about 200 pounds per barrel, then growing a pound of potatoes requires 13.5 gallons of water. Most crops aren’t that efficient nor that cooperative, and most irrigation techniques aren’t that efficient. If we ate nothing but potatoes, however, we would require 25,000 gallons of fresh water per person per year just to grow them. Are we not surprised that agriculture requires over 100 times more water per capita than human thirst?
Mining untapped resources
Man has the technology to drill for oil thousands of feet down, mine for coal thousands of feet down and dig tunnels thousands of feet long. Man, therefore, has the technology to produce water from underground sources in sufficient quantities so as to put an end to drought. This hasn’t been done simply because man and government feel the need to do other things with money. Fighter jets cost tens of millions of dollars. Wells in remote regions of the world cost a few thousand dollars. The survival of mankind will depend on a reliable and continuing source of water—regardless of its cost.
Most water that falls as precipitation re-enters the oceans as runoff. It’s simply lost short of some brief pause as a recreational lake, or perhaps to produce power and lanes of transportation for shipping. This may be a simplistic explanation of the water cycle, but the point is—could we store some of this excess water? Indeed. But where?
Excess river waters can be stored underground as groundwater. A recent plan proposed in California (the Cadiz water storage project) suggested that 1.5 million acre feet of surplus Colorado River water be siphoned off and stored beneath the desert floor for use in dry years. The cost for this is about $100 per acre foot. Evaporative losses are minimal and the storage is “free.” Believe it or not, this plan makes more sense than the continued construction of dams. The plan was shot down, however, on the basis that it might do environmental harm to the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Desert is also used for bombing runs by the U.S. military. Again, it’s a question of priorities.
Man needs both food and water to survive. His actual per capita nutritional need for water is minimal but it takes untold billions of gallons of fresh water to provide food. Climate changes and centuries of unchecked pollution are making the continued supply of cheap, fresh water questionable and threaten man’s survival. The solution to this problem isn’t rocket science. Again, there’s plenty of water on the planet. What we need is for established leaders of the world’s governments to step up to the plate and take responsibility for directing economic priorities to provide for the people. Groundwater represents the solution to the threat of global starvation.
- Michaud, C.F., “Is Our Future Dammed?” WC&P, Vol. 43, No. 2, February 2001.
About the author
C.F. “Chubb” Michaud is technical director of the Systematix Co., of Placentia, Calif. A University of Maine graduate, he holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering as well as several U.S. patents in ion exchange processes. With 30 years of experience in water and fluid treatment, he serves on several Water Quality Association committees and holds its highest designation, Certified Water Specialist (CWS), Level 6. He’s also a founding member of the WC&P Technical Review Committee. Michaud can be reached at (714) 993-2482 or email: cmichaud@systematixUSA.com.
FYI—World Water Resources
Here are a few websites you can peruse to learn more about the world’s water:
- Open Directory Project—Groundwater:
- Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security:
- UN International Hydrological Programme, “World Water Resources and Their Use”: http://webworld.unesco.org/water/ihp/db/shiklomanov/
- World Health Organization, “Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment 2000 Report”:
- World Bank, “Data & Stastics”:
- World Water Council:
- World Commission on Dams: