By Karen R. Smith
Our annual international issue means WC&P staff has the occasion to investigate what’s happening across the country and around the world. We found potable water and the lack thereof at the forefront, no matter what part of the globe we focused our attention upon. Treatment and its costs are the big issues where water is plentiful; where water is scarce, many are gambling that it will become a nexus of global politics (and a source of extreme profitability) in the forseeable future.
There’s a gentleman making national news in America; a former oilman. He’s buying up water rights throughout Oklahoma and environs. He believes the time is right for potable water—that it will be more valuable than petroleum in the near future.
Genocide continues in Darfur, a conflict that started because of who had water and who didn’t. Various sources guess there have been from 180,000 to 400,000 killed in the fighting; additionally, the UN estimates 70,000 dead or dying in refugee camps at this writing. Both numbers are being disputed by the Sudanese government.
Dr. Jackie King, a freshwater ecologist from South Africa, spoke at a water policy roundtable held at the University of Arizona. King made the radical suggestion of using science to guide water policy here in the US. In other countries, that’s how decisions on water use and infrastructure development and improvement are being determined. Interesting to discover we lag behind Ethiopia, Guatemala and Vietnam when it comes to managing our most precious resource. Science is routinely trumped here by political interests, financial considerations and good old tradition. None of which has anything to do with managing water intelligently.
As legislation is being formulated (in accordance with the process and investigation mandated by established laws) to ban softeners in one California city, farmers in that area continue to use the fertilizers that break down as chlorides, free from any regulation at all (let alone a ban of any kind) as a result of agriculture’s massive contribution to the state’s economy. Science never had a chance.
If you doubt the truth of that, I invite you visit the greater Phoenix (Arizona) metro area. Despite the desert locale…despite three-digit temperatures for nearly half the year…despite relying on CAP and Snake River water and ever-rising treatment costs…there is a new manmade lake roughly every half mile or so. No new housing development is complete without one, it seems. Nor can a golf course arise without a water centerpiece. There are dockside condominums for sale for the boating crowd with everything but the seagulls.
In places where there is regular rainfall and an abundance of available water, you simply don’t see this sort of thing to the same extent. Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, Scottsdale—they’re all doing it. Bear in mind that CAP water runs through the Phoenician metroplex in open canals in addition to those new open bodies of water. Combined, it probably produces a total daily evaporation rate that could meet the water needs of a small city. But that sort of equation would require math, which is dangerously close to science and not of interest to those who (and I use the word loosely) plan water use hereabouts. A plan would do something about evaporation or mandate xeriscaping. It is precisely this kind of blatant waste that will usher in public demand for sane and sensible water policies. It is time for this industry to get active, get vocal and get involved in that process. How?
What would happen if we made different political alliances? We have a long history of preaching to the choir, aligning with other branches of the water industry. All good as far as it goes—but it doesn’t go far enough.
Agriculture is not the best use of land if potable water is required to grow the food on that land. Talk about your sacred cows! To even suggest that agriculture go where water is naturally plentiful is to be decried. We are not yet ready to implement the idea of a national water policy determined by today’s needs and conditions and the long-term common good. We could, however, begin regionally or in individual states. When will the agriculture industry pay the true cost of their water? Probably about the same time I get taller. Don’t hold your breath.