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Efforts should intensify to sustain fresh-water supplies

drought parched land
REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado
Many climate scientists believe that one of the major effects of global warming will be more drought in parts of dry America.

The continuing drought in much of the United States has raised real concerns about long-term fresh-water supplies. 2012 was one of our country’s driest years since official records began in 1880. Barges are now scraping bottoms on a shrinking Mississippi River. And we continue to drain Midwest aquifers, like the huge Ogallala, to satisfy demand for more corn and soybeans, as a hundred million cars and trucks roll up to the dinner table for their diet of corn ethanol and bio diesel. 

In irrigation states like Kansas and Nebraska, a University of Minnesota study under Professor Sangwon Suh reported, 500 gallons of water are needed to grow and process the corn to make 1 gallon of ethanol. 

The 100th meridian of longitude comes down from the north to bisect the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. To the east of the 100th is wet America, with its variety of crops and generally adequate rainfall. To the west, except for a wet area in the Pacific Northwest, is the dry America of wheat, cattle ranches, and irrigation.

The primary water storage for dry America is in the snow packs of its mountain ranges, which feed the rivers during dry seasons. The West’s major river is the Colorado. It brings life to hundreds of cities, 21 million people, and 2 million acres of farmland in seven states. The Colorado’s dams and diversions were planned  when the river’s annual flow was more than 16 million acre feet (MAF). In the drier 21st century, the flow is now averaging 14-15 MAF. The river’s two major reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are in slow decline, and are currently about half full. 

More drought predicted for dry America

Many climate scientists believe that one of the major effects of global warming will be more drought in parts of dry America, placing the future of cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles in jeopardy. Las Vegas water comes from two giant straws placed in Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead. But as Dr. James Powell of USC put it in his recent study of the Colorado, “We can save either Lake Powell or Lake Mead, but not both.”

The thirsty cities of the West are starting to look at the Columbia River, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi for water. An enduring Minnesota nightmare is the vision of a great pipeline from Lake Superior. Like a giant flexible straw, it snakes its way west to irrigate parched Arizona golf courses, California’s Imperial Valley and Los Angeles swimming pools.

Although the pipeline is not practical, the bad dream persists, concluding with Lake Superior becoming a giant replica of the empty mine pits on the Iron Range. Soaring demand for  nonferrous metals will likely revive sulfide mining on the Iron Range, with its potential risk to water supplies.

Minnesota once had large forests of virgin white pine and huge deposits of rich iron ore. Deep layers of our glacial soil were nourished by the waters of our lakes, streams, and aquifers. Now those forests are clear-cut, and most of the iron ore is gone, leaving behind those empty pits. As the new year dawns, let’s protect our remaining soils and water supplies.

Demand for fresh water accelerates

Relatively stable amounts of fresh water are renewed from the oceans by nature’s giant distillery. But demand accelerates as the world’s numbers and aspirations increase. Conservation and measures like ending subsidized cheap water for low-value crops in arid regions would help to sustain water supplies for future generations.

All over the Earth, our drawing down of nature's resources continues. Petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides from industrial farming wash into rivers, causing the growth of dead zones in deltas and the sea. We once fished with lines and nets that muscles could manage. Now, big trawlers with powerful diesel engines trail miles of nets, threatening entire species.

The vengeance for these acts of desecration will not be sudden, as in the great flood of biblical history. Instead, the rivers will gradually silt up the dams, overtop and remove them, and resume their destined routes to the sea. Soils, impoverished and eroded from single-cropping, will no longer nourish our billions. A warming atmosphere, polluted by overuse of carbon fuels, will wreak its own havoc.

The talents in our humanity give us an obligation to the environment first assigned to us when we received dominion over the Earth. There is still time, but not much time, to take seriously the responsibility for the Earth that dominion gives us.

Rolf Westgard is a professional member of the Geological Society of America and the American Nuclear Society. He recently taught the class “Peak Oil or Peak Water; which will impact us first?” for the University of Minnesota Lifelong Learning program.

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Comments (8)

What's the hurry?

Apart from the fact that we needed to start vigorously protecting fresh water supplies 30 years or more ago, we should probably continue to wait in order to assure those with vast excess capital can buy up supplies that remain and make themselves even wealthier.

We're not an 'irrigation state'

Only a small fraction of the field corn corn in Minnesota uses irrigation, in case anyone is interested. The ethanol plants in Minnesota, some of the nation's oldest, have been upgrading their facilities to become more efficient and use less water.

People often think of ethanol plants first when it comes to water usage, but there are many things that use a LOT of fresh water. Golf courses. Paper mills. Oil Sands processing. Petroleum refining. Coal-fired power plants. Nuclear power plants. And much more...

power plants and water

Power plants withdraw water, but they return nearly all of it of it to the river or ocean. The rest of it evaporates and returns as rain.

More on corn ethanol water usage

The most complete study of water use from crop to finished gallon of ethanol was accomplished under Professor Sangwon Suh of the Water Resources Science and Department of Bioproducts and
Biosystems Engineering, University of Minnesota. It broke down the water use by state, showing the highest use in states with more irrigation. On average in the US it takes 142 gallons of water to make ONE gallon of corn ethanol. States like Iowa and Minnesota have less irrigation and use ranges from 9 to 19(MN) gal of water per ethanol gallon. In Kansas and Nebraska it rise to 500 gallons of water, and California is tops with over 2100 gallons. In much of the Midwest, the whole corn to ethanol process is a big drain on the Ogallala aquifer.

You shouldn't build an ethanol plant just anywhere, but

...since Minnesota is the only state that requires ethanol plants to actually report their water usage, there is a fair amount of estimation in Prof. Suh's study. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy report on water use in ethanol plants says most plants use a range from 3.5 to 6 gallons of water consumed per gallon of ethanol produced.

water use

Yes. Nearly all the water use is from the industrial corn farming.

Spot on.

One of the best books I've ever read was "Cadillac Desert" which raised a lot of these concerns years ago. The spectre of global warming simply heightens those concerns. This article also reminds me of the suggestion of Frank and Deborah Popper who suggested that government support for these remote dry areas be withdrawn and the lands be allowed to revert to prairie and a "buffalo commons".

Unfortunately, our nation is inclined to ignore problems and wish them away until they present themselves in the form of life threatening crises. Then it's a "blame game" , a search for a hapless scapegoat, such as in Katrina, where the blame was shifted to the victims.

Our water is our future

Metal mining has been linked to aquifer and groundwater depletion as well as contamination worldwide, including in the United States. Corporations proposing to mine approximately 1% metals in the sulfide bearing rock of the Duluth Complex are not here just for the metals. It is Minnesota's waters they are after; they need our waters to mine in a massively disseminated ore body of 99% waste. The bottom line for these corporations is profit. It would be a good deal for them. They would get our water and our metals. We would get the negative health effects and water contamination for perpetuity.

Antofagasta, partnered with Duluth Metals to form Twin Metals in Minnesota, has turned to using saltwater piped from the ocean for its new mines in Chile, where water usage is more than a contentious hot topic. Jon Cherry, PolyMet’s CEO, came to Minnesota from the proposed Resolution Copper Mine in Arizona, a state rife with controversy over aquifer depletion.

Our water is Minnesota’s most valuable and cherished resource. It is also our future. In a time of a rapidly advancing water crisis, it would be beyond irresponsible to put our waters at risk.