Farmers are relearning the lesson of every drought: Potable water is not a renewable resource. Currently, rivers and aquifers are being depleted due to overuse. This is no small problem. Even though 99.7% of the Earth is water, only .77256% is groundwater or lakes and rivers, according to the United States Geological Survey.
In the western United States, rights to these rivers and aquifers were decided in the wettest decade in two centuries, thus allocating water in excess of the available water, exacerbating the depletion of the watershed. Disputes over the allocation of watersheds have led to several Supreme Court cases and compacts between states.
These agreements force junior partners to cut their usage of shared watersheds, even when the river in question no longer flows through the senior partner’s land when overuse prevents the original flow. This prioritization of senior partners in compacts derives from allocating water to the upriver users before downriver users unless the failure to exercise such privileges reverts them to the authority distributing them. These agreements should, therefore, be renegotiated in light of modern knowledge of the watersheds involved.
The misallocation of water rights predictably leads to the tragedy of the commons, where overuse results in the destruction of rivers and aquifers which once gone, are gone. This problem has been recognized, and some farmers in Kansas have mutually agreed that leaving the aquifer with more water will enable them to continue to use it for longer. However, unless other neighbors join this agreement, it will die as unfair to the farmers who recognize that they must stop the loss of their lifeblood. Forever, according to NPR
California has similarly realized that one must manage a resource efficiently and be conservative in usage if one wishes to have the resource in the future. If one uses too much from aquifers in years where they cannot replenish due to a lack of rainwater, nothing will be available in future droughts which would destroy the agrarian sector of these states. Dams are useless as a means of storing the nonexistent water, as climatic shifts prevent traditional snowfall from replenishing the supplies of the watershed. You can’t store nonexistent resources.
Desalination is a potential means to extend the consumption of water, as seawater is more plentiful than freshwater. However, desalination would require immense energy expenditures which would require either better energy sources or increased coal usage. Considering the location of such plants, hydroelectric power could be used.
Countries like Israel use desalination, but such a method could become problematic because people might become less conservative with water use if they know a new source is available. Would austerity measures regarding water be maintained when the relatively limitless sea is offered as an alternative to the comparatively rare rivers and snowmelt? The rate of extraction must not be exceeded by the rate of consumption. Otherwise, the problem of water shortages from the perspective of those consuming water remains.
Furthermore, for animals such as delta smelt, salmon, carp and heron, replacing a source of water will not restore the waterways. Colorado has not flowed to the Sea of Cortez for many years.
The environmental damage of the loss of watersheds led to a confrontation between farmers and environmentalists in 2016, as Central Valley farmers wished to keep the use of the water and opposed Governor Edmund G. Brown’s plan to restore the estuary, according to Envirobites.
Conflicts between agrarian interests, fishers and environmentalists will occur more frequently as more rivers dry up to the scourge that is overuse and climatic forces preventing snowfall. The dryness of the planet is a problem that only those in droughts have had to deal with so far, but that may not last.
As the planet dries, the unsustainable nature of water consumption will continue to press against humanity, especially as technologies used to forestall the disaster fail to prevent it. Temporary stop gate measures only delay the crisis, they do not avert it. As Joni Mitchell stated in “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Don’t it always seem to go / you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Or in Spanish, “no vale el agua hasta que se falta.”
Jacob Ningen is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org