Going Organic Magazine is now the educational component of the non-profit, "Transition to Organics, Coachella Valley". (read more)

The World Water Crisis

by Grace Xanthos

“This is a classic war in Southern California, an urban war, a water war, the Hatfields and McCoys.”
—State Senator Kevin De Leon, in the Los Angeles Time

The Delusion

As Americans, most of us simply turn on a tap or take a trip to our local store when we want fresh water. Many of us routinely use fresh water to wash cars, clean off patios and drive-ways, fill our pools, and water plants and grass. The truth is that most of us don’t spend much time even thinking about the source of the water we use, unless it’s to buy a particular brand of bottled water that we think—usually falsely—is healthier or “better” in some way.

The Reality

The truth is that it’s time for a loud wake-up call regarding water-related issues, before our planet is in complete turmoil. The facts about the current water crisis are startling, but understanding them is vital. Although Earth is covered with water, only about 2.5% of the planet’s water is fresh (i.e., potable/drinkable); however, only about two-thirds of that is currently locked in glaciers or permanent snow cover.1 Obviously, clean, drinkable water is a scarce commodity.

Many people have argued that in the future, water will be more valuable than oil. The facts demonstrate this is true. Think about how many wars or “incursions” or “storms” have evolved around oil. Just wait until we start running out of clean water and all the things that come with it: food, sanitation, wellness, productivity, commerce, and land value. Imagine World War III, in which people are fighting over access to potable water. Where will we be in 10, 25, or 30 years if nothing is done?

“The Salton Sea is literally ‘Knocking on Death’s Door.’ Many people don’t know that this sea is the winter home to over 400 migrating bird species.” —
Denise Gollsby, in the Desert Sun

Believe it or not, the war over water is already ongoing at a legislative level. For example, on May 17th, the California Senate heard a feud between two agencies over the authority to store ground water in the Southeast portion of LA. SB-1386 was passed after lengthy argument with, frankly, both sides seeming to have more personal/political motives for their arguments than conservation ones.

Perhaps the most sincere member of the debate was Senator Kevin De Leon of Los Angeles. According to the Los Angeles Times, De Leon abstained, stating, “This is a classic war in Southern California, an urban war, a water war, the Hatfields and McCoys.”

However, Tara Lohan points out that legislation is not always the best approach to intervention. The Clean Water Cooperation Federalism Act in 2011 “basically stripped the EPA’s right to carry out its duties to enforce the Clean Water Act.” And there have been calls from some Republican politicians to abolish the EPA altogether.2

The LA Times analyzed records and found that the Clean Water Act has been violated more than 506,000 times since 2004 by more than 23,000 companies, according to “self-reports” from the polluting parties. Some officials report that many companies illegally avoid reporting their emissions, so many violations go uncounted. Their infractions include things like dumping cancer-causing chemicals into our water supply!

The global reality is that even though international law recognizes human rights to water, there are few—if any—binding laws in the U.S. that guarantee citizens clean water. In fact, think about people who have had their water turned off for non-payment. Exactly when did water become something that we can’t access for free?

According to The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, a 2002 Century Foundation survey of 245 municipalities found that 73% had ended private water contracts because of poor service. Further, a 2009 report from Food and Water Watch found that out of nearly 5,000 water utilities and 1,900 sewer utilities, private companies— which are indebted to their shareholders— charge “up to 80 percent more for water and 100 percent more for sewer services.” Yet the move to privatization of water continues, and consumers keep on paying.2

This has lead to what Tara Lohan and others call the “5 Deadly Threats to Our Precious Drinking Water Supply”:

  1. Racial, gender, and economic inequalities.
  2. Privatization of water.
  3. An aging water infrastructure.
  4. Licenses to pollute.
  5. The impact of dirty energy use on the clean water supply.

Local Concerns

On a local level, Tom Davis, a participant in the 2011 local US Green Building Council (USGBC) Branch Meeting and the Chief Planning & Development Officer for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, outlines three critical water issues facing the Coachella Valley. First, the Coachella Valley (CV) is in what he calls an “overdraft situation,” meaning residents regularly use more water than is available through our water table and rain.3

Davis also points out that the current CV Water Recovery Program is completely insufficient, and recovered or “recharged water” is quite inferior to groundwater aquifers, which are being regularly diminished. He agrees with the Desert Sun that the Salton Sea, for example, will never reach a recovery point without significant mitigation. And both sources point out that doing nothing will eventually cost much more than taking action.

The sea’s primary source of water is run off from local agriculture… perhaps this explains the uncountable numbers of dead fish that routinely wash ashore.

Denise Gollsby explains that Salton Sea is literally “Knocking on Death’s Door.” Many people don’t know that this sea is the winter home to over 400 migrating bird species. However, about 1.3 million acre-feet of water evaporate each year, resulting in increased salinity. Currently, the sea’s primary source of water is run off from local agriculture, which means added sources of pollution.4 Perhaps this explains the uncountable numbers of dead fish (specifically, tilapia) that routinely wash ashore.

Many environmentalists feel that action has not been taken to save Salton Sea because of where the sea is located. A former Palm Desert Mayor, Buford Crites, is quoted about this issue in The Desert Sun: “If the Salton Sea was between Palm Springs and Santa Monica, this wouldn’t even be an issue…. But it’s in the poorest part of California and off the major highways.”

Thus, even though various restoration plans have been suggested, the sea will likely continue its decline, demonstrating how water issues are often manipulated based on economic inequality. As Gollsby put it, “Death is the sea’s fate if one of many schemes to divert water here doesn’t coalesce.”

But this is not the only local concern. During the 2011 USGBC Branch meeting on CV water, Scot Stormo, a Hydro Geologist, compared the Coachella Valley to a big bathtub full of sand. Although large, it is not limitless. As you picture that, keep in mind that the CV receives about 5 inches of rain a year; however, evaporation is 8 feet. So “current water level declines exceed one foot a year in some places, with a decline of 100 feet since the 1920’s.”

Stormo went on to explain (citing USGS reports) that from 1996 through 2005, over one foot of subsidence (lowering of the ground from groundwater withdrawal) happened near the Bermuda Dunes Airport. Another USGS report indicates that some areas of Palm Desert subsided 17 inches; areas in La Quinta subsided 11-13 inches; and the “greatest differential settlement was along the southwest margin of the valley.”3 This is not some fear tactic made up by so-called “tree-huggers”; it is happening right now, right here!

So what do you think happens to that hypothetical bathtub we’re sitting in as the ground slowly lowers? That’s right: it falls, and we and our homes fall with it.

“If the Salton Sea was between Palm Springs and Santa
Monica, this wouldn’t even be an issue…. But it’s in the poorest part of California and off the major highways.”—
Buford Crites, Palm Desert Mayor, The Desert Sun

Privatization of Public Water

The company plans to use 30 wells, each about 1,000 feet deep, to pump groundwater from below these public lands. Although the groundwater is normally replenished by rain and snow-melt, federal scientists and environmentalist say that Cadiz Inc. plans to withdraw more water yearly than nature puts back, thereby “lowering the groundwater table and depleting the aquifer” and possibly the nearby spring.

A little further from the CV in the Mohave Desert, an appalling example of water privatization is taking place. In a recent LA Times front-page story, Bettina Boxall alerts the public to the plans by a group called Cadiz Inc. to convert public groundwater into privately pumped and “owned” water that would then be sold back to the very consumers who are part of the “public.” 5

It seems that Cadiz Inc. used NASA satellite pictures to conduct a worldwide hunt for a large groundwater reserve to tap into in order to “grow desert crops.” In the desert, about 200 miles from L.A., they found it in Cadiz, CA. The company bought some old railroad land, saying it planned on planting citrus trees, which it did at first. However, they soon decided they could make more money selling groundwater than fruit!

Cadiz Inc. owns 34,000 acres of desert land, on which an underground water source releases about 2,000 gallons of clean water a minute. But his “private land” is surrounded by federal lands, several congressionally designated wilderness areas, and Mojave National Preserve. Further, about 11 miles away is a spring, where various species of wildlife (including bighorn sheep and bobcats) come to drink and use shade from local trees.

The company plans to use 30 wells, each about 1,000 feet deep, to pump groundwater from below these public lands. Although the groundwater is normally replenished by rain and snow-melt, federal scientists and environmentalist say that Cadiz Inc. plans to withdraw more water yearly than nature puts back, thereby “lowering the groundwater table and depleting the aquifer” and possibly the nearby spring.

Why is this being done? As Seth Shteir of the National parks Conservation Association puts it, “It’s taking a public resource that originates on public land, privatizing it and selling it back to the public…. This water is going to Orange County lawns and swimming pools. The desert is being asked to shoulder the burden.” 5

This is a perfect example of the consequences of ongoing privatization of water and the lack of adequately monitored regulations over its use. And in a bizarre example of environmental irony, the Times later reported that efforts to stop the pumping are being spear-headed by a company with ties to major oil. It seems they use nearby land to gather manufacturing-grade salt, which is used as an additive in their oil products. Of course, they are hiding their true purpose under the guise of being concerned “for the environment.”

EPA & National Matters

Another serious concern in the U.S. is the aging water infrastructure and its consequences. According to the EPA, some system components are as old as 100 years, including those used for drinking water and waste. Of course, lots of nasty chemicals leach into our water supply from those old, rusted pipes.

The major causes of contaminated tap water are: Improper disposal of household or business chemicals….

Further, as the population increases and geographic shifts occur, the existing infrastructure is not sufficiently changing to keep pace with demographics. And current treatment facilities simply are not keeping up with demand. Despite these problems, investment in water-related research and development is declining.

In 1999, the EPA conducted a survey on our Drinking Water Infrastructure. They determined that over a twenty year period, water systems would need to spend about $150 billion over a 20 year period to make sure that water in the U.S. was clean and safe to drink. From 1995 to 2000, a reported $50 billion was spent on funding water quality improvements.

Despite infrastructure concerns, the most recent reports from the EPA indicate that if current spending levels don’t increase significantly, there will be a significant funding gap by the year 2019, which would put American drinking water at risk—across communities and more income levels.6 Imagine the class-wars that a problem this significant could create.

In 2001, one out of every four community water systems did not conduct testing or report the results for all of the monitoring required to verify the safety of America’s drinking water. Today, due to public pressure, there are more agencies reporting, but the problem persists. Tap water is monitored by local public health departments, state departments of health and environments, and the EPA. The EPA suggests that consumers with water problems should contact their state-level agencies to “inquire” about local water agency reports and compliance. But since we already know about the minimal accountability on agency self-reporting of problems, what good does such an inquiry really do?

The major causes of contaminated tap water are: improper disposal of household or business chemicals; waste put underground; animal and human waste; improper water treatment and disinfection; improperly maintained distribution systems; microbial contamination and pathogens (such as those causing water-based diseases); chemical contamination, such as nitrates, from fertilizers; the disinfectants used to treat water sometimes react with naturally occurring materials in the water to form harmful byproducts; and lead contamination, which often leaks from old and rusted pipes.6, 13

Final Thoughts

Fortunately, we can still make a difference. However, this fix is going to take more than a village! Stopping the destruction and wasting of clean water and getting the remaining potable water to where it is needed most will take great effort: by individuals, politicians, businesses, communities, states, nations, and—even harder to achieve it seems—international cooperation.

On a national level, the EPA, USGS, US Dept. of Agriculture, US Dept. of Reclamation, the Renewable Energy Policy Project, National Wildlife Federation, and various other federal and privately funded agencies, non-profits, watchdog groups, and motivated legislators are trying to help.

Internationally, the UN, WHO, the World Water Council, World Water Watch, and a variety of organizations too numerous to mention have stepped up to the plate. However, it takes intervention on an individual and local level to really tip the scale back towards true conservation.

You can help by contacting one of the over 1,000 agencies registered with NRDC: The National Resources Defense Council to see what you, your friends, your family, and your community partners can do to take a hands-on approach to clean water.

We all helped create the water crisis; now let’s all be part of the solution.

Works Cited

  1. “Billions Daily Affected by Water Crisis.” Water.org. N.d. Web.
  2. Lohan, Tara. “5 Threats to Our Precious Drinking Water Supply.” Alternet. Mar. 21, 2012. Web. May 15, 2012.
  3. Gottberg, Kathy. “Coachella Valley Water: A Hot Topic at June USGBC-CV Branch Meeting.” Coachella Valley iHub. June 14, 2011. Web. May 15, 2012.
  4. Goolsby, Denise. “Knocking on Death’s Door.” The Desert Sun. May 12, 2012. A1+.
  5. Boxall, Bettina. “Firm Wants to Tap Liquid Gold in the Mojave Desert.” Los Angeles Times. May 16, 2012. A1+.
  6. “Aging Water Infrastructure (AWI) Research: Sustainability.” N.D. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Web. May 15, 2012; “Water on Tap: What You Need to Know.” EPA Publication. Dec. 2009. Web. May 15, 2012.
  7. “Water.” http://water.org. 1990-2012. Web. May 15, 2012
  8. “Human Development Report 2006, Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis.” United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). 2006. Web. May 15, 2012.
  9. “Evaluation of the Costs and Benefits of Water and Sanitation Improvements at the Global Level.” World Health Organization. 2004. Web. May 15, 2012.
  10. “Water in a Changing World.” United Nations World Water Development Report. 2009. Web. May 12, 2012.
  11. Purss-Ustun, Annette, Robert Bos, Fiona Gore, and Jamie Bartram. “Safer Water, Better Health: Costs, Benefits, and Sustainability of Interventions to Protect and Promote Health.” World Health Organization. 2008. Web. May 12, 1212.
  12. “Progress on Sanitation and Drinking Water, 2012 Update.” WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for Water Supply and Sanitation. 2012. Web. May 15, 2012.
  13. “Water.” UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Unesco.org. N.D. Web. May 15, 2012.