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A glass already half empty

Stephan Tuttle - November 15th, 2010
A glass already half empty
The big issue in the next 30 years, both here and around the country, will not be deficits or bailouts or stimulus packages or even war, though it may well cause more than one.
The issue will be water, and the Great Lakes, especially Lake Michigan, will be the bullseye on the target at which the water-starved will be pointing.
The world is not overflowing with potable water. We are currently witnessing, in Haiti, what happens when clean drinking water disappears.
But it isn’t just Third World countries on the brink. Some areas of the United States are already looking at a half-full glass. The starting point is the so-called Dust States – New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, west Texas and southern California – all of which are in the process of creating water crises or have such crises already in full bloom.
It won’t be next year or the year after but at some point they will want our water.
Having lived in Arizona for more than three decades until moving back here a couple of years ago, I’ve heard the hypothetical conversations among some decision-makers about finding new sources of drinking water.
Some background is in order and it might be helpful to do a little comparison of Michigan to Arizona.
Arizona is the prototype of an explosively growing state doing little to protect its water and Phoenix is ground zero for their future water catastrophe. Michigan is a state with a shrinking population base and a seemingly limitless supply of fresh water.
Arizona is more than 17,000 square miles bigger than Michigan but has only 82 lakes and only two of those are natural. Michigan has nearly 11,000 named lakes.
While Northern Michigan averages just more than 28 inches of precipitation a year, including 80 inches of snow, the Phoenix metro area historically averages about 8 inches annually but has seen a nearly 20% decline in recent years. Even worse, Arizona and the desert Southwest are into the 20th year of a nasty drought cycle.
The good news is much of central and southern Arizona sits atop a very large aquifer that provides vital water for the region. Additionally, two large rivers, the Salt and Verde, both fed by the White Mountain watershed, have been dammed, creating reservoirs that provide more water.
The bad news is it just isn’t enough. Depending on whose research you read, the Phoenix area is withdrawing somewhere between 6 and 20 times more water from the aquifer than is being recharged. As the water table recedes, sinkholes and long, deep fissures now appear in the desert.
Farther north, Lake Mead, which straddles the Arizona-Nevada border, is the largest reservoir in the United States. It is the primary source of water for the Las Vegas area. But Lake Mead is now a truly stunning 133 feet below capacity, the lowest it has been since its creation. It need not recede much farther before the water line will dip below the intake pipes, abruptly stopping the flows into Las Vegas.
To be fair, both Las Vegas and Tucson have implemented some common sense conservation programs. But Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the country and one of the fastest growing, has done almost nothing. It is a desert city with nice green lawns of water-hungry Bermuda grass all summer and even thirstier rye grass in the winter and nice flowering plants and shrubbery. You’d think you were in Minneapolis if not for the palm trees and endless string of 100+ degree days.
Residential water use in Arizona is just the tip of the iceberg. Agricultural interests use about 70% of the state’s water. Crops like cotton, citrus and winter vegetables, especially lettuce, slurp amazing amounts of water.
The aquifers are overdrawn, the rivers over-subscribed. In quiet corners and hallways, those able to read the future are already wondering about the sources of new, growth-sustaining water. Grandiose plans for pipelines are already being hypothesized.
Meanwhile, Lake Michigan, the only Great Lake completely within the United States, has a lot of water. Fresh water.
Michigan’s decision to allow Nestle to pump and bottle our ground water has already established a dangerous precedent. If groundwater can be sucked out of the ground and bottled as a product then lake water can surely be piped as a product.
Those searching for water will argue that no state or small group of states can “own” a national resource like one of the Great Lakes. (The other four Great Lakes will be a little trickier since we share them with another country.) And they will appeal to our humanitarian instincts, insisting that absent our water they face economic and human cataclysms.
Many here will think the idea of a pipeline from Lake Michigan across more than half the country to the Southwest is preposterous. Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin will surely take steps to guarantee it doesn’t happen. Treaties with Canada that recognize the interconnected nature of the Great Lakes will protect us if the Michigan Legislature does not. Nobody is going to build some crazy pipeline.
That’s what they thought in Arizona when someone suggested an aqueduct from the Colorado River all the way down to Phoenix and even farther south to Tucson. The landscape was impossible, there were tribal nations to cross, and the mere idea of it was just silly.
But build it they did. Over the rivers and through the deserts and, improbably, straight through a couple of mountains. Completed in 1993 after 20 years of construction it’s called the Central Arizona Project. It starts at Lake Havasu on the Colorado River and runs 336 miles to a point south of Tucson. And it’s already over-subscribed.
The Dust States have done a poor job of conserving their precious water and will soon be thirsty. We had best get serious about protecting ours so we won’t be.

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