Thirty years after Marc Reisner penned Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water his prophesy is being fulfilled. As the chalky rings which mark previous higher water levels around Colorado River reservoirs grow ever wider, Grist reports that major disputes are now afoot over the remaining water supply.
Modern economists have long told us not to worry about resource scarcity. Higher prices will bring on new supplies whenever resource supplies decline. And, if a resource truly is becoming unobtainable, then we’ll always find a substitute.
When I hear this, I often counter: “There is certainly some truth to what you are saying. But, please tell me what the substitute for potable water will be.” The response is usually to change the subject—for the obvious reason that there is no substitute.
A Scientific American article in 2012 put world freshwater usage at more than 9 trillion cubic meters for per year. Per capita, Americans, not surprisingly, consumed more than twice the world average. Certainly, there is much room for water conservation in America and in the American West.
But what does conservation mean when 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is used for agriculture? Of course, it means that conservation is going to affect food production. At first, it might mean simply making irrigation systems more efficient through, say, drip irrigation.
But once conservation has achieved all that it can achieve, what will we do? It is important to remember that what is normally measured when it comes to water consumption is “freshwater” consumption. The water optimists will point to the vast brackish aquifers still available to us humans, not to mention the almost limitless supply in the oceans. The fact that the U.S. Geological Survey was asked by Congress to survey brackish water availability in the United States is an indicator of how serious the situation has become.
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