Water We Gun Do Bowdit?

A quick glance at the areas of drought in late July 2014 from the NYT map below tells more than we want to hear about. See that dark red patch on the west coast? That’s California from San Francisco southward. The other red area takes in the entire Southwest up into Washington. We are in the midst of a severe water emergency. This has come about because the past three winters have not brought the deep snows we expected in the Sierras, the snows that provide almost all of the water for the entire state. The reservoirs are very low, and boat docks have long been sitting on dry land. Farmers have been drilling to record depths for irrigation water, and the land has sunk a yard because of it. We don’t know when ground water will be gone, but we do know it won’t be coming back.

Drought 2014-07-24

But that’s not the scary part. The scary part is the distinct possibility that the two-century wet period we got used to is an anomaly, and may well be over. It looks increasingly probable that we are reverting to the arid climate of the millennia before. Those who don’t believe it should take a look at The West Without Water, by Ingram and Malamud-Roam. They show us what science says, and what it says is what I just repeated.

OMG! We could be in deep doo-doo. There are many millions more people now, both here and in the whole US. The entire nation relies on the produce grown in California’s Central Valley, which is ground zero for drought. We are in deep doo-doo, and aren’t doing any more about it than we are doing about climate change. Both are things that are not merely possibilities for some distant future. Both are happening now, and are very dangerous.

We are reverting to an arid climate.

We can hardly claim that it’s “fortunate” that we in California have a better shot at fixing the water crisis than the climate crisis, but at least our state problem is on a somewhat smaller scale. And there are things we can do. Lots of them. Unfortunately, almost all are things that will help cities and people, but not the great food-growing enterprise.

But some people apparently think they are still back east. They simply don’t get it: We live in a desert, not a rainforest. Kentucky blue grass is an invasive weed. At the very least, every single person in the arid Southwest must understand that wasting water is a serious failure that will soon be treated as a punishable crime.

Kentucky blue grass is an invasive weed.

What to do about agricultural water, which is most of it, is a difficult problem with few good suggestions. But improving city use has several ready solutions. Below is one of the quickest to implement, and involves the bulk of city water use.

But first, a quick review of how water is purified.

All water must be purified before it is safe and pleasant to drink, even our beloved Hetch Hetchey water. Most water from lakes and rivers comes with stuff like wood, fish and fish crap, and plants in it, as well as various bacteria and other contaminants. So first it is filtered to take out the “big chunks”. Next it is is mixed with alum and chlorine and settled. The sticky alum blobs attract bacteria and other stuff which sink to the bottom and are removed. After that the water is filtered through several feet of gravel and sand, then disinfected with chlorine and other chemicals. Some chlorine is left in the water to prevent buildup of bacteria before household use. If the water is good to begin with, only the latter steps are needed.

All water must be purified
before it is safe and pleasant to drink.

When the water is used it becomes contaminated by all sorts of waste matter and chemicals, and is returned to a waste water treatment plant. There it is treated much the same way “new” water is treated. It is not purified as thoroughly as fresh water is, but unless the treatment plant is an antique, the water is treated enough that it can be safely discharged into the ocean or river without undue risk of disease-causing contamination.

But here’s the thing: This relatively safe discharge water needs only to be treated much as “new” water is treated to become perfectly safe and pleasant for drinking and other household uses again. If it is, the need for “new” water is sharply reduced, thus saving us from the all but certain dangerous shortages that we will soon experience.

At least one large commercial building
recycles and purifies all of its water
right in the lobby of the building.

Although pure water is pure water, and safe and pleasant to drink, many people can’t quite believe that water once befouled with fecal matter and chemicals could be completely recovered. But it’s quite true. Remember, reservoir water comes complete with fish, bird, and animal poop and worse. At least one large commercial building purifies and recycles all of its water right in the lobby of the building. It works.

Even so, it makes no sense to purify every drop of water at great expense when only the water for drinking and cooking needs to be that pure. Nor should it be necessary to use drinking water—which is only available in bottles in many parts of the world—to flush away waste. But that requires a radical reworking of infrastructure and major basic changes. Look here for one approach.

There are many things that could and should be done to address the water disaster now breathing down our necks. The trouble is, we think we can get by with small gestures until it’s all better again, and that ain’t gonna happen. As with climate change, we have used up all our procrastination time. If we don’t start paying some serious attention we will soon wish we had.


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  1. Reblogged this on Citizens, not serfs.


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