America’s water woes
Robert Glennon, author of Unquenchable, this year’s Book in Common, comes to Chico to speak about national water crisis
Hear the author speak:
Californians are used to worrying about water. Northern Californians in particular bemoan the diversion of precious Nor Cal water south to supply the Central Valley and beyond. Water is becoming a scarce commodity, resulting in increasing problems with everything from the maintenance of fish populations and agriculture to the political relations between the northern and southern portions of the state.
The water crisis, however, is much more than a California problem, as Robert Glennon—the author of this year’s Butte County Book in Common, Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It—pointed out in a recent phone interview from his office at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
“At the macro level, what’s surprising is how broad the crisis is. I mean, it’s not a Western [United States] problem, or an arid-lands problem. It’s more than that,” said Glennon. “The crisis is very real, and it’s a national problem, not a regional problem.”
Glennon—who has developed a reputation for being a good storyteller, both in print and in person—will be in Chico on Oct. 5 to speak at Chico State’s Laxson Auditorium.
“When I tell stories about the Great Lakes, that surprises people,” he said. “They tell me the Great Lakes have a lot of water. So it comes as a shock that the largest—Lake Superior—is too low to float cargo ships, which requires offloading hundreds of tons of freight, which dramatically increases the cost of shipping.”
Similarly, a number of states in the humid Southeast are having serious water-shortage issues. Georgia’s Lake Lanier, “the principal water supply for almost 5 million people in Metro Atlanta,” as Glennon describes it in Unquenchable, “almost dried up” in October 2007, he said. “And that’s in a state that gets 50 inches of rain a year.
“The crisis is not of concern only to environmentalists,” said Glennon. “It’s so much more than that, such as a paper company in South Carolina closing its doors because it doesn’t have enough water [to process wood pulp into paper] … [and] the disaster in Georgia, which resulted in no permits [being issued] to two new nuclear-power plants because there was not enough water.
“The water crisis is really about the health of the American economy,” Glennon said. “Practically every business needs water—not just Coca-Cola, etc., but Google and Intel. … ‘What?’ people will say, ‘Google needs water?’ Yes, they need water—a heck of a lot of water.” Performing a Google search on a computer “cranks up a ‘server farm’—giant buildings with 10,000 computers in one building,” he explained. “That generates a heck of a lot of heat, and you need water to cool it.” Likewise, the Intel Corporation requires “a lot of water to make chips.”
Glennon also noted that there is “an intimate connection between water and energy, which works in two directions. You need a lot of water to make energy—for example, ethanol. It’s ridiculous how much water it takes to make ethanol.
“The real water consumption [involved in the ethanol-making process] is in growing the corn, which is not a big problem if you are in Illinois where Mother Nature generally provides enough water.” The problem comes, as Glennon points out in Unquenchable, in major ethanol-producing states such as California, Colorado, Nebraska and Texas, in which farmers have to depend on irrigation to water their corn fields, thus diverting much-needed water from local rivers and aquifers.
An enormous amount of water is needed to produce corn. “It takes 2,500 gallons of water to grow enough corn to refine one gallon of ethanol,” Glennon said. Additionally, “it takes four gallons of water to refine one gallon of ethanol.”
“The state of California has a goal of producing a billion gallons of ethanol a year,” writes Glennon. “To grow enough corn to refine that much ethanol would take 1.7-2.5 trillion gallons—more than all the water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta that now goes to Southern California cities and to Central Valley farmers.”
Despite its seemingly lavish use of water for such things as the widely known fountains at the Bellagio hotel and casino, the huge desert city of Las Vegas has actually come to terms with the reality of a shrinking water supply, said Glennon. “It’s easy to hate Vegas,” he said, but the whole Vegas strip “uses only 3 percent of the city’s water.” Hotels with colossal water features, such as the Belaggio and the Mirage, use treated graywater recycled from the buildings’ sinks and showers to give the illusion of abundant water.
Recycling water, in fact, is one of a number of water-saving options Glennon suggests in Unquenchable. “I offer a menu of options to keep the crisis from becoming a catastrophe,” he said. Some solutions “are obvious—water conservation, [rain]water harvesting. Those seem absolutely essential.
“In many places in California, conserving water is not the cultural ethic,” Glennon observed. “I mean, Sacramento really loves its green lawns.
“We can recycle and reuse water far more than we do. A viable option is the use of treated wastewater—the reuse of municipal effluence.”
Tucson Water, in Glennon’s hometown, “has delivered reclaimed water for more than twenty years,” he writes in Chapter 9 of Unquenchable, “Shall We Drink Pee?” “The finished product is not quite drinking-water quality, but the water is not currently meant for human consumption. The reclamation system … serves 900 sites that include golf courses, parks, cemeteries, roadway medians, schoolyards, and some individual homes.”
Glennon is “a huge critic” of flush toilets, which take potable water and flush it down the drain. “That’s drinking water that we’re flushing away,” he said. “If you think about it for more than a nanosecond, that’s a truly bizarre use of water.” He would like to see the creation of “a national commission to look at the problem and figure out different ways to get rid of human waste,” such as via waterless urinals and incinerating toilets.
Glennon would also like to see water priced appropriately. “We pay less for water than we do for cell-phone service and cable television,” he noted.
“We are entering an era of water reallocation,” said Glennon. “Think of the water supply as a giant milk shake, and each water demand as a straw in the glass. Many states permit a limitless number of straws, which is a recipe for disaster.” In California’s Central Valley, for instance, he said, “[farmers] are all pumping from the same aquifer,” lowering the water table at an alarming rate.
“We need to substitute this mindless open season with a ‘demand-offset’ system,” Glennon said. For example, a developer who needs more water would have to pay a farmer who already has his straw in the glass “to replace his earthen ditch with a lined canal and use the water saved in the process. And that [way of allocating water] is taking off.”
“I am an optimist,” said Glennon. “We can do this.”