American West First Ground Zero for Water Politics

Water is the new oil, some speculators in the commodities world have stated. In the American West, California’s prediction that it will run out of water in 2016 if it continues its rate of use has pushed the issue to the forefront of government involvement, but water politics will eventually become a global issue as demand impacts supply everywhere. The issue is expected to bring the focus on corporation needs versus those of people.

Nestlé, the largest food producer in the world and bottled water purveyor, has been buying up water rights in countries all over the world in anticipation that the precious resource will fetch high rates some day when drought, pollution, contamination and unmet demand will combine to propel businesses to pay dearly for its provision. Other water-using companies like Coca Cola and Poland Springs get tax credits and water well access over individuals because they create jobs.

Groups like the World Water Council are working for water “security” through “Sustainable Development Goals” to maintain universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation—the lack of being the chief cause of disease in Third World countries with explosive population growth. Pakistani officials, for instance, are complaining that Nestlé is causing children to become ill because they don’t have access to clean water—the company’s deep wells are siphoning off the good and leaving the contaminated water in village wells.

In the United States, fracking chemicals that have filtered into water systems, as well as eroding pipes causing leakage and contamination and an 18-year drought in the West have all contributed to deep concern over water as an issue. Political battles are being waged on local and statewide levels in the West to protect water rights as governments seek to appropriate them for public use.

Already California, Arizona, Nevada and other Western desert states are battling to maintain access to water, much of which comes from the Colorado River, which courses through Arizona and Nevada and supplies Southern California. Scientists using a worst-case scenario model of the drought’s impact say it could turn the region into a dust bowl in the next 50 years if climate change continues on course. “Sustainability” and “safe yield” of water aquifers are terms that are becoming familiar to residents in the West as water looms as the central issue of the future.

The state government of California is acting on the fact that it only has about a year of water supply left in its aquifers by forcing water consumption reductions of 25% statewide, and as much as 35% in wealthier areas like Beverly Hills. It is also raising water rates to discourage high usage. The state is also pushing residents to eliminate lawns that sap up the precious resource. Agencies that don’t comply with mandatory water reduction rates will receive fines of as much as $10,000 a day. Lawsuits against the state over the conservation demands have been swift. Some municipalities are bucking higher demands for reduction in usage because of the economic impact.

In the Lake Tahoe area, the lack of snow has been devastating to the ski resort industry. Typically a third of the state’s water comes from snowpack on its mountains in the winter, but in 2015, the amount of snow was 5% of its normal rate—the lowest amount on record.

San Diego’s water authority has invested $1 billion in a desalinization plant that is due to go online in 2016—and may help ease the water shortage in that area, but the cost is high. Other areas, like Australia and Arizona’s Yuma city, opened desalinization plants only to shutter them because the energy costs made them cost-prohibitive to run.

Among the battle lines being drawn in California, however, are those by ranchers and farmers. According to an article in The New York Times, agriculture absorbs 80 percent of the water used in California, producing about 50% of the country’s fruits nuts and vegetables. However, alfalfa, a cash crop imported to Chino, consumes 20% of that. Also, cattle growers require a great deal of water for their animals and crops that feed them—and almond growers require a gallon of water to grow one almond. California’s Governor Jerry Brown, so far, has resisted asking farms to cut back on production, but some believe agriculture will be the first victim of the lack of supply, since it only produces 2% of the state’s gross product and employs only 3% of its workers.

According to an article in Science magazine in February 2015, data on drought based on 1,000 years of tree-ring data show that the United States has a history of severe, decades-long droughts and that it is 80% likely that at least one megadrought will hit the Southwest and Midwest between 2050 and 2100, if climate change doesn’t precipitate one sooner.

While most countries don’t face water shortages yet, pollution remains a threat to water supplies for many in the development stage. China’s industries, for instance, have polluted drinking water in several large cities. Recently PetroChina had to pay $16 million in reparations for polluting water in Lanzhou. Dyeing plants, oil refineries and pesticide manufacturers are also under fire for dumping toxic chemicals into rivers and lakes, according to a story in The Wall Street Journal. An estimated 60% of China’s groundwater is polluted.

Regardless of climate cycles, manmade drought may cause water shortages, according to an article in The Economist. Water tables are falling all over the world, including in America, India and China, due mostly to poor farming techniques and overuse of aquifers. It recommended creating underground aquifers, replacing leaking pipes, lining earth-bottomed canals and irrigating plants at their roots—as well as growing fewer water-demanding crops, such as corn and alfalfa.

The World Health Organization sets “survival” consumption levels at 20 liters a day for basic hygiene and food hygiene, not including laundry and bathing. Meanwhile, flushing a toilet uses 50 liters a day—and places like Arizona and California combined water more golf courses than any other place on earth.

Whatever happens or doesn’t California’s government will likely be the first one to deal head-on with the shortage of water, followed by Arizona, which has an estimated six years of water available in its aquifers for the capital city of Phoenix. What transpires in California is likely to be watched by governments globally as water becomes a more valuable resource than ever.