Exposing America's Water Crisis

Cynthia Barnett says Americans live under an "illusion of water abundance" and calls for government water managers and private water companies to "stem the drain on America's water resources before it's too late."

"From California to Florida," writes Barnett, "freshwater aquifers are being pumped so much faster than they recharge that many parts of the country can no longer rely on groundwater to supply future populations." Yet most Americans are not aware of the reality of water scarcity and "still pump with abandon to do things like soak the turf grass that covers 63,240 square miles of the nation." While the Ogallala Aquifer and Georgia's Lake Lanier are out of sight for most people, Lake Mead is "one of the few places in the United States where the illusion of water abundance is being exposed for what it is: a beautiful bubble doomed to pop, just like other great national illusions - the unending bull market, say, or upward-only housing prices."

Lake Mead is the nation's largest reservoir, but its water level has dropped to expose a calcium-carbonate bathtub ring resulting from the "over-allocation of the Colorado River and the drought still battering so much of the United States." Barnett believes that the "ever-widening ring is the perfect starting point to talk to the millions who show up at Hoover Dam about our need to live differently with water," but on a recent tour, the guides described the system as an "assured and reliable water supply" and "uttered not one word about the dramatic drought that has unfolded since."

"As cheap water flows from our taps like magic, our freshwaters have become the single most degraded of America's major resources, identified by the USGS and other agencies as having lost a greater portion of their species and habitat than land ecosystems."

While the average American remains in the dark about the drought, however, "from Australia to Texas, people and businesses are proving how painless it is to live with a lot less water," says Barnett. Australians have undergone a water revolution with "tiny technologies such as micro-irrigation for agriculture and waterless everything," and San Antonio residents have halved their water use and are mimicking historic grazing patterns to raise livestock on nonirrigated grasslands.

Full Story: America's water mirage

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