All of My Faults Are Stress Related

Water wars & regulation

Water. Too much and you drown, not enough and you die of thirst. Getting it just right is important. But how?

One of the fears associated with global warming is that it could lead to droughts that could lead to wars. There was an essay in Nature in March that argued that those wars don’t really happen – that countries trade virtual water when they import food. But is that really the case? Seed has a nice article today about just that. It brings together seven experts on water and international relations to address the question of water and conflict. The consensus, if you can ever get one from seven experts, is that water shortages can lead to conflict, whether it not leads to war. But don’t just read my summary – check out the whole thing.

And within a country, or even within a state – say, California – how should water shortages be handled? The western US has a complicated set of water laws dealing with the distribution of surface water, but in California’s case, the surface water simply isn’t enough. So farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are going back to what they did in the 1950’s: they’re using groundwater. That caused problems such as subsidence of the ground surface – when water was removed, the sediment compacted, and the ground sunk. The New York Times reports that California is now considering regulating the use of groundwater, but that there is resistance:

“I don’t want the government to come in and dictate to us, ‘This is all the water you can use on your own land,’ ” said Mr. Watte, 57. “We would resist that to our dying day.”

I wonder if Californians would be more willing to accept the limitations of groundwater if they took earth & environmental science classes in high school?

(Thanks to John Fleck for the link to the NY Times article.)


  1. #1 K
    May 14, 2009

    The limitations of groundwater are so obvious! If only people would take a few minutes to think about it.

    To avoid being accused of breaking (mains) water restrictions, some people here with a groundwater well on their property have signs saying “Bore Water In Use” on their fence. Every time I see one I want to scribble something like “Yeah, and how is that a good thing?!” underneath.

  2. #2 modman
    May 14, 2009

    I think they understand perfectly well. As long as they are able to pump water they stay profitable, if they stop they are no longer profitable.

    Much as a mine or an oil pad are not permanent cash printing presses water is mined in the same way. The thing that drives me crazy is how they always expect the government to bail them out when they run out of water. About two years ago here in Colorado that happened. We spent hundreds of millions of dollars paying farmers that planted the wrong crops and couldn’t water them because there was not enough of the stuff.

    As you can imagine they all put up “Ron Paul” banners last year!

  3. #3 adornosghost
    May 14, 2009

    I wonder if Californians would be more willing to accept the limitations of groundwater if they took earth & environmental science classes in high school?

    This is assuming that humans make decisions based on reason, critical thinking, and observation. There is no evidence of this being true. People make decisions on story and myth, and think heuristically, rather than critically.

  4. #4 ScienceWoman
    May 15, 2009

    Nice synthesis of recent water tweets. 🙂

    As to your final question, those of us who teach introductory earth science courses in college certainly hope that the little knowledge they retain from our classes will help them be better land owners and decision makers later on. Otherwise, it’s too depressing…

  5. #5 ScienceSealedDelivered
    May 15, 2009

    Virtual water maps are certainly available. (I posted a couple I use for one of the classes I teach, just for you! And I linked back here. I must be having a nice day or something.)

    What’s incredible to those of us working on these issues is that countries like Australia and China, where there are already water availability issues and that are on the changing climatic fronts, are still net exporters of water. Prying water rights away from e.g. agricultural users? Good luck!

    More to the point though, even should they have the educational resources to understand what’s going on, the choice remains. Would Californians (for instance, not trying to pick on them!) be willing to protect water resources and reduce water usage/wastage for their intrinsic sake? Maybe.

    Would they be willing to protect water resources and reduce water usage/wastage for the sake of other Californians? Of Nevada? Maybe.

    Would they be willing to protect water resources and reduce water usage/wastage for the sake of Canadians? For Mexicans? Maybe.

    If it cost them there something else precious to them? Maybe not, or at least not quite so readily.

  6. #6 Gaythia Weis
    May 16, 2009

    ScienceSealedDelivered, or others, can you produce (or know of) a water distribution map that covers the Western US?

    For example, Colorado’s front range, including Denver, uses water piped under the Rockies from the Colorado river headwaters. In western Colorado, oil shale interests are purchasing water rights. The Colorado river is also tapped into by others, including Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California. It should be still in existence in Mexico.

    Additionally, Southern California also gets water from the California Sierras, some of that from the San Joaquin river delta via the California aqueduct.

    Colorado’s front range also uses groundwater from the Ogallala aquifer which extends into Kansas, Texas and elsewhere in the Great Plains and is rapidly being depleted in many areas.

    I think that visual representations of these interlinkages would be very useful aids in educating the public about water issues.

  7. #7 anonymous
    May 17, 2009

    This isn’t a big deal. California is right to next to ocean – there is no shortage of water.

    The largest desalination plant in the US to date was just approved this week, in San Diego – 200,000 m^3/day:,0,6045334.story

    The projected prices are only moderately higher than current water rates, so the worst-case scenario with groundwater depletion is pretty benign. Unfortunately this one is powered by a natural gas plant – California has a moratorium on nuclear plants, so that’s what you get. 🙁

  8. #8 ScienceSealedDelivered
    May 17, 2009

    @Gaythia: I think you’re right. Unfortunately, I don’t have such a map — yet. In the meantime I would recommend USGS Circular 1182 (esp section 1) as an interesting document that could be used to communicate some of these issues.

    @Anon: Did you even read the WSJ article you link to? As Gleick says and you yourself hopefully understand (based on your comments re: power), desalination costs are partly tied to energy costs. The story you link to is at best cautiously optimistic, and notes a dubious track record (e.g. the desalinated water now costs twice what the 1999 projection was, and went $40M over budget on the projected construction costs). Also, wars have started over far less ‘moderate’ increases in far less vital resources.

    Maybe you were joking.

    That’s not to say there’s not a place for desal. It certainly adds some security and some options. I think, again, there is much to be learned from the Australian here. Using desal. alongside other approaches to help mitigate projected growth as well as projected drying probably makes the most sense.

  9. #9 Gaythia Weis
    May 17, 2009

    Today’s (May 17th) San Jose Mercury newspaper has a special section called “Managing Our Water” which I found to be informative in many ways. I believe that it has some very good diagrams of water distribution for the San Francisco Bay area and their connections with the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta and the Sierras:

    It does not, however, seem to go into the issue of subsidence due to groundwater pumping. The USGS Circular 1182 reference given by ScienceSealedDelivered above has, for example, a section discussing historic subsidence in the Santa Clara Valley (of which San Jose is a part) due to ground water withdrawals. (Thank you for this reference, ScienceSealedDelivered!)

    The Mercury News special section does have an article on the underground “water bank” that the water district for the San Jose area, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, apparently maintains not far from Bakersfield in an area referred to as the Semitropic Aquifer near Wasco. This, I believe by consulting Google maps, must be in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley. This article does not seem to mention any possible subsidence problems here if water is withdrawn. I learned from Kim Hannula above that this is already an issue in the San Joaquin valley.

    Additionally, this article does not discuss in much detail the water rights exchange process necessary for this to work other than to say that the Santa Clara Valley District would take water from the delta that would otherwise have gone to the area of the groundwater “bank”, which could then use the groundwater instead of delta water. It is impossible for them to pump this groundwater back to the Santa Clara Valley directly.

    I do not know if this Semitropic aquifer region is scheduled to receive delta water transfers in this drought year or not. If not, I fail to see how any real trade could be made.

    I would bet however, that if the farmer quote given by Kim Hannula above lives in this area, he figures any water pumped out from under his farm is his.

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