Water Shortages: Another Unrealized Environmental Disaster?

The drought in 2012 pushed some water supplies to dangerously-low levels and reminded us all of how deeply dependent our economy, and certainly agriculture, is on an abundance of water.

The recent drought gave rise to an increased focus on water supply, including the United Nations declaring 2013 the “International Year of Water Cooperation.”  Additionally, recent articles have surfaced that discuss future forecast of water supplies and growing populations.  Looking beyond the recent wet weather (rain and snow) that has covered much of America’s heartland, what are some of the water supply prognostications? In a word; fatalistic.

According to some sources, water is becoming an endangered resource.  The United States State Department said, “The need for fresh water will exceed the supply by 40 percent by the year 2030.”

In a March 22, 2013, article in the Washington Post, author Steve Traction writes, “The indisputable fact is that water scarcity is rapidly becoming a significant factor in the way of life in the U.S…the problem will become critical in just a decade or two…the range of effects may include…long-term restrictions on home and community water usage; significant declines in agricultural outputs as well as meat and dairy produce that require huge amounts of water for irrigation and sustenance of livestock; shortages of just about every product made using water-dependent manufacturing processes…and disruptions or complete shutdown of several critical sources of hydroelectric power.”

The author also points to dwindling water levels in Lake Mead, as well as depletion of the massive Ogallala Aquifer, which (conservatively) takes thousands of years to recharge.

More bad news on the water front:  The Christian Science Monitor (referencing a report in the journal Science) reported two years ago that that the snowpack along the Rocky Mountains is as low as it has been in the past 800 years.  But the population and demands are far greater now than they were in the 1300s and 1400s…including irrigation and power generation needs.

Water demands are growing, supplies are stressed, and our way of life is in jeopardy…

This is not the first time we have heard horrific environmental predictions.  Henry Fairfield Osborn wrote “Our Plundered Planet” in 1948 in the same year William Vogt wrote “Road to Survival.”  Both of these books issued warnings of dwindling resources, famines & over population, and an inevitable fall in the standard of living.

In 1980, there was a famous bet between ecologist and doomsayer Paul Ehrlich and economist Julian Simon.  Simon offered to let anyone pick any natural resources and a future date – according to Simon, the increased population would not cause scarcity and increased prices, rather prices would fall.  Paul Ehrlich, who famously wrote “The Population Bomb” in 1968 has long warned of dwindling resources and mass famine, took Simon up on the bet.  Ehrlich picked five metals (chrome, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten).  The future date was 1990.  Simon was right; Ehrlich paid, but he continued to forecast more ecological doom (see John Tierney, New York Times, 1990 “Betting on the Planet”).

While bad news certainly grabs headlines, business decisions need to have a more rational approach.

As it relates to water supply, all the news isn’t bad.  In a recent book, The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, Charles Fishman looks at the global water issue.  Interestingly, Fishman explains that Americans use less water today than we did in 1980, not just in per-capita terms, but also in absolute terms.  Fishman notes water use in the United States peaked in 1980 at 440 billion gallons per day.  Twenty-five years later we are using less than 410 billion gallons a day even though our population increased by 70 million people.  (See “The Big Thirst.”)

Water conservation practices and new drought resistant crops have helped us get the most out of the planet’s fixed amount of water.

The past predictions of environmental/ecological doom were wrong, because, as with other environmental threats, it’s science, ingenuity, and creative minds that find solutions, while naysayers look for the next disaster.

So, should agriculture be concerned about water supply?  Yes, we cannot afford to ignore any environmental threat.  But focus on the facts and solutions rather than hysteria.  As Julian Simon said, “There’s nothing wrong with worrying about new problems, we need problems so we can come up with solutions that leave us better off than if they’d never come up in the first place.”

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