Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Although most Americans believe water scarcity occurs only in countries where Angelina Jolie campaigns for peace, two of the world’s most overexerted rivers are right here in the United States. According to the World Resource Institute, both the Colorado and Rio Grande suffer from extremely high stress, meaning that we annually withdraw more than 80 percent of each river’s renewable water supply, and at least a third of the US exhibits medium to high water stress or greater.
Take Lake Mead. Located outside Las Vegas, the lake has experienced an alarming decline in elevation. The US Bureau of Reclamation commissioned the Hoover Dam in 1931 to protect the water needs of the area, but according to the Las Vegas Sun, experts predict that Lake Mead could run dry by 2050, with declining power generation possibly occurring in as little as a year. According to the Sun, the Colorado River “provides drinking water for 36 million Americans, supplies irrigation for 15 percent of the nation’s crops, and supports a $26 billion recreation economy that employs 250,000 people." In other words, if Lake Mead dries out, we’re fucked.
What should we do to fix this and other water problems? Glen MacDonald, a UCLA distinguished professor, a UC presidential chair, and the director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, believes he has the answers. I emailed him to discuss America’s water problem, the issues in the Southwest, and what the government can do to save our water supply.
VICE: Where do you think our biggest threat lies in terms of water scarcity?
Glen MacDonald: In the United States, we are so used to turning on the taps and getting clean water that we forget this is not the way it is in many parts of the world, or that in a state like California we need about 80 percent of the water we apply to grow the food we eat. We urbanites forget about the huge needs of water for agriculture and the problems that drought can cause for farmers and ranchers, even in a rich country like the United States.
Which industries, in your opinion, could make changes that would produce the biggest drop in global water consumption and river stress?
The biggest use of water is agriculture. However, in California many farmers are using water pretty well relative to the crops they grow. Getting efficiencies in irrigation while protecting crop yield is getting increasingly difficult as the easy fixes have already been applied in many cases. Perhaps we need a movement by consumers to favor water-wise food choices and crops. [This will] help incentivize the growing of crops which are efficient in terms of water per yield, provide healthy and diverse food choices, and allow farmers to make a living. This is an important area with exciting possibilities.
What do you think about population control as a part of the solution to the global water crisis?
I believe that if we work together we can supply good clean water to meet projected population growth in this century. As economic status, educational status, and freedom increases, population-growth rates tend to decline naturally. I think we should worry about getting good clean water to people who lack it and not focus on global population head counting.
What about reclaimed water?
Reclaimed water is part of the solution in arid cities. It can be gray water used for irrigation, or it can be treated wastewater placed directly back into the water system or used to replenish groundwater and reservoir supplies first.
What is the future of Southwestern American cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles?
I believe that in the Southwest we may see changes in our urban landscaping as we become even more water-wise. Remember that 50 to 70 percent of urban water is typically used for landscaping. By rethinking our gardens and outdoor spaces we can conserve a lot! I think in any case that urban water supplies will be protected. Cities in the Southwest will not dry up and disappear, but the cost could be higher water rates for consumers, and less water for agriculture.
What should the government do to protect our water?
The State needs to pass a comprehensive water bond that has no pork and provides improved water infrastructure and water management—including ground water management. Problems with our groundwater supplies are a looming problem that we need to get a handle on.
What countries provide good examples of responsible water conservation that the US can follow?
I think Australia has a broad number of technologies and strategies that work to save water. [Since] their climate is similar to ours, it provides a good test bed for us to look at.
What can the average citizen implement to make a dent in water consumption?
Most people have installed low-flow toilets and showers—if not, do it now! Tackle how much you water your outside plants. Most people over-water their gardens. If you can get rid of lawn and replace it with beautiful low-water demanding plants, by all means do it now! We have zero lawn at our new house, and I am seeing more and more people replacing lawns and boring high-water consumption gardens with beautiful water-wise landscaping.