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Coming Soon To A Town Near You, A 1000 Year Drought
By Ernest Stewart
What are we going to do once all the water is gone? Thanks to the worst drought in more than 1,000 years, the western third of the country is facing the greatest water crisis the United States has ever seen. Lake Mead is now the lowest it's ever been since the Hoover Dam was finished in the 1930's; mandatory water restrictions have already been implemented in the state of California; and there are already widespread reports of people stealing water in some of the worst-hit areas. But this is just the beginning.
Right now, in a desperate attempt to maintain somewhat "normal" levels of activity, water is being pumped out of the ground in the western half of the nation at an absolutely-staggering pace. Once that irreplaceable groundwater is gone, the real crisis will begin. If this multi-year drought stretches on and becomes the "megadrought" that a lot of scientists are now warning about, life as we know it in much of the country is going to be fundamentally transformed and millions of Americans may be forced to find somewhere else to live. ~~~ Tyler Durden
The chances of a 35-year or longer "mega-drought" striking the Southwest and central Great Plains by 2100 are above 80 percent, if the world stays on its current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions, scientists from NASA, Columbia University, and Cornell University report in a study published Thursday in the new open-access journal Science Advances. Since most of the Southwest has already run out of flowing water, you might ask where has the water been coming from?
Aquifers provide us freshwater that makes up for surface water lost from drought-depleted lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. We are drawing down these hidden, mostly nonrenewable groundwater supplies at unsustainable rates in the western United States, and in several dry regions globally, threatening our future. Aquifers are not easily replaced, some taking centuries to renew; and, when gone, there are no other sources.
We're at our best when we can see a threat or challenge ahead. If flood waters are rising, an enemy is rushing at us; or, a highway exit appears just ahead of a traffic jam, we see the looming crisis and respond.
However, we aren't as adept when threats, or threatened resources, are invisible. Some of us have trouble realizing why invisible carbon emissions are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere and warming the planet. Because the surface of the sea is all we see, it's difficult to understand that we already have taken most of the large fish from the ocean, diminishing a major source of food. Neither of these crises are visible; they're largely out of sight -- out of mind -- so, it's difficult to get excited and respond. Disappearing groundwater is another out-of-sight crisis.
Groundwater comes from aquifers, spongelike gravel and sand-filled underground reservoirs; and we see this water only when it flows from springs and wells. In the United States, we rely on this hidden-and-shrinking water supply to meet half our needs; and, as drought shrinks surface water in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, we rely on groundwater from aquifers even more. Some shallow aquifers recharge from surface water; but deeper aquifers contain ancient water locked in the earth by changes in geology thousands or millions of years ago. These aquifers typically cannot recharge; and once this "fossil" water is gone, it's gone forever -- potentially changing how and where we can live and grow food, among other things.
California's Central Valley has seen a dramatic rise in well-drilling this year to compensate for surface water lost from the drought.
A severe drought in California, now approaching five years long, has depleted snowpacks, rivers, and lakes; groundwater use has soared to make up the shortfall. A new report from Stanford University says nearly 60 percent of the state's water needs are now met by groundwater -- up from 40 percent in years when normal amounts of rain and snowfall.
Relying on groundwater to make up for shrinking surface water supplies comes at a rising price; and this hidden water found in California's Central Valley aquifers is the focus of what amounts to a new gold rush. Well-drillers are working overtime; farmers and homeowners short of water now must wait in line more than a year for their new wells. For now, those who can't afford to drill a deeper well get their water from big tanks down at the fire department; but who can say for how much longer?
In most years, aquifers recharge as rainfall and streamflow seep into unpaved ground. But, during drought, the water table, the depth at which water is found below the surface, drops as water is pumped from the ground faster than it can recharge. Central Valley wells that used to strike water at 500 feet deep must now be drilled down 1,000 feet or more, at a cost of more than $300,000 for a single well. And as aquifers are depleted, the land also begins to subside, or sink.
Unlike those in other western states, Californians know little about their groundwater supply, because well-drilling records are kept secret from public view; and there's no statewide policy limiting groundwater use. State legislators are contemplating a measure that'd regulate and limit groundwater use; but even if it passes, compliance plans wouldn't be required until 2020; and full restrictions wouldn't kick in until 2040. California property owners now can pump as much water as they want from under the ground they own.
California's Central Valley isn't the only place in the U.S. where groundwater supplies are declining. Aquifers in the Colorado River Basin and the southern Great Plains also suffer severe depletion. Studies show that about half the groundwater depletion nationwide is from irrigation. Agriculture is the leading use of water in the U.S. and around the world; and, globally, irrigated farming takes more than 60 percent of the available freshwater.
The Colorado River Basin, which supplies water to 40 million people in seven states, is losing water at dramatic rates; and, most of the losses are groundwater. A new satellite study from the University of California, Irvine and NASA indicates that the Colorado River Basin lost 65 cubic kilometers (15.6 cubic miles) of water from 2004 to 2013. That's twice the amount stored in Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., which can hold two years' worth of Colorado River runoff. As Jay Famiglietti, a NASA scientist and study co-author wrote, groundwater makes up 75 percent of the water lost in the basin.
Farther east, the Ogallala Aquifer under the High Plains is also shrinking because of too much demand. When the Dust Bowl overtook the Great Plains in the 1930s, the Ogallala had been discovered only recently; and, for the most part, it wasn't tapped then to help ease the drought. But large-scale center-pivot irrigation transformed crop production on the plains after World War II, allowing water-thirsty crops like corn and alfalfa for feeding livestock.
But severe drought threatens the Southern Plains again; and water is being unsustainably drawn from the southern Ogallala Aquifer. The northern Ogallala, found near the surface in Nebraska, is replenished by surface runoff from rivers originating in the Rockies. But farther south in Texas and New Mexico, water lies hundreds of feet below the surface, and does not recharge.
The real trouble lies that in the last 50 years, all of the Desert Southwest has grown and grown in population, and can no longer assure a quality of life that most of the people moved out west to achieve. Soon, they won't be able to guarantee all the water you need just to drink, not to mention flush your toilets and do the laundry. 50 years ago, they left the "rust-belt" by the millions, somehow forgetting about the dust bowl, and other climate nightmares that all seem to be coming back in spades. So far, the climate destroyers have been able to keep it out of sight and out of mind; but even the Sheeple are beginning to see the truth.
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(c) 2015 Ernest Stewart a.k.a. Uncle Ernie is an unabashed radical, author, stand-up comic, DJ, actor, political pundit and for 13 years was the managing editor and publisher of Issues & Alibis magazine. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me on Twitter.