America's H20 Binge May Be Over, Says An Expert; Water Is Low, and We're Using More Than We Have

updated 06/16/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/16/1986 01:00AM

Droughts like the one that has recently parched the Southeast are nature's way of reminding people that nothing can be taken for granted—not even the water on which we stake our survival. Yet we expect the dry periods, like the inundations, to pass. That, says historian and writer Charles Bowden, is a mistake. While long-withheld rains may return, there are some water shortages the U.S. will have to live with forever. Among the causes, says Bowden, 40, author of Killing the Hidden Waters (University of Texas Press paperback, $7.95)and Blue Desert (University of Arizona Press, $16.95), a forthcoming report on the Sunbelt, is the depletion of the great underground reservoir on which much of the Great Plains depends. The immediate problem is regional, but the implications, explains Bowden, are national. He discussed them with reporter Maggie Mahar.

What is causing the water problem in parts of the West today?

There never has been enough rain out here in the Southwest to answer human needs, so we've always mined groundwater to irrigate our fields. But as a weapon against drought, that raises more snakes than it kills. The water table is sinking because we've been taking water out at a rate far faster than it falls from the skies. Any Southwesterner can look down the well, see the water level sinking and know that it's not an abstract problem.

How fast is the land being drained elsewhere?

In 1930 there were 170 irrigation wells on the High Plains. By 1982 150,000 pumps were sucking water from the land. Pumps proliferated as they became cheaper and more efficient. Eighty years ago, it took a crew of men to keep a pump running. Now a single pump can irrigate the land in solitude, all night long. We've built the perfect weapon.

Where are the effects of irrigation most visible?

You can see the success—and the cost—of modern irrigation played out on the Ogallala aquifer, a monstrous underground reservoir spreading over Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska. In 1954 there were three million irrigated acres on top of the Ogallala. By 1981 there were 15 million. But the Ogallala is being depleted. About 21 million acre feet are being pumped out of the aquifer annually, while nature is replacing only about 1 million acre feet per year. An acre foot is 326,000 gallons—enough water to cover an acre to a depth of one foot.

Can an aquifer ever be exhausted?

For all practical purposes, it can be. An aquifer is a natural storage tank, holding snowmelt and rainwater that's been trapped underground—often for thousands of years. For a long time people persisted in believing that the Ogallala was an underground river, but it's not. Like a reservoir, it holds a limited supply of water and at current pump rates it will be commercially useless in a few decades.

Why should the rest of the country be concerned about a water problem in the West?

First, water is a national problem. The experience of the Ogallala is the experience of all places where human appetite exceeds supply. In 1900 the average American used less than 100 gallons daily. Today, industrial and home use combined totals 1,875 gallons a day per person. There have been projections that we will be using 6,000 gallons a day by the year 2000, though this no longer seems likely. Either as a result of pollution or consumption there are already periodic shortages in many parts of the country.

What impact would the depletion of the Ogallala have on the national economy?

The Ogallala has been the foundation for a billion dollar agricultural empire. By the late '70s this cropland accounted for 25.1 percent of this country's exported feed grains. Forty percent of U.S. beef is fed on grain from the surface of the Ogallala. When the aquifer is depleted, there will be a great hole in our capacity to feed the country and the world. In some areas of Texas, much of the Ogallala water is already gone. Four percent of the wells throughout the Texas High Plains are dry. As a result the food factory is moving north to Nebraska where 64 percent of the Ogallala's remaining water is stored.

How long will the Nebraska reserves holdout?

Nebraska is worried. They're putting in pump limits in several districts while trying to formulate water conservation plans. Most of the state's untapped water is in the Sandhills region where large dunes are carpeted by a thin layer of topsoil and grass. The soil's fertility collapses within about three years of being farmed, and when the fields are abandoned, unless there is a serious effort to revegetate them, grass may not return. The fields will then blow away.

When will the Ogallala finally be exhausted commercially?

It's hard to say, but agriculture is already being threatened in western Oklahoma, eastern New Mexico and West Texas. By the year 2020, 20 percent of the fields on top of that aquifer in Texas won't be farmed at all.

Why can't the West import water from areas where it's abundant?

Most people initially think that's the obvious solution. But consider the cost. Keep in mind that water weighs eight pounds a gallon and by the year 2000 we'll have to move tons per person per day if current consumption trends continue. A recent federal study entertained the notion of pumping water through canals from Arkansas to West Texas, eastern New Mexico and western Oklahoma—just 2,725 feet uphill over 860 miles. The total construction cost was estimated at $20.6 billion—which means that it won't be done. Also Arkansas hasn't volunteered to have itself drained for the sake of Texas.

Is water also a political problem?

Yes. The fight over the Central Arizona Project dramatizes the controversy. After a 40-year struggle between Arizona and California, water is being siphoned from the Colorado River to sustain the booming growth of Phoenix and, by 1991, Tucson. But California itself is pumping 5 million acre feet a year from the river to water the Imperial Valley and cities in Southern California. When the Central Arizona Project begins taking its full share in a few years, California must by law reduce its ration to 4.4 million acre feet. How it handles the cutback is yet to be determined.

Are states becoming less willing to export water?

Yes. Most humid regions such as the Pacific Northwest are using the water they don't consume themselves for fisheries or simply to dilute and disperse industrial wastes. The Northwest and Canada assert that they need their heavy river flows as a reserve for future growth. From time to time Western politicians float fantasies of building big ditches from the Columbia River or from the Mississippi, but the days when states will share their water so that other states can grow are over. As one Nebraska expert put it, "Water's not something you give up."

Will the Central Arizona Project help sustain current Sunbelt growth?

Not really. Both Phoenix and Tucson are busily destroying the available water supply, growing as fast as they can. The real question about the water problem is not "How do we solve it?" but "What will we do when we have to pay more and use less?"

Does this mean that the Sunbelt boom will hit the wall for lack of water?

The boom will probably change rather than stop. In Arizona the water planners are going to get rid of farmers the way FDR's Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace, once proposed shooting every tenth pig to curtail over supply. Increasingly water is being taken from agriculture and given to cities because urban use adds more dollars to the economy per gallon than does splashing it through furrows in cotton fields. When you look at the West, you don't see water ending the boom but limiting it.

What changes do you see for the rest of the country?

Very simply, people will be using less water and paying more. People adapt. For example, in Tucson 10 years ago the average person used 200 gallons a day for domestic needs. Today he's cut back to 148 gallons. Ten years ago the lawns were green. Today the lawns are increasingly cactus. City residents are paying 100 percent more for 148 gallons than they paid for 200 gallons—and rates will go higher.

Don't the experts hope to find new sources of water for the future?

When people look at the inflexible numbers on water, they flee into fantasy. The Arabs talked about towing icebergs. Some people talk about the desalinization of seawater. But think about the cost. Keep in mind that California found it cheaper to build an aqueduct from the northern part of the state to the south rather than going to the Pacific to try desalinization. Re-treatment of sewage water for human consumption is probably the most practical alternative water source. Eventually it will be done in many places in the U.S. But re-treated water will cost more. How much more depends on the cost of energy.

When you look down the road 25 years, do you see a bleak, dry future?

The future isn't bleak, but it's different. You're living in the richest country in the world in terms of resources, with the largest expanse of prime agricultural land on the planet. Every other country in the world would like to have our assets to solve our problems. But people will have to get by with less water and pay more. People who have learned to pay $10,000 for a tiny car will learn to pay large increases for water. Remember, the cheapest water is the water you use first. And we've already drunk that. Now we've got to pay our bar bill.

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