What does responsible water stewardship look like? India or China, or in the Central Valley of California, Prior to Western contact, Hawaiians governed their islands according to the ahupua‘a system, which defined community boundaries according to the natural flow of water. These WATERSHEDS started on mountain ridges, then followed the flow of gravity-fed streams down, and even into, the ocean. Just how important was water to the Hawaiian people? Their word for water is wai. For wealth, it’s wai wai.
Stacy Sproat-Beck is the executive director of Kauai’s Waipa Foundation, which stewards one of the islands’ last remaining ahupua‘a. “In ancient times,” she notes, “it was very important for us to protect our watersheds because in Hawaii—and probably with native people everywhere—the land and the resources where you lived are what sustained you.”
Agriculture consumes almost 80 percent of the world’s fresh water, so sustainable water stewardship is critically important, yet most people couldn’t even name their local watershed. Water, like sewage treatment and electricity, has become mostly invisible. We don’t know where it comes from. That’s a problem, because if we don’t know where our water comes from,we probably won’t know to miss it when it’s gone. And the fact is, our fresh water supplies aren’t infinite.
Agriculture draws much of its water from aquifers, which are bodies of water beneath the ground. Nearly a third of all agricultural lands in the United States—where we grow the bulk of our corn, soy, and wheat—rely on the Ogallala, an aquifer that spans the Great Plains region. This is FOSSIL WATER. By some estimates it’s water that’s twenty thousand years old.
“The Ogallala Aquifer is a great example of a nonrenewable resource,” says Peter Gleick, cofounder of the Pacific Institute, a Berkeley-based environmental research center. “We’re pumping it faster than it’s RECHARGING. Groundwater levels are dropping and farmers who depend on it for irrigation are now falling back on rent because they can’t afford to pump any- more. I think it’s possible to use groundwater resources in a SUSTAINABLE fashion, but it means for some of those resources, like the Ogallala, like with parts of northern that we have to cut our pumping rates back to a level where recharge and extraction are in WATER BALANCE.”
When it was built in the 1930s, the Hoover Dam was the most expensive engineering project in U.S. history. It blocked the Colorado River to create Lake Mead; the result was a dependable water source that now feeds California’s Imperial Valley, the largest single producer of our nation’s winter vegetables. Here too WATER MINING has created considerable problems.
“The Colorado River is another great example of man’s ability to completely consume a renewable resource,” Gleick continues. “No water reaches the mouth of the Colorado River anymore. It goes to grow food in Arizona and the Imperial Valley of Southern California and alfalfa and cotton in the desert. Basically, it’s a good example of our ability to do things with water that maybe we shouldn’t do. If we could figure out how to rethink our management of the Colorado River and grow food more efficiently, we have a chance of not only restoring flows in the Colorado River, but changing the way we allocate water in a scarce environment.”
Water is a shared asset. It belongs to all of us. Its misuse is yet another example of the Tragedy of the Commons. As long as there’s water in our reservoirs and aquifers, farmers will find a way to pump it onto their fields. If people don’t understand the vital nature of protecting these shared water resources, what hope do we have for saving them?
One idea is to institute better WATER PRICING.
“Water is not realistically priced,” Jay Famiglietti, director of the University of California, Irvine’s Center for Hydrologic Modeling, points out. “In most places it’s nearly free. Maybe we pay for some treatment or transport costs, but its value as an input in industrial food processes is undervalued, so we tend to waste it. Whether we’re talking about agricultural pricing or domestic water pricing or municipal or industrial use, we need to really rethink the price structure for water, because when things are free, they don’t get the respect they should in terms of using the resource wisely.”
One way to solve the problems created by rampant misuse of water, as Famiglietti suggests, might beto create market mechanisms and impose pricing structures that motivate people to be more responsible about their water use. But even this has critics, as David Beckman, executive director of the Pisces Foundation, points out.
“Water is a human need,” he says. “It’s essential. Without water, humans, animals, and plants can’t live. So it’s true that one reason water is wasted is because its price is out of balance with its value. It’s too cheap for the amount of time and effort and impact it has on a farm or business or home.
“On the other hand, since we need water, there’s got to be some amount available to everybody that is not priced for profit or priced at unreasonable levels, because nobody can do without water.”
A possible solution is tiered-pricing models, with the biggest consumers paying the highest prices for their water use. Another, more sustainable option would be shifting to farming practices that employ more efficient water practices.
Back in the 1930s, Simcha Blass, an Israeli water engineer, observed an interesting phenomenon when visiting a friend in the Israeli town of Petach Tikva: Among a line of trees, one was exceptionally bigger and taller than the rest. He then noticed that a coupling in a nearby water pipe was leaking, drop by drop, beside the tree. At the surface there was just a small stain of wetness, but when he dug into the soil he discovered that the wet area became wider, in the shape of a bulb; it both stored and provided water to the roots. Years later he refined his observation and discovered that by using smaller hoses and reducing water flow to mere drips, he could pinpoint precisely where to send water, dramatically reducing waste. DRIP IRRIGATION became the greatest tool for water conservation in twentieth- century agriculture.
I travel to Israel’s Negev Desert to visit Netafim, the pioneering firm behind drip irrigation and now a global leader in water conservation practices. Naty Barak, the firm’s chief sustainability officer, explains how, during the winter months, European and American markets increasingly depend on produce grown in mile after mile of Israeli nethouses outfitted with an amazing collection of drippers remotely controlled by smart- phones. I see bell peppers and tomatoes. Cucumbers. Onions. It’s incredible that so much production has been coaxed out of such an inhospitable place. Similar growing practices that maximize water efficiency in favorable winter climes are now under development in northern Mexico, California’s Imperial Valley, and Arizona. Hyperefficient systems like drip irrigation will have increasing importance as water mining continues to outstrip the rate of replenishment at both Lake Mead and the Ogallala Aquifer.
Consumers who monitor their own WATER FOOTPRINT by taking shorter showers or turning off the bathroom faucet when brushing their teeth might do even more by simply changing what they eat. One example is meat consumption.