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July 18, 2013


One is tempted to suggest that political and economic systems have broken down on an international level these days as measured by the number of people in the streets, from Athens to Cairo and from Istanbul to Moscow to Washington, the protests varying from objections to trial outcomes to austerity policies to treatment of whistleblowers and institutionalized spying by everybody on everybody. It seems a poor time to bring up a simmering global problem that (strangely) is little discussed, but should arguably be on the short list of problems along with those just set forth above. I refer to water.

We are told by experts in such areas that we are going to have big trouble with having enough water in the near future, especially with the billions of new people to be added to human society by 2050. It doesn’t help to know that we are making a cesspool out of the ocean and that we have no coherent water management plan to deal with the upcoming crisis, a crisis of ominous proportions.

We dam and remove dams from rivers and creeks. We need cheap electric power that is generated from such dams, but environmentalists and sports and commercial fishery people say that salmon cannot get over the dams to propagate. The dams create huge lakes which attract sports fishermen and recreational boating. It seems that every use or misuse of water has its adherents, mostly for business reasons.

One of the most flagrant cases on record is the case of the Colorado River which, until 1999, flowed into the Gulf of California (aka the Sea of Cortez in Mexico). The Colorado River, as everyone knows, rises in the Rocky Mountains and flows generally south to Mexico. Dams along the way provide for recreation and cheap power for the lights of Las Vegas, but the chief use of the water totally diverted from our southern neighbor is for irrigation in California and Arizona and for municipal use of American cities in the Southwest. As reported by Erik Vance in the current edition of Harper’s, the Colorado River effectively ceases to exist one hundred miles north of the Sea of Cortez. What used to be a vast floodplain at the mouth of the Colorado is now a desolate wasteland; the miles of cottonwood and flowing water are no more – the coastline on the Mexican side has retreated for miles, leaving a beach of glistening white salt – where nothing grows. Nothing.

The desertification of the mouth of the Colorado is not the only problem Mexican fishermen and farmers have. The problem extends far out into the water in the northern Sea of Cortez as well. The Colorado River before it stopped flowing in 1999 brought in nutrients that made for excellent fishing grounds for Mexican fishermen – no more. Predictably, and with the “dead zone” for fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the flow of toxins from the Mississippi River watershed as a case in point, the fishery in the northern Sea of Cortez crashed – not from toxins as in the Gulf of Mexico – but from a cessation of water flow at all!  No nutrients, no fish.

The argument that we can do what we please with water in our jurisdiction has some obvious limitation. The Columbia River rises in Canada. What if Canada should decide to totally divert the river for its own use? What about the Danube River, which borders several European countries? What if one of the bordering countries decided to divert all the water of the Danube from downstream riparian owners? Numerous other examples could be cited, and with the coming crisis in water management with huge increases in population and greater need for production of more food (and thus more irrigation), with huge changes in climate en route which are changing local weather conditions (resulting in uncertain rainfall and snowfall patterns), and with a much greater need for electricity, it seems likely that every country will start to pull another “Colorado River” game plan for its own purposes which, of course, could lead to more than friction. These are the kinds of situations wars are made of, and we should head off such possibilities by having international conferences out front to agree on a planetary water management plan that is fair to all – along with specific methods of efficient use of this essential resource to life.

It is not too early to initiate this process, one which should include programs to detoxify our oceans as well. There is far more water than land on our planet. We need to start acting like it, not just for fish, recreation, electricity and irrigation– but as responsible housekeepers. Why should we live in a dirty house when we have the tools to clean it? Our earth (and our progeny) deserve better.  GERALD  E


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