By Andrew Nusca
Posting in Cities
In Austin, editor Andrew Nusca writes of continued water shortages -- and how perception is everything when it comes to scarcity and conservation.
AUSTIN, Texas -- The smell of chlorinated water greets me after touching down late in the evening at Austin International Airport, but there's no swimming pool to be found. On the ride to the hotel, my cab driver can't help but complain that Austin is too hot -- this I knew, especially after news headlines screaming of wildfires and drought -- but also too humid for his Ethiopian sensibilities, forged after many years of living in toasty but dry Addis Ababa.
As I check-in at the desk, the attendant asks whether I'd like to completely forgo housekeeping during my stay. It's primarily to conserve water, she says. I pause for a moment, rendered speechless by a most unusual request. Towels on the floor when you'd like them laundered, sure -- but a hotel without housekeeping?
Having departed earlier in the day from Philadelphia, so waterlogged after two months of record rains that in some areas near the Schuylkill River the water is still receding, you can understand my initial reaction. I say yes to her request -- I'm only in town three days, sure -- and head up to my room to quickly drop off my things before the restaurant down the street closes. I make it in time, grab a seat on the patio (at a balmy 75 degrees, who wouldn't?) and stare at a small place card on the table:
"Due to City of Austin Stage 2 water restrictions, water will only be served upon request."
Rolled out on Sept. 6, Austin's Stage 2 restrictions prohibit washing exterior surfaces, ban charity car washes and severely curtail irrigation systems of all kinds in response to "exceptional drought in Central Texas." The penalty: at least $475, after a warning.
To Austin residents, this has been business as usual for much of the summer season. But for someone like me, whose summer memories include a massively humid heatwave followed by repeated drenching from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, it came as a surprise, albeit a logical one.
Here's the hard truth: much of the United States is in a critical place with regard to water conservation. The word "critical" doesn't quite hit hard enough, though, so allow me to reword for maximum impact: a large part of America is desperate for water.
We've always acknowledged that places like Las Vegas and Phoenix and San Diego were at a significant natural disadvantage when it comes to acquiring water. But these cities' populations aren't shrinking -- quite the opposite -- and severe weather spells like this mean trouble for their economies. For Vegas, it's tourism in every way. For Phoenix, it's the manufacture of everything from aircraft parts to air conditioning equipment. For San Diego, it's the manufacture of industrial machinery, sporting goods and toys -- not to mention trade, with one of the busiest ports in the world. And for Austin, it's high-tech companies like Dell.
Every single one of these cities must reach all the way to the Colorado River (there are two unrelated ones; Austin's version flows into the Gulf of Mexico) to get water. And their biggest economic drivers use a ton of it. It's an unsustainable solution, both in resources and design. And it threatens both everyday quality of life and the cities' future growth.
Again, this is old news for residents of these areas. But it's something residents in the rest of the country simply aren't aware of, at least not enough. These are local and regional stories, but it's hard to really feel the difference unless you fly from one area to the other directly.
In Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and New York, there's so much water we can't get rid of it fast enough, so we use energy to remove some of it from our rivers and lakes before it damages property. Meanwhile, state officials in the Southwest burn energy in an unceasing quest to find more of the stuff (and move over great distances what little they have).
Residents in the Northeast hear about the wildfires in Texas, but they only see homes at risk on the evening news -- they don't have a chance to dig deeper and realize that wildfires are merely one symptom of a bigger climate issue. Ditto the reverse, where it's truly hard to imagine, sitting at a table at this restaurant in Austin, so much rain that your parked car could just float away. Simply unfathomable.
We can talk about climate change and discuss the idea of resilience of cities -- and we do, plenty, in this very publication -- but the bottom line is this: when it comes to water scarcity, you simply can't feel it until they take away your complementary glass of water. What feels like a right, however inconsequential, rapidly becomes a commodity before your eyes.
Photo: Mia Bennett/Flickr
For more stories about water conservation and scarcity, see SmartPlanet's topic page.
Oct 3, 2011
Austin straddles the Colorado River, which flows Southeasterly from west Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. Austin averages about 34" of rain a year, but that varies widely from
With my family in San Diego and Phoenix, I worry about their water shortages yet I can't deny that it's all about choices. For those who wish to live where there's less water, then I guess they'll need to pay more for every gallon they use. Others might choose to live where there's no water shortages but we don't have great weather or zero snow that we're forced to dig out from under each winter. Maybe some areas of our country just can't support the amount of people living there? There are other places to live you know.
The next world conflict will be over two primary resources, water and energy. We are already seeing the initial battles right here in the US. Over time the conflicts will start to escalate between countries, between the haves and the have nots. Strong countries will start out paying for resources, but when the price gets too high, they will simply just take it from the weak countries that have it. And the weak countries will not have a fighting chance of acquiring the same resources if they don't already have them. They will only survive by trying to take if from those that have it. If they can't take it, they will simply go out of existence. People fight to survive, and with so many people without water or energy, the urge to fight will be strong. The future of the world depends upon our ability to solve the problem of limited resources by an ever expanding world population. Is a 2050 world population of 9 billion really sustainable? War and famine will bring the world back into balance.
Thermal power plants waste a prodigious amount of precious fresh water into the atmosphere with evaporative cooling of their turbine exhaust steam. Second only to agriculture in water consumption, way more than any other industrial or recreational use. Only about a third of the energy in the fuel becomes electricity. The rest is just wasted into the atmosphere as the latent heat of newly evaporated fresh water. How about some attention to that problem?
The south western parts of the US have a history of water problems. In the 4 corners area, there are ruins from natives that had a brief few hundred years of living off the land but suddenly abandon their dwellings because of long term drought. The land is good for agriculture but only if enough water is brought in to supplement the local resources. Colorado River water has been allocated along the river and there have been water wars over who can take water and how much. Drinkable water is only 1% of all the water on Earth. There is a lot locked up in polar ice and glaciers. Water is becoming more difficult to share among cities, agriculture, manufacturing, recreation and environmental needs. Mean while, people are buying bottled water transported from Fiji and other places at a cost that is higher than the local tap prices.
...and this problem literally solves itself. But no. Progressives always insist on a "managed" solution that delivers cheap-to-free to the end consumer. So there will always be a crisis to manage.
Although I truly loathe the winters here in Wisconsin, we do have this handy-dandy big reservoir called Lake Michigan right next door. Attention job-creating industries needing water... our doors are open here in the upper Midwest.
Make all of the excuses you want, but this situation has nothing to do with climate change. It is all about poor development planning. They have been having chronic water shortages off and on for decades in Austin yet the city keeps growing. As they deplete ground water supplies they keep drilling deeper to find the water. Most wells drilled 40 years ago have run dry. On top of that the growing concrete jungle slows replenishment of ground water. That would not be so bad if they did not waste the runoff water. Poor reservoir management has allowed many of them to fill with silt reducing the amount of water stored when it does rain. Yet Austin has grown 20.4 percent in the last decade. Morons. PS. Keep you hands off my water in the Northeast. No pipelines to people stupid enough to use up their own water.
Just a water distribution problem that is beset by politics, states rights and short-sighted thinking.
Wars generally have been fought over economic issues ranging from water access to fertile fields for crops. Greece is interesting to watch and may show what may happen here in the US. Greece is on the brink of bankrupcy. The previous government administrations borrowed heavily before the global economy took a hit; the current adminstration is stuck in an unpleasant position in being forced to shrink spending to improve their credit worthiness while their credit rating keeps going down. The austerity measures are highly unpopular and were not enough to keep Greece solvent. The credit rating for Greece makes it harder for them to get a loan to stave off bankruptcy. It is a vicious cycle where creditors demand more from Greece and make it more expensive to borrow which then feeds back to the inability for Greece to pay. The EU is working to prevent Greece from default because that could ripple through other EU members who are also in poor economic conditions. Events are still playing out in Greece, there is a chance for them to pull out of this problem but it will be hard for them. It is a good idea to remember that the Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI put a lot of conditions on Germany that caused hyper inflation that wiped out savings. This led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party.
It's true that building a large city in an arid place is not the smartest thing in the world but the fact is that an expected effect of global warming is expansion of the sub-tropics as the sinking region of Hadley Cells moves northward. This is expected to make areas such as the southwest and Texas even drier than they currently are exacerbating the problem. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hadley_cells#Hadley_cell_expansion
Even if we could build water pipelines from the Northeast and parts of the South, we still would be short of water. Mr. Nusca only talked about his personal experiences in Austin. The truth is that's a drop in the bucket. The western US has some of our best agricultural areas, but they all need water. City residents might have to let their lawns die and suffer other inconveniences, but it's agriculture which is the most critical.
Greece is a living laboratory of what happens when people collectively act as though the state will support all their demands, while forgetting that the state can only do so as long as their productivity increases in proportion to those demands. And since the state provides so much and has to tax so much, there's less incentive to be all that productive. Greece is beyond the precipice of the black hole they created. There is no escape for them. They can't lower benefits without negative economic consequence and rioting. They can't raise taxes without negative economic consequence, and even then it wouldn't matter because most people ignore or evade them anyway. At this moment, I have friends there sending minute-by-minute reports. Quite interesting. It's like a preview of where America is heading, except that there isn't anyone willing or big enough to bail us out.
The southwest has been a highly cyclical desert long before carbon-spewing westerners arrived. The thriving one decade, gone the next nature of native settlements all over the southwest is a testament to that.
You are trying to blame climate change for a cycle that has been going on for 100,000 of years. The American southwest has a long history of a natural cycle of periods of high rain mixed with times of drought that has driven a following cycle of rising and falling populations. All of the major cities in the American southwest were developed based on water allocation models built on data obtained during those good rainfall years. Politicians have been slow to admit this failure in planning in large part because they would lose power if the truth came out. Can you imagine the political shift in this nation if millions of people moved away from the droughts and relocated to where the water is? What do you think would happen if people were told that they could no longer drill deeper for water and that they already have data indicating the underground water sources will dry up in 30 years? What would happen is people would move. States like Wisconsin and Michigan would again be political heavy weights while California, Arizona and Texas would become political lower population lightweights like Montana and North Dakota.
All of their welfare states continue to expand faster than their underlying economies. It's politically impossible to reign them in. On the other end, declining birthrates now make it difficult to heave the debt upon future generations. You can't pass it off if there's no one to pass it off to. It's just that Greece is the first. Eventually it will be the others. Not even Germany will escape it. Expect to see a "tea party" movement there in a few years once their standard of living starts to decline in the name of bailing out all the others.
It is definitely interesting to watch; with Greece on the skids there are a few more EU members in similar straights. Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Iceland all have debt problems. As the Chinese curse goes, we do live in interesting times.
...it might solve it. After all, many regions that historically receive minimal rainfall are slated to get more due to "climate change". In fact, many "experts" contend that more people will be getting more water than those who will be losing it. So It's not all bad news. It's just that the warmongers only advertise the bad.
I'm saying that the extent of the Hadley cells is expanding northward and southward which expands the subtropical zone, the place where most of the worlds great deserts are located. It will have an effect. The drought in Texas would likely occur anyway but perhaps it's 5% worse than it would have been otherwise.
...of failed Progressive economic policies, it's will take more than a water supply to bring them back to life. It will be cheaper to truck in water to Texas than to revert to that.