Drip… drip… drip

Esquire (Malaysia) - - CONTENTS - Words by Alec Wilkin­son Il­lus­tra­tion by Sean Free­man

We’re run­ning out of us­able wa­ter. How do we keep the H20 flow­ing?

For eons, the earth has had the same amount of wa­ter— no more, no less. What the an­cient Ro­mans used for crops Ne­fer­titi and drank? It’s the same stuff we bathe with. Yet with more than seven bil­lion peo­ple on the planet, ex­perts now worry we’re run­ning out of us­able wa­ter. The symp­toms are here . . .

. . . mul­ti­year droughts, large-scale crop city—cape Town—on fail­ures, a ma­jor the verge of go­ing dry, in­creas­ing out­breaks of vi­o­lence, fears of full-scale wa­ter wars. The big ques­tion: H20 How do we keep the flow­ing?

1 ALL THE WA­TER THERE IS Here’s a con­cept: paper wa­ter. Paper wa­ter is wa­ter the govern­ment grants cer­tain farm­ers who are draw­ing wa­ter from a river or a water­shed in, say, Cal­i­for­nia. The phrase de­scribes the wa­ter the farmer, un­der pre­mium con­di­tions, is en­ti­tled to. Prac­ti­cally, how­ever, paper wa­ter is mostly no­tional wa­ter, con­cep­tual wa­ter, wish wa­ter, since over the years Cal­i­for­nia has awarded many times as much paper wa­ter as there is ac­tual wa­ter—which, to dis­tin­guish it, is quasi-legally called wet wa­ter. Some paper wa­ter might be made real dur­ing years of ex­cep­tional abun­dance, but most of it will for­ever be spec­u­la­tive and es­sen­tially use­less, since it can’t re­al­is­ti­cally be traded, hav­ing no value. Paper wa­ter thus amounts to a type of hy­po­thet­i­cal cur­rency, backed by the Bank of Nowhere, Rep­re­sent­ing Noth­ing since 1960 (or there­abouts), when mod­ern wa­ter trou­bles ar­rived in Amer­ica and es­pe­cially in Cal­i­for­nia, where the wildly ex­pand­ing cit­i­zenry re­quired new state and fed­er­ally man­aged wa­ter sys­tems run by Water­crats.

Paper wa­ter is also a sig­ni­fier of a do­mes­tic and global con­cern called peak wa­ter, a term pro­posed in 2010 by the hy­drol­o­gist Peter Gle­ick in a paper he wrote with Meena Pala­niap­pan that was pub­lished in Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sciences. Gle­ick meant the phrase to be ap­plied to world­wide cir­cum­stances, such as those that cur­rently pre­vail in Cape Town, South Africa, where, as a re­sult of a fe­ro­cious three­year drought, the taps might be­fore long run dry, pos­si­bly in 2019—Day Zero, it’s been called. The U. S. is also af­flicted. In fact, Gle­ick re­gards Cal­i­for­nia, with its re­lent­less, out­sized, and wildly con­flict­ing de­mands on wa­ter, as a “lab­o­ra­tory for all of peak wa­ter’s con­cerns.”

Peak wa­ter de­rives con­cep­tu­ally from peak oil, a phrase first used by a geo­physi­cist named M. King Hub­bert in 1956. Peak oil means that the planet has only so much oil, and that even­tu­ally it will grow suf­fi­ciently scarce that what re­mains will be too ex­pen­sive to col­lect. Hub­bert pre­dicted that U.S. oil pro­duc­tion would reach max­i­mum out­put be­tween 1965 and 1975, and in 1970 it did, but it has risen lately be­cause of new means of re­cov­er­ing oil, such as frack­ing. Some peo­ple still be­lieve in peak oil, and oth­ers think there will al­ways be plenty of oil, be­cause there is more we haven’t found yet.

That wa­ter was in a po­si­tion sim­i­lar to oil oc­curred to Gle­ick when peo­ple would ask if he thought that the world, with its pop­u­la­tion grow­ing alarm­ingly and cli­mate change caus­ing cer­tain places to be­come dis­as­trously wa­ter-soaked (South Asia, Texas) while oth­ers (Cape Town, Cal­i­for­nia) are wa­ter-starved, would ever use up its wa­ter. “My first re­ac­tion was ‘We never run out of wa­ter,’” Gle­ick says. “But there’s ground­wa­ter in China and In­dia and the Mid­dle East and in Amer­ica in the Mid­west and Cal­i­for­nia that we re­ally are us­ing up just like oil.”

Wa­ter can­not be cre­ated or de­stroyed; it can only be dam­aged. When Gle­ick says we’ll never run out, he means that at some point, mil­lions of years ago, there was all the wa­ter there is, a re­sult of the law of the con­ser­va­tion of mat­ter. Hav­ing evap­o­rated from lakes and rivers and oceans and re­turned as snow and rain, the wa­ter we con­sume has been through in­nu­mer­able uses. Di­nosaurs drank it. The Cae­sars did, too. It’s been places, and con­sorted with things, that you might not care to think about. In the­ory, there’s enough fresh­wa­ter in the world for ev­ery­one, but like oil or di­a­monds or any other valu­able re­source, it is not dis­persed demo­crat­i­cally. Brazil, Canada, Colom­bia, Peru, In­done­sia,

and Rus­sia have an abun­dance—about 40 per­cent of all there is. Amer­ica has a de­cent amount. In­dia and China, mean­while, have a third of the world’s peo­ple and less than a tenth of its fresh­wa­ter. It is pre­dicted that in twelve years the de­mand for wa­ter in In­dia will be twice the amount on hand. Bei­jing draws wa­ter from an aquifer be­neath the city. From be­ing used faster than rain can re­plen­ish it, the aquifer has dropped sev­eral hundreds of feet in the last forty years, and in places the city is sink­ing four inches ev­ery year. As for the world’s stock, how­ever, nearly all of the wa­ter on earth is salty; less than 3 per­cent is fresh. Some of that is in rivers, lakes, aquifers, and reser­voirs—the Great Lakes con­tain one fifth of the fresh­wa­ter on the earth’s sur­face—and we have stored so much wa­ter be­hind dams that we have sub­tly af­fected the earth’s ro­ta­tion; but two thirds of all the fresh­wa­ter we have is frozen in the earth’s cold places as ice or per­mafrost, leav­ing less than 1 per­cent of the world’s to­tal wa­ter for all liv­ing things. Much of that gets a rough ride. Amer­i­can ponds and streams and lakes and rivers con­tain fungi­cides, de­fo­liants, sol­vents, in­sec­ti­cides, her­bi­cides, preser­va­tives, bi­o­log­i­cal tox­ins, man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pounds, blood thin­ners, heart med­i­ca­tions, per­fumes, skin lo­tions, an­tide­pres­sants, an­tipsy­chotics, an­tibi­otics, beta block­ers, an­ti­con­vul­sants, germs, oils, viruses, hor­mones, and sev­eral heavy met­als. Not all of th­ese are cleansed from wa­ter be­fore we drink it.

There are two kinds of num­bers, I be­lieve, big ones and lit­tle ones, but here are some big ones by way of con­text: Ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion, among the two bil­lion peo­ple who have no drink­ing wa­ter pro­vided to them, 844 mil­lion travel more than thirty min­utes to a river or a tap, where they some­times re­ceive wa­ter con­tam­i­nated by hu­man ex­cre­ment. Such wa­ter has the risk of di­ar­rhea, cholera, dysen­tery, ty­phoid, and po­lio. Nearly 850,000 peo­ple die each year from di­ar­rhea, a cruel cir­cum­stance in ar­eas short on clean wa­ter, since di­ar­rhea works its ef­fects by means of de­hy­dra­tion. Bangladesh, In­dia, Rwanda, and Ghana have some of the most tainted wa­ter.

The sim­plest hard­ships to in­voke are hunger and thirst. Only a few hours of de­pri­va­tion will ac­quaint a per­son with both. Half a gal­lon of drink­ing wa­ter a day is what each of us needs to drink to stay alive. (An Amer­i­can uses roughly eighty to a hun­dred gal­lons a day, in­clud­ing toi­lets, baths and show­ers, dish­wash­ers, wash­ing ma­chines, and so on.) In the dry parts of the world, or the semidry parts where there are too many peo­ple and no wa­ter-de­liv­ery sys­tem, the search for that daily half gal­lon can be dire, and some­times past dire. A sur­vey in 2015 of mem­bers of the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum in Davos listed “wa­ter crises” for the first time as the world’s lead­ing threat, ahead of “spread of in­fec­tious dis­eases” and “weapons of mass de­struc­tion.” Each year Gle­ick’s or­ga­ni­za­tion, the Pa­cific In­sti­tute, up­dates its Wa­ter Con­flict Chronol­ogy, a com­pi­la­tion of dis­tur­bances around the world in­volv­ing wa­ter. In 2017, there were more than sev­enty in­ci­dents, dozens of them deadly, mainly in the Mid­dle East and Africa. In 1997, there were only three.

2 HAVES AND HAVE-NOTS Sta­tion­ar­ity, a term from sta­tis­tics, ap­plies to con­texts in which the past predicts the fu­ture. When wa­ter ex­perts say that we are “out­side sta­tion­ar­ity,” they mean that the slaphappy way that the world uses wa­ter has brought about so many un­ex­am­pled cir­cum­stances, so many over­bur­dened sys­tems and ar­eas of de­pri­va­tion and de­ple­tion, that we can­not know how mat­ters will un­fold. Some­times wa­ter spe­cial­ists say that the earth is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing wa­ter stress. The Nile, the Rio Grande, the Yel­low River in China, the In­dus in Asia, and the Colorado (which sus­tains the Amer­i­can South­west from Phoenix to Las Ve­gas to San Diego) are tapped out. The Ganges flows, but it’s un­speak­ably filthy.

With wa­ter, there are “dis­tinct classes of wa­ter haves and have-nots,” ac­cord­ing to Jay Famigli­etti, who is the se­nior wa­ter sci­en­tist at the NASA Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory at the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy. (Earth sci­ence is part of NASA’S char­ter.) “The wet ar­eas of the world are the high lat­i­tudes and the trop­ics, and the ar­eas in be­tween are get­ting drier,” he says. The su­per­charged hur­ri­canes and ty­phoons that have re­sulted from global warm­ing move wa­ter around within the re­gions that al­ready have wa­ter but do noth­ing for the parched places.

Amer­ica has hot spots, too. Cal­i­for­nia had its own Zero Day not long ago when, in Tu­lare County in the Cen­tral Val­ley, an area of cor­po­rate farms, some­thing like a thou­sand wells went dry in towns such as East Porter­ville, mean­ing that more than seven thou­sand peo­ple found them­selves oc­cu­py­ing houses where you would turn on a tap and noth­ing came out. The wa­ter ta­ble has been di­verted by means of deep wells and ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tems serv­ing the sprawl­ing farms. The county be­gan de­liv­er­ing bot­tled drink­ing wa­ter, and there were free pub­lic show­ers. Wa­ter to flush toi­lets and do laun­dry came from tanks parked at the fire sta­tion. Peo­ple filled bar­rels and hauled them home.

A quar­ter of all the food grown in Amer­ica comes from the Cen­tral Val­ley— or­anges and grapes are raised in Tu­lare, along with dairy cows and cat­tle—so hav­ing it go even par­tially dry is not a small con­cern. “No one re­ally knows what hap­pens, if this were to get worse,” Famigli­etti says. “Our wa­ter se­cu­rity, and there­fore our food se­cu­rity, is at far greater risk than peo­ple re­al­ize. Aside from the cri­sis of hu­mans not hav­ing wa­ter, we’re also go­ing to be los­ing th­ese ma­jor food-pro­duc­ing re­gions like the Cen­tral Val­ley. Agri­cul­ture will mi­grate to where the wa­ter is, maybe the south­ern parts of South Dakota and south­ern Idaho. There is al­ready some agri­cul­tural mi­gra­tion to those re­gions.”

That may sound sim­ple, rel­a­tively, a cul­tural shift, like the past mi­gra­tion of work­ers and jobs from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt. How­ever, cli­mate change, with its dis­rup­tion of the rain cy­cle, mak­ing se­vere storms even more se­vere and di­min­ish­ing the snow pack in sea­sons of drought, makes it im­pos­si­ble to know which ar­eas will re­main sta­bly wet. Cape Town is suf­fer­ing now be­cause “a on­cein-a-mil­len­nium event,” as it has been de­scribed, has been oc­cur­ring since 2015—scant rain in the re­gion for three years.

In Cal­i­for­nia, rain be­came scarce in 2011 and stayed scarce for five years. Suf­fi­cient rain fell dur­ing the win­ter of 2016 that the drought ap­peared to have ended, since peo­ple could see rivers run­ning and reser­voirs filled that had seemed nearly empty be­fore. Wa­ter ex­perts view the mat­ter dif­fer­ently. They make a dis­tinc­tion be­tween sur­face drought and ground­wa­ter drought. Five years of over­draft­ing in the Cen­tral Val­ley left a ground­wa­ter deficit that the rains didn’t re­plen­ish.

Aquifers com­monly con­tain wa­ter that went un­der­ground thou­sands or mil­lions of years ago and hasn’t come out

since—it’s called fos­sil wa­ter. Ground­wa­ter, how­ever, is as vul­ner­a­ble to con­tam­i­na­tion as sur­face wa­ter. An over­drafted aquifer near a coast can have sea­wa­ter seep into it and ruin it. Arsenic oc­curs nat­u­rally in rocks and can find its way into the wa­ter ta­ble, also ru­in­ing it. An aquifer near an in­dus­trial dump might be polluted by man-made chem­i­cals. In the Cen­tral Val­ley, some wells are con­tam­i­nated by ni­trates, which come from fer­til­izer, leaky sep­tic tanks, and big cat­tle-feed­ing op­er­a­tions; drink­ing ni­trate-polluted wa­ter can bring about con­di­tions such as blue- baby syn­drome, in which the fin­ger­tips of ba­bies turn blue from in­suf­fi­cient oxy­gen.

Fi­nally, an over­drafted aquifer can be de­pleted. Whether it re­turns is a mat­ter of how it was filled in the first place. Por­ous aquifers, ones be­neath sand and gravel, as in the Cen­tral Val­ley, can re­cover with rain. Aquifers that lie be­neath rock de­posits or in gaps be­tween them, and es­pe­cially ones in places where rain is sparse, might not re­cover in a time frame that means any­thing against the mea­sure of a hu­man life span. In In­dia, so many farm­ers have killed them­selves from de­spair over dis­ap­peared ground­wa­ter, and the poverty it en­forces, that there is a cat­e­gory called sui­cide farm­ers. In 2016, more than 11,300 farm­ers took their own lives.

3 SEE YOU IN SIX THOU­SAND YEARS Be­sides Cal­i­for­nia, the other Amer­i­can place in wa­ter jeop­ardy is the High Plains, which sits on top of an aquifer called the Ogal­lala. The Ogal­lala is some­times de­scribed as an ocean of ground­wa­ter. One of the largest known aquifers in the world, it runs from South Dakota to Texas, more or less in the shape of a mon­key wrench. Near the top, in places, it is a thou­sand feet deep, and at the lower end, in places, there are ar­eas where it is as shal­low as only a few feet. The Dust Bowl, which played out above the Ogal­lala, was, in a way, a pe­riod phe­nom­e­non. All the wa­ter nec­es­sary to sus­tain the crops that now cover the plains was al­ways there, but a few feet deeper than De­pres­sion-era farm­ers could reach with wind­mill pumps. Elec­tric pumps, which only be­came wide­spread by the end of the thir­ties, made it ac­ces­si­ble.

For decades farm­ers thought the Ogal­lala was in­ex­haustible. Ac­cord­ing to Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can, draw­ing on govern­ment stud­ies, by 1975 the amount of wa­ter taken each year from the aquifer equaled the flow of the Colorado River, and now the an­nual draw is about eigh­teen times that amount. Farm­ers have been pump­ing out four to six feet a year in places where half an inch is be­ing added. As far as con­tin­u­ing to be use­ful, the Ogal­lala might be ex­hausted by 2070. A rea­son­able es­ti­mate is that it would take six thou­sand years for rain to re­plen­ish it.

4 A WA­TER-CRI­SIS TOUR Peter Gle­ick is sixty-one, and he looks like the scholar he is. He is tall and gan­gly, with a thin face and glasses, a gray beard, and wispy gray hairs that rise from his crown like so­lar flares. He grew up in New York City, where he was a Cub Scout and learned from his fa­ther to iden­tify birds in Cen­tral Park. He went to Yale, then he moved to Cal­i­for­nia and got a doc­tor­ate in en­ergy stud­ies from UC Berke­ley. In 1987, he was one of four founders of the Pa­cific In­sti­tute, which spe­cial­izes in wa­ter pol­icy, and in 2003, he was named a Macarthur Fel­low.

To­ward the end of 2011, some­one anony­mously mailed him a pri­vate doc­u­ment from the Heart­land In­sti­tute, a con­ser­va­tive think tank that de­nies cli­mate change. The doc­u­ment de­scribed a plan to pro­duce a cur­ricu­lum for kin­der­garten through twelfth-grade stu­dents that dis­puted cli­mate change. It also de­scribed the in­sti­tute’s con­tri­bu­tions to cli­mate sci­en­tists who cast doubt on cli­mate sci­ence.

“I could have thrown it out. I could have sent it to a jour­nal­ist,” Gle­ick told me. “But I chose to try to ver­ify it my­self.” He set up a Gmail ac­count un­der the name of one of Heart­land’s board mem­bers and asked Heart­land to send him the in­sti­tu­tion’s most re­cent doc­u­ments. What he re­ceived he dis­persed to jour­nal­ists, who pub­lished them. The Heart­land In­sti­tute said that one of the doc­u­ments was forged. Gle­ick wrote a piece in the Huff­in­g­ton Post ac­knowl­edg­ing what he’d done and apol­o­giz­ing for his de­cep­tion.

“My board was not happy,” he said. “I stepped down, they made an in­ves­ti­ga­tion that even­tu­ally sup­ported my ver­sion, and I was re­in­stated.” Mean­while, the Heart­land In­sti­tute bought pe­ter­gle­ick.com, where you can read “Why Isn’t Pa­cific In­sti­tute’s Peter Gle­ick in Jail?” Re­gard­less, in 2016, Gle­ick stepped down af­ter nearly thirty years as the Pa­cific In­sti­tute’s pres­i­dent and now spends most of his time writ­ing in an of­fice on the in­sti­tute’s premises. He is con­sid­ered to be an em­i­nent au­thor­ity on wa­ter is­sues around the world and is re­garded as es­pe­cially knowl­edge­able about Cal­i­for­nia’s cir­cum­stances.

The Pa­cific In­sti­tute oc­cu­pies a Vic­to­rian house among an en­clave of such houses in Oak­land. One morn­ing I met Gle­ick there, and then we drove east to visit what he called some “peak wa­ter sig­ni­fiers”—a sort of wa­ter-cri­sis tour.

We were go­ing to a wal­nut farm first. On the way, as we passed rolling green hills, Gle­ick ex­plained that there are three com­po­nents to peak wa­ter, the first be­ing peak re­new­able wa­ter. “A re­new­able re­source is flow limited,” he said. “You never run out of it, like sun­light. Most wa­ter is re­new­able—rain­fall, snowmelt, rivers—but in more and more places around the world, we’re run­ning into lim­its brought on by peak use. The clas­sic ex­am­ple is the Colorado River, hardly a drop of which ever reaches its delta, in Mex­ico, any­more. It gets used up en­tirely along the way.”

Even an over­taxed river like the Colorado is partly re­new­able. “You get more the next year when it rains and snows,” Gle­ick con­tin­ued. “It’s not that there’s never wa­ter, but there’s a limit to how much you can take, and that limit, its peak, is the re­new­able flow of the re­source.”

Gle­ick calls the sec­ond com­po­nent of peak wa­ter peak non­re­new­able wa­ter. “Just like peak oil,” he said. “An aquifer is not sus­tain­able if hu­mans pump it faster than na­ture charges it. The peo­ple in the Cen­tral Val­ley who have seen their wells go dry are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing peak non­re­new­able wa­ter. There is still wa­ter there, but the ground­wa­ter level has dropped, and only the farms can af­ford to dig the deeper well. You could find other wa­ter for th­ese peo­ple—you could hook them up to a mu­nic­i­pal sys­tem that’s maybe hooked up to a river. No one’s dy­ing of thirst. But we cob­ble to­gether fixes when we run out. So you go back to this ques­tion: Are we run­ning out of wa­ter? Yes, sort of, with non­re­new­able re­sources, and yes, sort of, with re­new­able re­sources.”

The wal­nut farm was about fifty miles north of Oak­land, in Win­ters. “More

and more or­chards are go­ing in, be­cause they make money,” Gle­ick said. “There’s a dis­tinc­tion be­tween field crops—cot­ton, rice, wheat, and corn—which you plant ev­ery year, and per­ma­nent crops, like fruits and nuts. Per­ma­nent crops need per­ma­nent wa­ter. If you have a drought and you’re grow­ing wheat or al­falfa, maybe you fal­low your field for a year. But if you’re grow­ing al­monds, you’ve got to wa­ter th­ese trees or they die, and it’s a twenty-year in­vest­ment some­times be­fore they pro­duce a crop. That puts more pres­sure on ground­wa­ter. The ad­van­tage with trees is you can use drip ir­ri­ga­tion, mean­ing you can tar­get the roots, and ap­ply the right amount of wa­ter at the right time, be­cause there are mon­i­tors in the soil. Drip ir­ri­ga­tion is more ef­fi­cient than flood ir­ri­ga­tion, where you sim­ply flood the field and hope you’re wa­ter­ing at the mo­ment the crop needs it most.”

The wal­nut farm, Sierra Or­chards, was owned by a for­ward-think­ing farmer named Craig Mc­na­mara, who looks a lot like his fa­ther, Robert Mc­na­mara, the sec­re­tary of de­fense un­der Kennedy and John­son. We bumped down mud roads in an elec­tric cart, which Mc­na­mara drove, and we saw the trees and his drip-ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem and how it works with a com­puter pro­gram to let him know when the soil is dry, and at the bot­tom of a small de­cliv­ity, we stood be­side Pu­tah Creek, which he draws from. Since the creek was run­ning high, he was flood­ing some of his fields with creek wa­ter to re­store the wa­ter ta­ble. Fi­nally, Mc­na­mara showed us hedgerows he’d planted to at­tract in­sects and birds and a huge ma­chine by a barn that was con­vert­ing wal­nut shells into or­ganic mat­ter he could use for fer­til­izer. Book­keep­ing is what goes on in most farm of­fices I’ve ever vis­ited, but Mc­na­mara’s was like a com­mand cen­ter where he could find on a com­puter screen what he needed to know about which square yard of his or­chard needed wa­ter and which square yard had enough.

As Gle­ick and I drove away, he said that Mc­na­mara was note­wor­thy in try­ing to do more with less wa­ter. “The hedgerows and re­cy­cling shells, those are things that most farm­ers think cost money and don’t pro­vide an im­me­di­ate or ob­vi­ous re­turn. They’re smart from a sus­tain­abil­ity point of view, but if you’re max­i­miz­ing re­turn, you don’t do them. That’s why his neigh­bor’s us­ing pes­ti­cides. It’s more ex­pen­sive to put in smart ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tems and soil-mois­ture mon­i­tors, but you make up the money by be­ing or­ganic.”

5 “SE­CRET, OCCULT, AND CON­CEALED” The way wa­ter is used in the Mid­west and West, and else­where around the world, ex­em­pli­fies a nine­teenth-cen­tury prin­ci­ple called the tragedy of the com­mons. The tragedy of the com­mons means that when there is a re­source avail­able to ev­ery­one, and the re­source is un­reg­u­lated—in the nine­teenth cen­tury it was the com­mon land for graz­ing cat­tle—peo­ple will use it to their own ad­van­tage un­til it is con­sumed rather than con­serve it to ev­ery­one’s ad­van­tage. It is a prin­ci­ple that still ap­plies widely, to over­fish­ing, say, in the North At­lantic, and the dis­ap­pear­ance of cod.

Sev­eral col­lo­quial rules, made at the start of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, gov­ern wa­ter in the West, and some­times they con­tra­dict one an­other. Where wa­ter is shared, from a river, say, the rule that usu­ally pre­vails is “first pump, old­est pump” or “first in time, first in right.” Th­ese older rights are also called “se­nior rights” or “pre-1914 rights.” They mean that even if you are up­stream of an­other farm, if the down­stream farmer’s rights pre­ceded yours, you can’t have wa­ter un­til he has all he wants. Peo­ple without se­nior rights might get paper wa­ter.

Cal­i­for­nia farm­ers who draw from wells don’t deal in paper wa­ter, since so long as the wells are on their prop­erty, the farm­ers are en­ti­tled to drill as deep as they like. In In­dia, in parts of China, and in the U. S., with ground­wa­ter it’s the “law of the big­gest pump,” which al­lows a farmer to drain the wa­ter from

un­der­neath his neigh­bor by drilling a deeper well, since ground­wa­ter doesn’t ob­serve bound­aries. So many treaties and ar­range­ments and agree­ments gov­ern wa­ter use in the West and have for so long that a court in 1861 wrote that the “se­cret, occult, and con­cealed” na­ture of the re­source made it im­pos­si­ble to con­trol. Im­pos­si­ble then, ap­par­ently im­pos­si­ble now, with vo­ra­cious use in be­tween.

6 THE UP­SIDE By a sign at the en­trance to the Har­vey O. Banks Delta Pump­ing Plant, out­side Tracy, Gle­ick pulled over and opened a map. Out the win­dow was a broad ex­panse of brown cat­tails and a long reach of deep blue wa­ter with the sun shin­ing on it and gleam­ing like a strip of chrome. “We’re here,” Gle­ick said, point­ing on the map to an ex­ten­sive line of blue run­ning mostly east to west. “The mouth of the San Joaquin River, where the Sacra­mento and San Joaquin join. It’s the largest delta on the West Coast.”

Above the marsh, a red-tailed hawk slid across the sky like a skate­boarder. “The third con­cept of peak wa­ter is peak eco­log­i­cal wa­ter,” Gle­ick went on. “Peak re­new­able and peak non­re­new­able ef­fec­tively de­scribe the prob­lems with sup­ply and de­mand. A third prob­lem, though, are the eco­log­i­cal dam­ages that re­sult from hu­man use of wa­ter. Say we take

more and more wa­ter from a river. We grow more food, we make more wid­gets, we get an eco­nomic ben­e­fit, but the eco­log­i­cal cost also grows as fish­eries suf­fer and wet­lands dry up. Even­tu­ally, the neg­a­tive eco­log­i­cal costs out­weigh the eco­nomic ben­e­fits. We de­fine that as the point of peak eco­log­i­cal wa­ter.”

Gle­ick pulled the car back onto the road and turned onto a black­top lead­ing to the pump­ing sta­tion, which we could see like a fort half­way up some hills, about a quar­ter mile ahead. Through pipelines and canals, the sta­tion sends wa­ter south from the delta as far as Los An­ge­les, which gets the bulk of its wa­ter from the north. The deltas and es­tu­ar­ies it draws from tend to be breed­ing and nurs­ery ar­eas for birds and fish as well as mi­gra­tory stopovers for birds. “Tak­ing wa­ter from the San Joaquin Delta,” Gle­ick said, “there’s long­stand­ing, se­ri­ous, peak-eco­log­i­cal- wa­ter con­cerns about salmon ex­tinc­tions in the delta, other fish ex­tinc­tions, and also how it acts on the Pa­cific fly­way,” a ma­jor mi­gra­tory route for birds that goes over the re­gion.

From a slight move­ment of color in the field, he iden­ti­fied a mead­owlark land­ing on a fence post, like one of those peo­ple who need only a few notes to name a song. “There is a field of study in ecol­ogy called eco­log­i­cal val­u­a­tion,” he con­tin­ued. “What’s the value of an endangered fish species, or worse, ex­tinc­tion? The fact that we’re bad at valu­ing those things doesn’t mean that there’s no value to them. Peak wa­ter should never mean that peo­ple are dy­ing of thirst. If we get to that point, that’s a fail­ure of gov­ern­ments. In­stead, peak wa­ter’s go­ing to be felt first by ecosys­tems and agri­cul­ture and economies. We’re al­ready see­ing peak-wa­ter con­straints hurt our economies, es­pe­cially with the drought, in farm­ers hav­ing to fal­low land, which leads to unem­ploy­ment.

“I think peo­ple in Cal­i­for­nia have un­der­stood for a long time that our wa­ter sys­tem is not in bal­ance,” Gle­ick went on, “but they see the prob­lem through their own lenses. If you’re a farmer and you see salmon or the delta smelt as re­spon­si­ble for wa­ter be­ing used in a way that doesn’t ben­e­fit you, you think you can do without the fish. If you care about the fish, you may think the farmer could grow some­thing dif­fer­ent, or the same thing dif­fer­ently, and use less wa­ter. Nei­ther group talks to the other, but it’s a false di­chotomy to think that the only way to solve the hu­man wa­ter prob­lem is to give up wa­ter for fish.”

Gle­ick be­lieves there are two so­lu­tions—the hard path and the soft path, no­tions also de­rived from en­ergy pol­icy. The hard path wrings wa­ter from the en­vi­ron­ment mainly by means of dams and tun­nels for trans­fer­ring wa­ter and by de­salin­iza­tion plants. It’s what World Bank guys and en­gi­neers are trained to do, Gle­ick said. The hard path ex­em­pli­fies twen­ti­eth-cen­tury think­ing, which in turn was based on the nine­teenth-cen­tury no­tions that re­sources were bound­less and that sci­ence could con­trol na­ture. There are still places to put dams, but dams are very ex­pen­sive, and de­salin­iza­tion is too costly to be prac­ti­cal any­where ex­cept places such as the Per­sian Gulf, where oil pays for it.

Hard path be­lieves that no wa­ter should es­cape be­ing used, and it is in­dif­fer­ent to the vi­tal­ity of an ecosys­tem. By its rea­son­ing, a de­pleted sys­tem can be shed for a new one, the way new oil de­posits can be found. The dis­carded sys­tem will ex­pire or re­cover, but the car­a­van will have moved on. An ex­am­ple is the Colorado River, the pas­sage of which is so over­sub­scribed that only once in the last twenty years has the river reached its delta in Mex­ico with any flow.

Soft path in­volves con­ser­va­tion and tac­tics such as storm-wa­ter cap­ture or waste­water treat­ment and re­use—twenty-first-cen­tury think­ing, Gle­ick calls it. “We are al­ready treat­ing waste­water, stuff you flush down your toi­let,” Gle­ick said. “We are not yet drink­ing that wa­ter, be­cause we don’t need to. They drink it in parts of Africa and in Sin­ga­pore, where they call it ‘new wa­ter,’ a means of brand­ing it. We use it for non­potable pur­poses: ir­ri­ga­tion, cool­ing power plants, and restor­ing ground­wa­ter.”

Gle­ick turned into the park­ing lot of the pump­ing sta­tion, where there were only a cou­ple of cars. “I’m a big fan of Cal­i­for­nia agri­cul­ture,” he said, “but I’m also a big fan of ecosys­tems and re­li­able ur­ban wa­ter sup­ply. I think we can have a healthy agri­cul­tural econ­omy and meet ba­sic hu­man needs for wa­ter and still save the fish, but not the way we’re do­ing things to­day.” “What if things don’t work?” I asked. “The dystopian vi­sion, which I don’t think will hap­pen, be­cause I hope and think we’ll be smarter than that,” Gle­ick said, “but the dystopian fu­ture is one in which we lose more and more fish­eries, the win­ter-run Chi­nook salmon go ex­tinct, the delta smelt dis­ap­pear, bird mi­gra­tions plum­met, the Sal­ton Sea”—a saline lake fed by Colorado ir­ri­ga­tion runoff—“dis­ap­pears, and toxic dust spreads over south­ern Cal­i­for­nia, the way it did when the city of Los An­ge­les drained Owens Lake. Plus a num­ber of farms go out of pro­duc­tion, and con­sid­er­ing how re­liant the coun­try and the world are on Cal­i­for­nia farms, the ef­fect is wide­spread. Also, ur­ban wa­ter gets more and more ex­pen­sive, be­cause we have to turn to de­salin­iza­tion, con­se­quently more pop­u­la­tions lack ac­cess to safe and af­ford­able wa­ter, and we see more and more East Porter­villes.

“What makes me op­ti­mistic,” he went on, “is that it’s ob­vi­ous we can do things dif­fer­ently. I would be do­ing some­thing else if I didn’t have that op­ti­mism, although it’s tem­pered in two ways. One is, while I truly be­lieve we’re mov­ing to­ward sus­tain­able wa­ter man­age­ment and use, I think bad things will hap­pen along the way. We’ll lose some things per­ma­nently, like species. The other thing is that not ev­ery­body will suf­fer equally. The rich can iso­late them­selves to some de­gree from cli­mate change and wa­ter prob­lems, but the poor will suf­fer. Those weren’t rich com­mu­ni­ties in the Cen­tral Val­ley that had their wells dry up.”

For sev­eral min­utes, we stood be­side the aque­duct and sim­ply watched the wa­ter flow­ing south, the way peo­ple stare at a deep hole in the ground. Then Gle­ick said, “When you start butting up against peak-wa­ter lim­its, you have to start do­ing things dif­fer­ently. We’re not go­ing to build many more big dams, and we’re over­draft­ing ground­wa­ter, but that will drive in­no­va­tion. This is the di­rec­tion we have to go. There’s no more new wa­ter.”

7 THE DOWN­SIDE Ear­lier, Gle­ick had said, “In Cal­i­for­nia, we have all the world’s wa­ter prob­lems in one form or an­other. There’s one ex­cep­tion. We don’t re­ally have vi­o­lence, yet.” Else­where, they have their share. In 2016 in Dar­fur, sev­enty peo­ple were killed “in clashes be­tween farm­ers and herders over ac­cess to wa­ter re­sources and land,” ac­cord­ing to the Pa­cific In­sti­tute’s Wa­ter Con­flict Chronol­ogy.

In re­cent years, many of the con­flicts in which peo­ple have been killed over...

(con­tin­ued on page 144)

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