Enough to Go Around

July 19, 2018

Earlier this year, we discussed Cape Town, South Africa’s extreme water crisis. Three years of drought, population expansion, and insufficient planning brought the city to the brink of cutting off municipal water supplies and imposing emergency rationing, also known as “Day Zero.” Thanks to extreme conservation efforts, Day Zero has been pushed back beyond 2019. Today, the city’s dams are at 50%, the highest in the last 18 months, although water restrictions remain in place.

While this is good news for Cape Town, other countries are facing similar crises, as Water Efficiency editor Laura Sanchez wrote about previously on the blog, particularly in the Middle East.

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In Iraq, for example, the government recently banned farming of several summer crops, including rice, a food staple for the country, reports the Associated Press. The government says the country only has enough water for half its farmland as a result of high temperatures and not enough rain. One in five Iraqis work in agriculture, according to the article, and 70% of Iraq’s water flows in from other countries. Farmers blame Turkey for taking more than its share of water from the Tigris and Euphrates, and the Iraqi government for not modernizing how irrigation and water are managed. The country still largely relies on flood irrigation, which is much less efficient than drip irrigation.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Iran, 97% of the country is experiencing some degree of drought, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran. In southern Iran, high salinity and mud have made local water sources undrinkable, leaving people reliant on water provided by the government. When a local agency reported that the water was unsafe even for cooking and laundry, protesters took to the streets. In early July, Al Jazeera reported that a clash with security forces injured nearly a dozen people.

South Africa, Iran, and Iraq, however, all seem mighty far away. Yet even here in the US, tensions around water are rising.

On July 6, the California State Water Resources Control Board released a plan to keep more water in the San Joaquin River Delta, hoping to protect critically endangered fish species. The tiny Delta smelt fish, which is endemic to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is almost gone entirely. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which does four-month sampling trawls every year, turned up only four Delta smelt in 2017, the lowest since sampling began in 1967. And according to the Water Education Foundation, there were once millions of Chinook salmon runs in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins. Now, there are only four runs in the Sacramento River, and The Sacramento Bee reports the salmon are still struggling to recover from California’s historic five-year drought. The fall-run of Chinook salmon is a  $1.4 billion industry and supports 23,000 jobs.

But the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta also provides a portion of the drinking water of 25 million Californians and irrigation for 4.5 million acres of the nation’s most fertile farmland, according to the Water Education Foundation. More water heading downstream for fish means less water for other users, particularly farmers. The Sacramento Bee reports that up to 1,600 jobs in the San Joaquin Valley could be lost, although the California Farm Water Coalition argues that this number will be a much higher 6,500 jobs. Chris Scheuring, counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation, told The Sacramento Bee that the state’s goals are “just not achievable without staggering human costs.” 

The tension around the Board’s plan for the San Joaquin River Delta is all the more intense because on both sides are positions we can support. On the one hand, the health and biodiversity of the Delta is an obvious boon, not least because the fishing industry relies on healthy Chinook populations. On the other, the farmland around the Delta represents not only the livelihoods of thousands of hard-working Californians but a vital breadbasket for the state and the country. To further complicate matters, controversy has also swirled around Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed California WaterFix, two massive tunnels that would divert water before it reached the Delta and channel it to the drier southern portion of the state. It’s unclear what effect the State Water Resources Control Board proposal would have on the WaterFix tunnels.

While the situation around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta isn’t as dire as in Iraq, South Africa, or Iran (so far the Board’s plan is still just a plan; there are no farming or drastic water restrictions, and citizens are not lining up for bottled water), there are familiar patterns. Long-term droughts, overdrawn water supplies, growing populations, and economic pressures are putting pressure on water resources around the globe. But there may still be hope for the Delta. The National Resource Defence Council has argued that improving agricultural efficiency, greater use of recycled water, better stormwater capture, and more urban efficiency could save California up to 14 million acre-feet of water. Any possible solution, however, will require the cooperation of many different agencies, interest groups, and municipalities—and when water is tight and tensions are high, that can seem unimaginable.

As Shuring put it, “Obviously there’s not enough (water) to go around.”

What solutions do you see to increasing water tensions—not just in California, but around the globe? Are there any good models for balancing environmental and human needs? Let us know in the comments. 
About the Author

Rachel Sim

Rachel Sim is the editor of Stormwater and Erosion Control magazines. 

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