In its long history, water has never been more precious, more controversial, more expensive or more essential to agriculture and commerce than it is right now.
A symbol of purity in cosmetic ads, a stand-in for quality in beer ads, the poster boy for violence and destruction during floods, hurricanes and tsunamis, water is currently so scarce out West that it threatens to decimate the nation’s most productive farming region (California) and cripple some of its most populous cities across the southwestern Sun Belt.
Water has even emerged as the calculus for measuring how ethical our food choices are: Hence the claim beef requires thousands of gallons of water per pound to produce, while grains and legumes consume only a fraction of the amount of water that animal foods require.
So say the industry’s critics, at any rate.
The credibility of such accusations are suspect, but charges that livestock production and meat processing consume too much water have been bolstered by the impact of a serious drought now entering its fourth year in the western U.S.
In California, the drought is turning lawns brown, making #droughtshaming a trending topic and wreaking havoc with the state’s multi-billion-dollar agricultural industry. Even though farming has initially been exempted from the 25% reduction in water use mandated by the state for California cities and towns, the drought is taking a serious toll on growers and farmers.
According to a recent study from the University of California-Davis, the drought will likely cost California farmers more than $2.7 billion in losses, wipe out more than 18,000 jobs and result in the forced fallowing of more than 564,000 arable acres.
And that’s this year alone.
“This study does not address long-term costs of groundwater overdraft, such as higher pumping costs and greater water scarcity,” according to the study’s conclusions. “The socioeconomic impacts of an extended drought, in 2016 and beyond, could be much more severe.”
Richard Howitt, a professor emeritus at UC-Davis and one of the authors of the study, said the situation for farmers could get worse.
Howitt told National Public Radio that despite cuts of 60 percent in surface water supplies, access to underground water has allowed farmers to compensate for at least 70 percent of that. He said that meant the net reduction is about 8 percent of total irrigation water.
However, groundwater is now running dangerously low, especially in California’s Central Valley, the heart of the state’s farm country, an area that doesn’t have the reserves of groundwater available elsewhere.
“The impact [of the drought] is concentrated in areas that don’t have access to underground water, the Central Valley, the San Joaquin Valley,” the U-C Davis study noted.
Rising costs all around
Meanwhile, beyond the crippling shortages of rainfall and irrigation water that threaten U.S. agriculture — and ultimately, the nation’s food supply — urban residents are confronting another set of problems related not to supplies but to aging delivery systems.
As the “era of cheap water comes to an end,” said Tom Curtis, the head of government affairs for the American Water Works Association, rising costs for delivering water are poised to impact states and municipalities already struggling under budgetary constraints.
Not only farmers and producers, but virtually everyone either is or shortly will be faced with surging costs for an essential commodity which generations have taken for granted will always be available, and always be affordable.
Just go ahead and delete that expectation.
For starters, the main water lines in many older cities were installed as long as a century ago and now urgently need to be replaced. The price tag? According to AWWA estimates, such a project would cost more than $2 trillion over the next 25 years to upgrade and expand drinking water and wastewater systems nationally.
That’s the conservative estimate, by the way.
Meanwhile, cities across the Sun Belt are facing the prospect of future water shortages and are already spending massive amounts of money searching for additional sources of supply. Tapping into newer aquifers and building bigger reservoirs are temporary fixes, but don’t solve the essential problem of providing sufficient water for millions of people living in what are desert landscapes.
There’s one other problem facing the majority of urban areas, both large and small: EPA rules require replacement of the dual storm-sewer and sanitary-sewer systems currently in place. Such systems overflow during storms or incidents of heavy precipitation and discharge raw sewage into surface waters.
That’s going to cost more hundreds of billions of dollars that cities and states don’t have sitting in some rainy-day account.
So guess who’s going to pay for it all?
You and me and every other resident of virtually every municipality in the country.
Water has become as critical as oil — blue is indeed the new black — and it’s poised to become not only as precious but equally expensive.
Dan Murphy is s food-industry journalist and commentator.