John Colson: Hit and Run
October 15, 2010
We here in the Roaring Fork Valley tend to forget that in much of the world, the above question is not asked lightly. And the answer, in some places, may well lead to war in the not too distant future.
We’re sitting here near the headwaters of a perennially full river, with lots of snowmelt to keep it charged and keep our faucets running at high volume anytime we feel thirsty, want to wash our cars or take a shower.
But even here, there is trouble brewing, as argued in John Waterman’s new book, “Running Dry,” which looks at the dwindling flow and alarming future of the Colorado River, the source of water to more than 30 million people in the southwestern U.S.
Reservoirs around the Western Slope often do not meet their annual targets in terms of being filled by the diminishing volume of water coming from the melting snows of the surrounding mountains.
Thirsty cities to the east and west of us have a long history of greedily eyeing the Colorado’s bounty, even as experts have long agreed that the Colorado River Compact of 1922 is a legal premise based on a lie. It is now generally acknowledged that the compact, signed by seven states, divides the river’s waters based on an unusually wet year, and one that has rarely been matched since.
In other parts of the U.S., aquifers levels are dropping, and the same is happening worldwide. According to published reports, the water table under Beijing, capitol of China, has dropped so much that the city now must dig wells as deep as two-thirds of a mile before they hit water.
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And, unfortunately, as fresh water gets more and more scarce, it is awakening the greed of the merchant class. For a couple of decades now, entrepreneurs have been working on various ways to take control of the world’s water resources and use them to turn a profit.
Already, two companies are cobbling together a scheme to siphon off millions of gallons annually from Blue Lake, near Sitka, Alaska, and ship it to thirsty regions in the parched Middle East and India.
Other schemes have been hatched, such as a plan to float icebergs down the West Coast of the U.S. for the benefit of the growing population there. Citizens in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana say they are ready to resist any effort to pipe water from the Great Lakes westward. And the words used by this nascent resistance force are not always peaceful.
A few years ago, a guy named Charles A. Lynn published a book entitled, “Why The Nations Rage,” about the never-ending conflicts surrounding Israel and its neighbors. And the chief source of those conflicts in the future will not be oil or territory, he predicted, but water.
This is not all idle speculation or doom-saying clap-trap.
Water is the one substance that, in and of itself and forgetting all else, is absolutely essential to life. Indeed, it was in water that life first began on this planet, and when humans started settling down and building cities they almost always were located near water of some sort.
As the amount of fresh water available to us dwindles in comparison to our burgeoning global population, it is all too believable that some of us will try to use the scarcity to get rich, at the expense of those too poor, too disorganized, too scared or too lazy to prevent it.
More than one commentator has dubbed water as, “the new oil,” although the comparison is not precisely apt.
That’s because oil, the basis of the world’s economy at this point, is not essential to life, only to convenience and wealth.
Fresh water, on the other hand, is something nobody can do without.
Once the rest of us figure out that the profiteers of the world aim to deprive us of water if we cannot afford the prices they charge, my prediction is that there will be hell to pay.
My hope is that we understand this in time to prevent the total commodification of water, and leave it as it has been for millennia – largely in the public domain, rather than under private control.
If we don’t, things could get pretty rough on our little globe.