THE WELL IS RUNNING DRY
We sometimes worry about water here in Illinois, and for the wrong reasons
Review essay by Robert Kuhn McGregor Photographs by Randy Squires
The Coming World Crisis in Water and What We Can Do About It
Paul Simon, 1998
Welcome Rain Publishers, New York
Spring rains have come and gone in central Illinois, sharing their bounty with "rich and poor alike," to paraphrase Andrew Jackson. This is a mixed and sometimes volatile blessing in this part of the world. Every year, farmers wring their hands, concerned about planting fields too soft to support over- large tractors; suburbanites eye their cellars nervously. We need the rain, we remind ourselves, glancing nervously to the darkened skies, remembering last spring's sudden tornadoes. The plants need the moisture, we acknowledge. The wildlife too. But the world invariably seems very green and healthy, and my basement flooded three separate times one recent spring. A mixed blessing indeed, these annual rumbling thunderstorms.
Water. We worry about it here in Illinois sometimes, and usually for the wrong reasons. We are of the east, historically and geographically, a beneficiary of the nation's rain belt. Our 35 inches of annual rainfall has meant our freedom. No monster government water projects here, no shootings over water rights, no rationing, no collective socialism. True, our rain tends to come in inconvenient clumps — 10 inches in three days, next to nothing for three months. Some years we receive altogether too much, a few stray years not much at all. That is what life is on the former prairies east of the Hundredth Meridian. We do not need to concern ourselves much with the water supply. Strange it is to think that this, the world's most abundant natural compound, may prove the limit to human expansion on the globe. Our earth is running low on potable water. In places as diverse as Bangladesh, Syria, Florida and Nevada, water rationing lies on a not distant horizon. Human populations increase; the earth grows warmer; the finite supply of water grows thin.
On the face of it, one might not expect the voice of concern over this coming crisis to emanate from Illinois. Former Sen. Paul Simon is an unusually perceptive fellow, though, and he has raised the alarm. His new book, Tapped Out: The Coming World Crisis in Water and What We Can Do About It, addresses the water issue in a global perspective. Dividing his treatment into two parts, Simon first accompanies the reader on a whirlwind trip across the world, visiting the water- parched sections of the United States, and then those international hotspots where water poverty could lead to shooting very soon. After convincing the reader that the worldwide population expansion has brought us to the shores of severe water deficits, he then offers some answers. Each section of the book is in its own way troubling.
News from across the country gnaws at my attention as I compose these thoughts. Wildfires burned out of control in Florida through much of the spring, a direct result of environmental hubris. Florida is a victim of its own economic success. Everybody and their uncle's brother dreams of retirement there. To make room, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tried hard to drain those worthless Everglades, that enormous natural sponge that regulated the water table. Now Florida consumes more water than it has or will ever receive. The water table is dropping; homes are collapsing; the state is burning. Where will Florida look for water?
To the west, such cities as Tucson and Las Vegas blossom in brilliant shades of green, testament to our ingenuity, to our faith in endless supplies of water that do not exist. There is not much moisture in less than 10 inches of annual precipitation. During the past century, we have dammed practically every river in the West at enormous taxpayer expense, to privilege those who will not accept that a desert is a desert for very sound ecological reasons. Now we have begun to recognize the enormity of this mistake. Drawn by the promise of cheap electricity and boundless air conditioning, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas and a dozen other places have become the lodestones of our shifting population. Now these cities tax the water systems that inspired their growth, and there is no more water to be had. The Colorado River and its tributaries, impounded by more dams
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than a beaver can imagine, no longer reaches the sea. Every drop of water in the Colorado drainage is measured, doled out, claimed, allotted to one government or another — at times more than once. The Colorado is dead, and the nature the river supported is dying as well.
The story is the same throughout the arid West. In the Columbia River basin, salmon returning from the Pacific to spawn must brave 11 dams to reach the gravel beds of their births. Entire populations of a storied and much-valued species have become endangered. State officials in Idaho recently had the temerity to suggest that the only way to save the salmon native to the Snake River was to tear down a dam or two. Idaho got itself some new officials. (Convenient science only, please.) The Western states have a greater thirst than their lakes, their rivers, even their underground aquifers can supply. Nature and everything else must stand aside. When the population exceeds the water supply, where will the West look for more?
They will all look to water-rich Illinois, to the Great Lakes. This is a nightmarish solution that Paul Simon does not consider, but one that has already been proposed. Since the Dust Bowl days, the Western Plains states have relied on the vast subterranean reservoir known as the Ogallala Aquifer to supply irrigation needs. The Ogallala, an underground lake containing four trillion tons of water (20 percent more than Lake Huron), was long assumed to be a renewable resource: Water removed to support agriculture would renew itself naturally. By the 1970s, the states were drawing 28 billion tons of water a year, assuming natural processes would recharge the system. Nature, always full of surprises, did not cooperate. In roughly 60 years, the water table has dropped by more than 30 meters. That water is simply gone, a classic nonrenew- able resource.
Photograph by Randy Squires
Lake Springfield was closed to boaters and swimmers last summer.
It was reopened in time for the fun this summer.
As the Ogallala Aquifer drains empty (which will happen sometime in the next century), the agrarian wealthy of the Great Plains will be faced with an ominous choice: Abandon their lands to the tumbleweeds or tap into a fresh supply of water. Canada comes to mind, or the Great Lakes we share with our northern neighbors. Since the Ogallala was about the size of a Great Lake 60 years ago, it may take a Great Lake to replace it. The lakes are the world's largest reservoir of fresh water, roughly 20 percent of the earth's supply. Lay the pipes, build the pumps; the technology surely exists. Can America risk allowing the Plains to blow away? After all, we paid an awful lot of tax money to make them prosperous in the first place. Can we afford not to give them a Lake? Suddenly, all those aridity problems so far from water-blessed Illinois are creeping much closer.
Not that we are free from water- related concerns here at home. The local news has not been especially heartening either. By mid-April, officials at Lake Decatur had already issued warnings to their customers: Don't let babies drink the water. Nitrate levels are too high. Over at Lake Springfield, spring brought a surge in the coliform bacterial count, and fears that leptospirosis bacteria may multiply out of control for the second year in a row. Each of these bacteria has proved to be the agent of nasty human illnesses; each is the product of environmental myopia. The coliform, of course, is the consequence of our assumption that we can flush our wastes into our sources of drinking water. Probably rodent urine is at the root of the leptospirosis problem, so one of my scientific colleagues argues. This is what comes of systematically eliminating the predators from the prairies. Destroy the foxes, the hawks, the coyotes, the wolves; the rodent populations spiral. Eleven species of mice, rats and voles now flourish in Illinois, to say nothing of rabbits, squirrels and muskrats. If rodents are indeed the medium for leptospirosis, we have certainly created a thriving environment for the bacteria. Probably conditions are much the same in every lake in central Illinois. How comforting. I can still drink the water (if my government laces it with chemicals), but I had better not swim in it. Too many rodents around.
Our lakes are contaminated by ecological factors beyond our reach, by chemicals we cannot bring ourselves to eliminate. Nitrates, atrazine, benzene, arsenic, natural bacteria — we may have plenty of water, but it is becoming less and less fit for use even as we demand more and more of the stuff. In Lake Michigan, the petrochemical polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, (now banned, but long used in electrical equipment and manufacturing processes) so contaminates the water that the lake trout cannot naturally reproduce. The trout captured by sportsmen are hatchery bred. Of course, should they happen to catch one of the big ones, they probably should refrain from eating too much of it because of Mercury poisoning.
We do not need to go to Florida looking for water problems, nor to the great Out West, much less to India, China or the Middle East. Here in the land of lots of rain, we have severe water problems, albeit of quality, rather than quantity. This is one earth, one human popula-
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tion, and we have a very large dilemma. What are we going to do when the well of potable water runs dry?
Ironically, the solution that Paul Simon most emphasizes is the least viable for Illinois. Simon is a true believer in desalination. It is, I must admit, an attractive alternative. Three-quarters of the earth is covered with water unfit for use because of salt content. If we could just remove the salt without breaking our pocketbooks, one problem would be solved. Desalination is already happening on a small scale, in such rich and water-desperate places as California and Saudi Arabia, but the technology does not yet exist to produce water on the massive scale necessary as the human population grows. Simon rightly excoriates the U.S. government for dropping the ball on desalination research back in the days when Reagan Republicans cut funding for all kinds of environmentally responsible projects. If the Feds eventually get the studies going again, start producing economically viable amounts of desalted water, maybe the Western states can pipe some here, instead of us sending PCB-laden water the other way.
Desalination is especially attractive because, as global warming continues, the amount of saltwater in the oceans will mount anyway. Florida's already endangered water table will suffer further salt contamination as ocean levels rise, increasing the demand for fresh water from somewhere. One obvious solution to that problem is to slow global warming (after first drowning the fantasy that it is not happening). Simon advocates five critical steps necessary to meet the warming problems. All are familiar: Eliminate the use of chloroflu- orocarbons (ozone-eating chemicals used in aerosols and air conditioners), reduce carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide emissions from organic fuel consumption, encourage solar power usage, push desalination research and plant billions of trees. (I especially appreciate this last step, as I can plant a tree.) All are necessary, imperative, crucial, essential and urgent, human illusions notwithstanding. We do not own this earth; there is no guarantee that nature will sustain us, whatever we happen to do. If we are as wise as self-advertisement maintains, we will do all we can to sustain the conditions that prevail in nature right now. This is the nature that has nurtured humanity; we change its chemical makeup at our peril.
Having insulted the conservatives, I will, in the interest of equal time, admit that some of Paul Simon's solutions smack of big government liberalism.
Photograph by Randy Squires
The leptospirosis outbreak in Lake Springfield may have started in the
watershed on the southwest side of the lake near Chatham.
serve water — and clean up what we have — it will happen because we have come to believe it a positive good to behave this way. When water abuse is a crime, we will break the law as much as we can; if water abuse becomes a sin, we are more likely to toe the line. There has to be a moral element.
The best thing Paul Simon has achieved is to get the word out: We need to show greater respect for our water. This is an idea that, adequately reinforced, will seep into the American consciousness. We are at our best when we force our government to do things, rather than the other way around. The final chapter of Tapped Out consists of a simple list of "What You Can Do." Essentially, these are educative in nature, and far more constructive than imposed government conservation measures. Get the word out: to your legislators, your newspaper editor, your teacher, your pastor, your librarian. We are running out of clean water. We need to make some intelligent commitments, some wise decisions. Very soon there will be shooting wars over water rights in the Middle East, wars
Simon rightly argues that the short-term answer to the coming water crisis is conservation — limited and wiser use of this precious natural resource. His vision of the best path to conservation is through government action, namely charging more for water usage. Simple economics:
Water prices go up, usage comes down. Conservation.
I dunno. Gasoline prices have doubled and tripled in the past 30 years, and Americans burn more than ever. But Americans do recycle, and we plant trees, and we love the great outdoors, and we do occasionally bestir ourselves to go out and protest abuses of overburdened natural resources, such as the Great Lakes. This is not because we are taxed to do these things, but because we believe we should. Our environmental conscience is embryonic and inadequate, but it does exist. If we are going to con
that will make the old petroleum conflicts seem mild in comparison. You can live without oil if need be, but water? If folks run out in Jordan, in India, in Florida, in Nevada, do you think Illinois will be immune to the suffering? "This is not only a security and economic issue, it is a moral issue," Simon admits in his concluding chapter, just in the nick of time.
Outside, the rain has stopped bestowing its blessing for the moment. The water runs off the fields and suburban yards in tiny rivulets, seeking the streams, the drainage ditches, the sewers, finding its way patiently to the lakes of central Illinois. Whither then, this gift?
Robert Kuhn McGregor is an environmental historian at the University of Illinois at Springfield. He is at work on a book about the Great Lakes.
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