Where’s the water?

I read something deeply disturbing to me the other day in a CNN article. You can read the story here. The disturbing part of that story isn’t that Trump and Clinton are virtually tied in Nevada. Well, actually, that is disturbing. But it isn’t the *most* disturbing part. No, the most disturbing part comes at the very end of the article, where it talks about the top three issues for Nevada voters.

  1. Jobs and the economy
  2. Terrorism and national security
  3. Supreme court picks

On the surface, these aren’t really very surprising. I’d guess that they reflect national concerns as well. But there’s something missing from this list that I would think that Nevadans would be particularly worried about.


In case nobody has ever been, Nevada is literally entirely desert. The whole state only receives 9″ of rainfall annually on average. For some perspective, my hometown of Portland, OR gets 39″ per year. That’s a pretty big difference. And it’s especially important given the fact that Nevada is running out of water.

Actually, a lot of states are running out of water, but you never really hear about it with the exception of the California drought. What’s amazing to me about California is that, although the plight of their water system and supply is reported on in the news, people don’t really seem to care. Which is really a shame, because, you know, you can’t live without water…

You’d think that California’s neighbor to the east would be paying very close attention to that situation. But alas, polls seem to indicate otherwise. But there’s something that Nevada can’t escape from: a dwindling water supply.

Lake Mead is created by the Hoover dam, and supplies most of Nevada (and several other states, including California) with water. The problem is that for the last 14 years, Lake Mead has been shrinking. In fact, according to one estimate, since the year 2000 the lake has lost 4 trillion gallons of water. That’s a metric shit ton of water. And it only gets worse.

As of writing this, the lake is currently projected to hit 1,079 feet at the end of December; federal guidelines call for a shortage at anything less than 1,075 feet. And there’s a 59% chance that the government will have to declare a shortage in 2018. The reservoir hasn’t been that low since 1937. Why are these levels a big deal? Because the water pumps sit at 1,000 feet–anything below that and the pumps won’t have anything to pump (AKA nobody gets water).

A little before and after. Lake Mead hasn’t been filled to capacity since 1983.
The white on that hill is where the water level used to be.

To be fair, Nevada has done a good job at enacting efforts to conserve water. Even though the population has grown, water consumption is down. But conservation only goes so far, because people watering lawns is only a tiny fraction of the problem. The biggest problem is that the planet is warming and drought is increasing, and flushing a toilet less isn’t going to stop that pattern.

The problem is actually twofold. First, an increasing population has a greater demand for water. Second, a warmer planet means less snowfall, and decreasing snow packs mean less run off, which means rivers and lakes receive less water. And this problem isn’t limited to the Southwestern United States. It’s global.

In fact, in 2015 the World Economic Forum declared the water crisis the world is experiencing to be the #1 risk to the globe based on impact the society. Think about all the clean water does.

Obviously you need water to drink. But we also need it for sanitation. And for agriculture. No water, no food. No modern sewer system. Industry relies upon water, too. You can’t have life and you can’t have an economy without water. Let’s take one of those examples, agriculture, and look at it further.

It takes 1,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of wheat. It takes 1,400 liters to produce the same amount of rice. And it takes a whopping 13,000 liters to produce 1 kg of beef. In Nevada, agriculture consumes 80% of the water supply. In point of fact, the USGS estimates that 38% of freshwater withdrawal in 2010 was due to agriculture, but that agriculture accounts for 80%-90% of consumptive water use. You can read the report here.

There are certainly things we can do to help mitigate things. Better irrigation systems. Growing less water-intensive crops. Simply growing less. We currently produce more than we consume and export, which is a huge waste. But the problem won’t be solved until we address climate change, since that’s the biggest contributing factor to the problem, and it’s only going to get worse as time goes on and we continue to burn fossil fuels.

Which is why it’s so disheartening for me to see that in our political system, the link between the environment and the economy and jobs and security is either ignored, downplayed, or outright denied. It’s preposterous to me that people who are actively experiencing drought that will significantly impact their lives for potentially generations to come care more about who gets to pick supreme court justices. And I know conservatives get a lot of flack for being science deniers, but the left has their share of it too, especially when it comes to this issue. I was very dismayed to hear Bernie and Jill Stein talk about the evils of GMO foods. Not only is their no evidence that they’re harmful, but genetically engineering crops to use less water is going to be a very important part of future conservation strategies.

Ultimately, though, I’m waiting for a candidate to really spell it out for the people: all of the petty political things we argue about mean diddly squat if the environment collapses. Some politicians kind of dance around that or pay good lip service to the environment on the campaign trail, but inevitably the conversation returns to creating jobs and ISIS. There is no economy without water. There is no life without water. Who gets to pick supreme court judges is important, but not because of abortion or trade deals or gay marriage; it’s important because of who gets to rule on future cases involving conservation and the environment. And at the same time, realize that taking action on the climate *is* taking action of the economy, and jobs, and national security. They’re all tied together.



6 thoughts on “Where’s the water?

  1. Very good piece Ryan. I have at times thought of moving west, but every time I think about it I wonder about the water situation and figure I’m better off where I’m at.

    You would think with a subject so vital to survival, that water, conservation, and global warming would be THE most important topics of the day/election, you would think someone would grasp the seriousness of the situation, you would think people would be up in arms about it. But you see none of this and it baffles me.

    I’m sure once they turn off the spigot at the dam there will be an uproar, but why wait until it’s too late? All you can do is complain at that point. Because the time for getting something done was yesterday.

    1. It’s disheartening to see people be so short sided so frequently. Sometimes I wonder if there wouldn’t still be a problem even if climate change wasn’t happening, because our population continues to skyrocket and people continue to think in such small timeframes and limited ways. Maybe we’re just doomed.

  2. “There is no economy without water. There is no life without water.”
    ~ Thanks for raising this issue. It’s terrible when we have to spell it out to people. We have to elect leaders who will address climate change.
    ~ Here in Los Angeles, we have had to reduce our water consumption by at least 25 percent. With vigilance, I’ve cut my family’s usage to almost 50 percent.

      1. I drastically reduced my use of water for washing laundry and dishes; bathroom and toilet; and watering my small flower garden. Changing habits. With my garden, I’ve replaced thirsty plants with potted succulents.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s