Friday, February 5, 2010

The Water Crisis in America

Aqua Shock

By Susan J. Marks

Water is the new oil, and we're running out.
How did this happen, and what can we do about it?

Format: hardcover
ISBN: 9781576603321
Publisher: Bloomberg Press
Pub. Date: 10/2009
256 pages, 6" x 9"

The lack of water is no longer just a problem in the arid West. Drought, contaminated groundwater, overuse, and more have affected water supplies from Massachusetts to California, from Georgia to Wisconsin.

Aqua Shock is a clear-eyed, objective look at how we arrived at this crisis point. Find out what’s happening to America’s shrinking water supply: the problems, the players, the complexities, and the possible solutions.

Award-winning journalist Susan Marks uses real-life conflicts to show how the battle for water is being fought every day everywhere. She draws on interviews with water experts, research from universities and think tanks, and studies from national and international governmental organizations.


America is running out of water! Sooner rather than later, your tap could run dry.

Tens of thousands of acres of the nation’s farmland already are parched, and reservoirs, lakes, and streams across the country have dried up. States, cities, businesses, neighbors, and even one-time friends now fight over the right to take what’s left from our fast-shrinking rivers and lakes and from the underground water supplies known as aquifers that hold our freshwater. Pollution, poisons, and contaminants—natural and man-made—further taint our dwindling resource.

Water has become the golden commodity of the twenty-first century. Once plentiful and pure, today it’s a finite resource like oil or gold, and its price is rising, too, whether you price it by bottle, bath, or billions of gallons.

Some battles for this new millennium’s “clear gold” are reminiscent of frontier-style, guns-drawn shootouts at the OK Corral; others end up as years-long, mega-million-dollar fights in court. Both kinds of disputes are equally acrimonious and devastating to the losers.

In Arizona, for example, pecan farmers watch their trees and livelihood wither in a battle with an industrial neighbor, who they claim depleted the area’s aquifer. After the aquifer’s water level drops by half—from thirty-two feet to only sixteen feet—the trees die of thirst.

The state of Mississippi battles the city of Memphis, Tennessee, in court with claims that the city and its Memphis Light, Gas and Water Company pilfered tens of millions of gallons of water from Mississippi’s aquifer. It’s not the first time the two have faced off over water. In February 2008, a federal district judge dismissed Mississippi’s $1 billion lawsuit against Memphis, but the fight is far from over. The interstate dispute is destined for the U.S. Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction over interstate issues.

In Colorado, two cities head to court over tens of millions of gallons of disputed water in a single stream that has for years quenched their needs. It takes a pricey deal with yet a third city—and a beer brewer—to calm the storm over water, but not without millions more dollars in fines and fees changing hands. After all that, the water shortage still isn’t resolved.

Elsewhere in Colorado, farmers and their neighbors end up thirsty and out of luck after more than four hundred water wells are shut down—plugged—because, the courts determine, these residents “stole” water they didn’t own the rights to even though the wells are on their individual properties.

Yet again, North Carolina and South Carolina square off in court in 2007—this time in the U.S. Supreme Court—over rights to take water from the Catawba River to quench the thirst of the Charlotte, North Carolina, suburbs of Concord and Kannapolis. That dispute, already years old, is likely to drag on for several more years. In March 2009, South Carolina’s attorney general rejects a call by his North Carolina counterpart to resolve the case outside of the Supreme Court.

The states of Tennessee and Georgia are in an old-fashioned border war precipitated by a controversial 1818 land survey. The prize: access to the Tennessee River and its billions of gallons of aqua!

The battles today rage coast to coast. Large-scale water disputes once were rare, and only arose in desert states or between frontier farmers and ranchers. But that was before huge populations, urban and rural sprawl, years of overbuilding and development, drought, climate change, pollution, and more took their toll.

Water once was abundant, with plenty to go around. But that’snot necessarily the case anymore, especially if you factor in the spreading issue of groundwater pollution—natural and otherwise. Earth’s essential, no-longer-so-easily-renewable resource is in short supply.

Aqua Shock looks realistically at the water crisis in America. It touches on global issues and connections; explains where our water comes from, what’s happening to it, and why; examines the poorly understood and highly complicated water laws that control water supplies; discusses who does and doesn’t own the rights to the water; describes how our groundwater is polluted and depleted; and considers what, if anything, can be done to ease the crisis.

This isn’t another book filled with corporate-speak or grandstanding for a cause, and it doesn’t dwell on the technicalities of the world’s water or the shortcomings of conservation or development. Neither does it single out states, developers, groups, or individuals for ridicule or blame.

Instead, Aqua Shock is a simple description of our nation’s water as a shrinking resource, and the problems, issues, and complexities associated with it. The book brings home the statistics and the shocking realities of America’s battle for water with real-life illustrations of the thirst and tribulations of individuals, companies, towns, cities, states, and regions. We turn to real stories from real people who give this global issue a human face in our own neighborhoods.

Before anyone shrugs off Aqua Shock as scare tactics, the woes of somewhere else, or more rhetoric from environmentalists or corporations, keep in mind that our nation’s midsection—with its withered fields and shrinking groundwater supplies—fulfills much of America’s (and the world’s) appetite for food, water, and—now with corn-based ethanol—fuel. That midsection stretches from North Dakota to Texas and from California to Nebraska.

The U.S. water shortage isn’t confined to the Great Plains or the West, either. At least thirty-six states across the country expect water shortages of some kind by 2013, and that’s not even factoring in drought or changing climate conditions, according to a 2003 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office. Forty-six states are expected to be under drought conditions by 2013. If you think that it’s not in your neighborhood, look more closely:

--The nearly five million residents of Atlanta, Georgia, were shocked into reality in 2007 when it was revealed that their
main water source, Lake Lanier, was drying up. By spring 2009, rains finally had eased drought conditions, and in June, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division issued its first non-drought outdoor watering schedule since June 2006.

--North Carolina had its driest winter in 113 years in 2007, according to data from the National Climatic Data Center, part of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

--Florida, a peninsula (meaning that it is surrounded on three sides by water), averages more than fifty inches of rain a year, yet regularly faces water-shortage emergencies in some areas. With rainfall totals 70 percent below normal, by mid-March 2009, Tampa Bay Water’s regional reservoir ran out of water, and the utility was forced to turn to alternative sources for water.

--In May 2008, a fire in Florida’s Lake Okeechobee—specifically in the then-severely depleted lake’s bed—covered thousands of acres before being extinguished.

--New Berlin, Wisconsin, near the banks of Lake Michigan, must deal with water restrictions because of population growth, water use limitations imposed by international laws and regional agreements, and drainage patterns. Geologically, the city sits on a subcontinental divide: Part of the city drains into the Great Lakes Basin (the area that includes the Great Lakes and its watershed), and the other part drains away from it.

--Rain forests and paradise aren’t immune, either. Some parts of the Hawaiian Islands have experienced what the National Weather Service and the U.S. Drought Monitor (a drought report published by the U.S. government) call “extreme drought” conditions.

Water shortage is a national problem we no longer can ignore. It’s global in scope, too. Here are some numbers:

--More than 1 billion people worldwide do not have access to minimal amounts of clean water, according to United Nations data.

--In Latin America alone, approximately 76 million people lack safe water, according to the World Bank.

--Every year 1.8 million children die as a result of diarrhea and other diseases caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation, according to the United Nations report mentioned above.

--By 2035, as many as 3 billion people may live in areas with severe water shortages, especially if they live in Africa, the Middle East, or South Asia, as the World Bank predicts they will. The issue for Americans isn’t simply a result of population growth or water demand, drought, development, or pollution. It’s all of that and more.

Aqua Shock begins with a look at our nation’s water supply: where it is, what’s happened to it, the global perspective, and why we should be worried. Then we examine why our water is in short supply: drought, development practices, population changes, overuse, regulation (or lack of it), worn-out sewer systems that leach away precious freshwater supplies, and contaminants—both natural and man-made. We’ll also delve into the morass of rules and regulations that govern water: who owns it, who doesn’t, and the “water gods” that often control this precious resource. These “gods” are often little-known, extremely powerful individuals in many areas of the country who, by law and sometimes behind the scenes, play a big role in whether you, our neighbor, your neighbor’s neighbor, or an entire town or city does or does not get water. We’ll also look briefly at whether it’s possible to save our water and how that can be accomplished.

After reading Aqua Shock, you’ll better understand why our water is a finite resource and the importance of waking up to the looming water disaster. The ordinary individual can help turn the thirsty tide with the right information and direction. Water is a broad issue and—through the lens of Aqua Shock— anything but dry, so let’s get started.

Chapter Notes

1. U.S. General Accounting Office, Report to Congressional Requesters, GAO-03-514, “Freshwater Supply: States’ Views of How Federal Agencies Could Help Them Meet the Challenges of Expected Shortages” (July 2003): 8,

2. Governor Sonny Perdue/Office of the Governor, “Governor, EPD Ease Outdoor Water Use Schedules,” June 10, 2009;

3. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, “Florida Drought Conditions, Frequently Asked Questions,” Drought/faq.htm; Tampa Bay Water, “Tampa Bay Regional Water Supply and Drought Index” (April 6, 2009),

4. First United Nations World Water Development Report, “Water for People, Water for Life” (2003); Second United Nations World Water Development Report, “Water, a Shared Responsibility” (2006); United Nations Development Programme, “Human Development Report” (2006),

Susan J. Marks is an award-winning journalist and author. She spent more than a dozen years at the Denver Post,primarily as Sunday business editor and special projects editor/business. She has also written for BusinessWeek, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, Woman’s World, ColoradoBiz, and the United Communications Group. Her work has received awards and recognition from local, regional, and national organizations, including Gannett, the Colorado Press Association, and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. She lives in Denver.

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