In the US, Clean Water Is No Guarantee

Americans use twice as much water as Europeans do and pay half as much for it. Low fees lead many Americans to take their abundant supplies for granted. Globally, most water is used for irrigation purposes, but in the US, thermoelectric generation requires more water. “During an economic recession, protecting water supplies takes a back seat to industries that promise jobs,” notes journalist Susan Froetschel. “Anti-government fervor dangerously coincides with industry resistance to government protections.” The small not-for-profit water industry is highly fragmented, with tens of thousands of waterworks under state and local jurisdiction and a hodgepodge of laws that can only lead to shortages and conflicts. Severe drought throughout the South already strains groundwater supplies. Conservatives express anxiety about dependence on foreign oil supplies, yet show little concern about the future of water supplies. The United States could be making a mistake prioritizing energy production over protection of its water supply. – YaleGlobal

In the US, Clean Water Is No Guarantee

Despite abundance, contamination and energy policies put US water supply at risk
Susan Froetschel
Thursday, August 11, 2011

Water aplenty, but how safe? Technicians of the Biodesign Institute in Arizona check for waste in ground water

WASHINGTON:  Scant attention is paid as industries compete to freely use the ample US water supply. Yet a fierce battle is underway, pitting the massive, profitable energy industry against the smaller agriculture industry and miniscule water industry. 

The United States, among the top five nations in the world with plentiful, renewable freshwater sources, has its trouble spots. An overarching water policy could prevent water shortages, conflict among industries and threats to public health. Otherwise, the habitual notion of relying on market solutions could mean taps running dry and large water tables left unfit for drinking.

During an economic recession, protecting water supplies takes a back seat to industries that promise jobs. Anti-government fervor dangerously coincides with industry resistance to government protections.  Already saltwater intrudes into aquifers up and down both US coasts. Contamination from arsenic, heavy metals, radiation, pesticides, mercury and other mining, agricultural and industrial toxins has left no state untouched.

Contamination reduces supply, and shortages attract speculators. Private ownership or investment accounts for about 10 percent of US assets, and investors and hedge funds also pursue companies that provide water management or treatment. 

Water is a basic ingredient for producing food or energy. Charging an iPhone requires a half liter of water flowing through pumps and heat exchanges of a power plant, estimates IEEE Spectrum.  Growing a bushel of corn in Nebraska requires more than 3000 liters. Bountiful water allows the US to be the world’s top food exporter and largest consumer of energy, and together irrigation and thermoelectric power account for 75 percent of US freshwater withdrawals. Globally, irrigation is the leading use for water. But in the US, thermoelectric power takes the lion’s share. 

The largely nonprofit water industry, mostly run by local governments or regional agencies, is no match against the $1 trillion-plus energy industry. The federal government generally oversees pollution control, while states are in charge of water law. Convoluted laws, particularly in the West and South, have allowed land and water grabs, with implications little understood until long after approval.

An understanding of water’s crucial role in energy development barely keeps pace with an oil and gas boom sweeping the US in a giant U-shape: In Pennsylvania the oil and gas industry asked a federal judge to lift the ban on using surface and groundwater in the Allegheny National Forest for oil and gas extraction.  A school district in drought-stricken Gonzales, Texas, considering oil and gas drilling on its land, learned that water availability is the major challenge. The Denver Post is seeking tips on land and water deals in Colorado. In the American West, water is worth as much as land, one Front Range farmer told the newspaper after losing his water rights in a court battle.

Water Problems in the US.Enlarge Image

Conflicts are particularly intense over shared aquifers like the Ogallala, a vast ancient reserve of water that rests underneath eight Western states, including the northern tip of Texas.  Unlike other states, Texas lacks a reasonable-use clause on groundwater. Landowners with rights could pump wells dry, regardless if that depletes wells of others. While an exceptional drought affecting most of Texas does not directly affect underground water, reduced availability of surface water adds new pressure on the aquifers.

Texas is also the nation’s leading energy producer. With no sign of relief from severe drought, there’s grumbling about the state’s unflinching support for the energy industry. State law allows energy production firms to use as much water as they like for drilling, but during emergencies, local conservation districts can also ration. To compound matters, local districts often lack resources to accurately measure withdrawals or new sources of contamination.

Starting a decade ago with the Ogallala Aquifer, the University of California’s Center of Hydrologic Modeling has relied on satellite observations to study gravity shifts and detect monthly groundwater changes in major aquifers. Now the center reports shortages are looming even in agricultural strongholds like California.

Analysts and policymakers hope that technological advances in monitoring and treatment will improve water management.  While US agriculture has doubled its water productivity over the last 50 years, some technological improvements of the energy sector promote a greater demand for water.  A reliable water supply is essential for developing most energy, from extraction to producing electricity.  Coal mining, uranium mining and processing already require large amounts of water.

In recent years, the oil and gas industry has turned to hydraulic fracturing, often called fracking, to speed extraction, especially from mature wells. Wells are blasted with a high-pressure mixture containing mostly water and, depending on the geology, small amounts of sand, and various other chemical and biochemical agents. Despite numerous complaints about spills or wastewater disposal, so-called “produced water,” the industry insists that fracking has not been linked to groundwater contamination.

Environmentalists and communities zero in on potential contamination rather than water withdrawals. Yet fracturing can require three times more water as conventional drilling, up to 10 million gallons per well. Extra water is needed to access and process tar sands, hydrogen, synthetic fuels and corn biofuels, too.

Power production also requires cooling water. Thermoelectric power plants, built before 1970, withdrew more water, much of which was released for reuse. Modern closed-loop plants use less water, but evaporation increases overall consumption. Carbon-capture systems promoted to limit greenhouse gas emissions require more water still.

The vast majority of water used by US industry comes from direct supply. Water withdrawals from major basins often required no permit unless used for drinking water, though strapped governments increasingly consider new permits and fees. For example, New York State passed legislation this year requiring permits, but no fees, for large withdrawals.  

Flat-fee pricing for consumers doesn’t encourage conservation, and US communities gradually move toward seasonal and block pricing and excess-use fees for household consumers.  Germany, France and England pay about 200 euros per person per year for water and sewer services. US households use double the water at half those rates.

So a call from the NGO Food & Water Watch for the US Congress to establish a national trust fund for preserving water and investing in infrastructure fell on deaf ears. But awareness about potential shortages is building among investors. Plans are underway in Sitka, Alaska, population 9000, to arrange tanker exports of freshwater from glacier runoff and snowmelt to India, for a penny a gallon and subsequent resale to the Middle East. States with shortages anticipate similar imports, even as other states with lakes and rivers tighten restrictions. More than half of 2005 US fresh groundwater withdrawals occurred in six states – California, Texas, Nebraska, Arkansas, Idaho and Florida – reports the US Geological Survey. 

Water management won’t be easy. Severe droughts and population booms have strained water supplies of cities in the warmest states, where anti-regulation attitudes are most entrenched. Communities confronting shortages, contamination and deteriorating infrastructure consider privatization and turn to US subsidiaries of European multinationals like Suez Environnement or Vivendi Universal.

Meanwhile energy lobbyists capitalize on anxiety over climbing job losses and lobby against environmental regulations, climate change legislation, increased taxes or dependence on foreign fuel supplies.  

In this ongoing battle, the essential ingredient behind every job, home and industry often goes unmentioned. Americans may soon regret favoring one commodity over the other.


Susan Froetschel is a journalist and the author of three mystery novels.
Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization


Deference to author, some fantastic selective information.