Water is life. The USA is rapidly drying & dying.

The United States of America is headed into uncharted waters, as the old saying goes, which is to say we’re running out of groundwater.

This according to a comprehensive investigation by The New York Times, followed by “Uncharted Waters,” a series of exemplary stories about the depletion of groundwater sources and water scarcity nationwide. The decline is distressing, to say the least, and the seeming lack of comprehension or acceptance of what it means by too many people is more distressing still.

The downward trend in underground water availability is decades long, but as the analysis and reporting make clear, “Climate change is amplifying the problem.”

Water is life, and we’re guzzling through what we have at unsustainable rates. Something has to change.

As the first story in the series states –

“America Is Using Up Its Groundwater Like There’s No Tomorrow,” The New York Times, Aug. 28, 2023

The Times is ringing the warning bell loud and clear. Will we take heed?

Please Read These Stories

It’s not clear whether there will be additional installments. Meanwhile….

Graphic by The New York Times illustrating USA groundwater level trends in 2022
Groundwater trend graphic by The New York Times

Get Serious About Enforcement

The second “Uncharted Waters” piece focuses on water overuse by big agriculture. Corporations like R.D. Offutt (RDO), which happens to be headquartered in the hometown of IV Words, Fargo, N.D., and is featured in the story, are significant contributors to the problem, and each of us makes it worse every time we scarf down another McDonald’s french fry.

“Big Farms and Flawless Fries Are Gulping Water in the Land of 10,000 Lakes,” The New York Times, Sept. 3, 2023

As The Times reported:

“By turning on the taps in the depths of drought, R.D. Offutt and other farmers in the state (Minnesota) — where thousands of wells irrigate potatoes and other water-intensive crops like corn, soybeans and sugar beets – blew through limits designed to protect aquifers that supply drinking water to millions of people….

The R.D. Offutt headquarters building in Fargo, N.D.
The R.D. Offutt headquarters in Fargo, N.D.

“In a written statement, Warren Warmbold, vice president of R.D. Offutt Farms, said, ‘The story of 2021 was either going to be about water overages or food shortages.’ Along with other farmers, he said, ‘we had to make difficult decisions around water use in order to save our crops and keep the food supply secure and affordable.’”

The apparent suggestion that french fries are akin to “food supply” seems a bit of a stretch, but… hey… that’s one justification.

Here’s the thing – that shouldn’t have been RDO’s decision to make.

Minnesota limits the amount of water that people and entities can draw from aquifers, so the state controls what people and entities use. Theoretically, at least. In reality, it appears the state does little to enforce the limits. Corporations simply go on their merry way, making choices that impact millions of people.

To be fair, as the story points out, “This year, Minnesota lawmakers moved to rein in irrigators by increasing fines for pumping too much water.” However, “it’s unclear whether regulators will use the new tools.”

Will RDO and other big ag corporations make the same decisions to violate state permits even when drinking water shortages become ubiquitous? I wouldn’t bet against it.

American Geosciences Institute

People Over Profit

The USA faces what is quickly becoming a severe nationwide water shortage. Yet the all-too-prevalent thinking in this country about resource management, global warming and resulting climate change leads to people and companies setting aside the needs of others when making decisions that affect groundwater and other resources we all need to share. That mode of thought also suggests that, as a species, we can continue doing what we’re doing now forever, that we can keep kicking the can down the road so our kids and grandkids are forced to deal with the life-threatening impacts.

As long as neither state nor federal government agencies impose and actually enforce pumping limits, big corporations will almost assuredly continue to make decisions like this for every U.S. citizen, without our consent. We need stringent legal limits to water usage and actual enforcement around the nation, and the decisions regarding how much, by whom, where and when water is used need to be made by people who do not have a profit motive.

The USA is starting from way behind, as this excellent Times series makes painfully clear.

I’ve written before about the increasing potential for water wars around the world. This reporting suggests they might not be limited to wars between nations, but could be fought state to state, county to county, city to city and, in the extreme case, home to home.

To make sure that doesn’t transpire we need to take action yesterday. “What’s-in-it-for-me-ism” and “not-in-my-backyard-ism” can no longer rule the day, let alone the national water supply.

As Jack Ethredge, former city manager of water-challenged Thornton, Colo., points out in the third “Uncharted Waters” story, “In the water business you have to be years and years ahead of the game.”

UPDATE, 9/25/23 – The New York Times has added a fourth installment to the “Uncharted Waters” series: “‘Monster Fracks’ Are Getting Far Bigger. And Far Thirstier.”

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