Will we always have fresh water?


Humanity depends on three critical threes: Without oxygen, most humans will die within three minutes; without water, life expectancy is three days; without food, we’ve got three weeks.

Few Americans give three seconds thought of any of these life-ensuring elements because, here, food is safe and plentiful, air quality laws are in place and enforced, and water, for most of America, is safe, bountiful, and relatively cheap.

In fact, water is so accessible and so cheap in the U.S. that the average American uses twice as much of it per year — or about 740,000 gallons — than the average person elsewhere around the world. The nation as a whole guzzles a staggering 322 billion gallons per day.

That’s right; 322 billion gallons per day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s June 2018 report on the nation’s water usage.

That’s the equivalent of the state of Rhode Island, or 988,000 acres, covered with one foot of water. And that’s every day.

Here’s the good part of that massive number: It’s 9 percent less than we used in 2010 and, incredibly, 100 billion gallons, or nearly 25 percent, under the nation’s peak daily usage of 430 billion gallons in 1980.

Indeed, we now use about the same amount of water each day as we did in 1965 when there were 133 million fewer of us. Unbelievable.

Equally shocking is where exactly the largest cut in water usage across those decades has occurred.

“The decline in total [water] withdrawals in 2015 primarily was caused by significant decreases, 28.8 billion gals./day, in thermoelectric power, which accounted for 89 percent of the decrease…”

In short, society’s move to greener, renewable energy, especially solar and wind, combined with less and more efficient nuclear and fossil fuel electricity generation, is great for water conservation. It’s an elemental and critical bonus rarely mentioned in any climate change debate.

Still, USGS notes, “thermoelectric power” claims 133 billion gallons of the nation’s daily water use, or about 41 percent.

Ag is big user

The second biggest water user in the U.S. is, you guessed it, you.

According to the most recent USGS survey numbers, American irrigators “withdraw” 118 billion gallons of water daily while the U.S. livestock sector slurps another 2 billion gallons a day.

That 120 billion gallons per day easily outdistances the third largest user, the “public,” at 39 billion gallons per day.

Like the power industry, however, irrigation withdrawals are now lower than the peak withdrawal of 150 billion gallons per day in 1980. The savings is almost entirely attributable to more efficient irrigation systems — drip and micro- are two key technologies — that use less water but irrigate nearly 56 million acres, or 10 percent more land than 40 years ago.

None of these trends suggest we can get sloppy with how we use water.

Thirsty corn

Strikingly, the biggest irrigation user by acres, according to the Department of Agriculture’s July 2018 Irrigation and Water Use report, is corn, accounting for “roughly 25 percent of total U.S. irrigated acreage” in 2012, the latest numbers.

Many of those irrigated acres, however, are also irrigated with government farm policies that underwrite irrigation’s extra costs.

Key to today’s corn economics are ethanol blending mandates, a sugar program that supports corn syrup production, and subsidized revenue insurance to backfill farm income holes. The reduction or loss of even one of these programs almost guarantees a substantial cut in irrigated corn acres.

Infrastructure needs

An even bigger threat to the nation’s water system is the ongoing failure to update its leaky, worn out infrastructure as population grows, climate change continues, and all government entities face more pressure to cut spending.

A recent Environmental Protection Agency study estimates that the U.S. needs to spend $632 billion on its water and wastewater infrastructure in the next decade just to maintain today’s service. Others estimate the cost at $1 trillion.

Is there a singular, great option out there? Not really, but you have three days to think about it before nature decides for you.


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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com



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