[Note: This is the forty-fifth sample from the rough draft of my far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews. These samples are not freestanding pieces. They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you have some free time. If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.]
Like soil, water is essential for all life — no water, no life. Access to wetness determines the essence of every ecosystem, from rainforests to deserts. The plant and animal communities that inhabit them are species attuned to surviving in local conditions. Wherever our wild ancestors wandered, they simply ate the healthy wild foods the land provided. Until fairly recently, it never occurred to them to play the game of stewardship, and assume the role of owner and master. They had no need to. They were wild, free, and happy. Life was good.
Everyone who reads these words has spent their entire life in a fossil-powered era of super-insanity, a temporary catastrophic blip in the human saga. Many believe that oil is also essential — far more so than soil or water. But in the coming decades, we’ll have no choice but to abandon our addiction to fossil energy — cold turkey — and migrate to a more traditional path that is much slower, simpler, saner, and far less crowded. Joy! It was a crazy-making bad habit. It turned much of the mob into full-bore lunatics who lost all common sense and lived like they were the final generation. I can assure you that we’ll always need water. Water is good stuff.
J. R. McNeill wrote that salt water is 97 percent of all H2O. About 69 percent of all fresh water is frozen, mostly in Antarctica. Of the 31 percent that is not frozen, about 98 percent is stored in underground aquifers, many of which are too deep to be molested by tropical primates and their boring gizmos. The water in all lakes and streams is about a quarter of one percent of all freshwater. An essential benefit of incoming sunbeams is desalination. As salt water evaporates, water vapor is released into the atmosphere, where it can travel the world and become dew, rain, frost, or snow.
McNeill wrote that for almost the entire human saga, water was mostly used for little more than drinking and bathing. Today, we use far more, waste far more, and pollute far more. Three major guzzlers are agriculture (70%), industry (20%), and cities and towns (10%). In 1990, we were using 40 times more water than in 1700. In the twentieth century alone, water consumption increased 900 percent.
Similar to their abusive relationship with soil, clever control freaks are working like crazy to exploit water in every unsustainable way they can imagine. Their objective is to keep the unsinkable Titanic, with its seven-point-something billion passengers, afloat for as long as humanly possible, by any means necessary (as long as it’s profitable).
Water-guzzling agriculture began in places like southern Mesopotamia. James Scott wrote a new and improved version of the story about the dawn of plant and animal domestication, and the eventual emergence of civilization. He focused on southern Mesopotamia, where wild folks originally wandered into a region of thriving wetlands loaded with wild wheat, barley, and many other wonderful things to eat. It was delicious paradise, full of wild game, and nobody owned it, so they decided quit wandering, build luxurious huts, and enjoy a life of prosperity.
By and by, the growing number of bambinos began to strain the party. Their unfortunate solution was to increase food production by transforming desert into productive cropland. In the following pages, we’ll examine some of the downsides of irrigation. This was a daunting fork in the path. Once again, some folks who, for centuries, were well adapted to prospering in a wild ecosystem, eventually became possessed by an urge to control and exploit it. One lesson that environmental history teaches us, over and over and over again, is that some cultures can lurch out-of-balance, and develop an obsessive compulsion for cleverly controlling people, places, plants, and animals.
Unfortunately, this devilish cleverness is not kept tightly caged by knowledge, understanding, wisdom, respect, or acute foresight. (Hey, we’re just happy horny hungry savannah primates! We didn’t know any better!) Sometimes, it can make you wonder if Big Mama Nature deliberately conjured the dark juju of cleverness, because overseeing millions of years of ongoing sustainability was getting really monotonous and boring. Bring in the clowns?
Sandra Postel is fascinated by a dirty and destructive habit called irrigation. Today, about 17 percent of global cropland is irrigated, and it produces 40 percent of our food. Crops can be grown in lands too dry for rain-fed agriculture, and they can produce higher yields. Irrigation fans the flames of population growth, which is usually the opposite of helpful. Since 1800, irrigated cropland has grown 30 times in area, and global population has soared from one billion to nearly eight.
In the early days, irrigation was a game of moving surface water into fields using low tech methods. Keeping the irrigation channels from silting up was a major and never-ending job that gave legions of slaves and peons satisfying work to enrich their lives. When enemies came to visit, a cruelly enjoyable way of destroying your society was to deliberately rubbish your irrigation system.
After the Second World War, powerful electric and diesel powered pumps became affordable and popular. So did drilling rigs, which were used to bore tube wells for the extraction of groundwater. Cheap and abundant energy allowed far more water to be produced, compared to old fashioned muscle power or windmills. This spurred a massive expansion of the area of irrigated land, which tripled between 1950 and 2000.
Today, the mining of underground aquifers makes possible about a tenth of world grain production. Huge fossil aquifers are being drained in the U.S. Great Plains, the North China Plain, and under Saudi Arabia. Ancient water is being extracted far faster than the aquifers can naturally recharge — a one-time reckless joyride.
Walter Youngquist was no fan of aquifer mining, because it created “food bubbles,” where crops could be raised in locations where highly productive agriculture was otherwise impossible. In 2011, the World Bank estimated that these temporary bubbles were feeding 175 million in India, and 130 in China. The bubbles will inevitably burst. Then what?
In the U.S., the huge Ogallala Aquifer lies beneath eight states in the Great Plains. It now provides the water for about 27 percent of the irrigated land in the U.S. The aquifer contains water that may be 25,000 years old. After the Second World War, folks started using automotive engines to pump wells. Rotating motorized center pivot irrigation systems sprayed water over large circular patches of land. Irrigation transformed marginal grassland into a highly productive environment for ranching, and growing soybeans, corn, and wheat.
The Ogallala is mysterious, and humankind has yet to develop X-ray vision. Writing in 2007, Clive Ponting reported that the aquifer could be depleted as early as 2010. More recently, experts predict it could fail as soon as 2028. What is measurable is that in some regions, since the 1940s, the water table has dropped more than 300 feet (90 m). Youngquist noted that “in north Texas, some 15,000 square miles (39,000 km2) of agricultural land has had to be abandoned as the Ogallala aquifer is totally depleted.” Luckily, what gets pumped out today will be replenished by nature in a mere 6,000 years, maybe. Others say hundreds of thousands of years.
And so, as topsoil is taking a beating, aquifers and surface water are being overpumped, and population keeps zooming upward (oh-oh!). Joel Bourne noted that agriculture guzzles most of the water used by humans. Irrigated fields have yields that are two to three times higher than rain fed fields. Demand for water is projected to increase 70 to 90 percent by 2050, but water consumption today is already unsustainable. The solution is easy, all we have to do is “double grain, meat, and biofuel production on fewer acres with fewer farmers, less water, higher temperatures, and more frequent droughts, floods, and heat waves” (and rising energy costs). No worries!
Irrigation is draining major rivers. For example, Erling Hoh described the Yellow River in China, which is 3,400 miles (5,472 km) long. Its waters have been intensively overdrawn for irrigating cropland. In 1972, for the first time in history, the flowing river never made it to its normal outlet in the Yellow Sea. In 1997, lower sections of the river were dry for 227 days, reducing the harvest by an estimated 8.5 million tons. Some sections have been so polluted by cities and industries that the water is unfit for both irrigation and human consumption. Fish no longer survive in some regions.
Sandra Postel noted that a growing number of major rivers are, for months at a time, discharging little or no water into the sea. They include the Colorado, Rio Grande, Yellow, Indus, Ganges, Amu Darya, and Murray. Rivers deliver both life-giving water, and death-bringing pollution. As the volume of flow diminishes, there is less water to dilute the crud.
The Ganges is getting sucked dry. Old fashioned irrigation, which moved river water to fields via canals, worked for centuries, when there were fewer people, and more forests. As demand increased, the water level of the river dropped lower and lower, until the old canal distribution system could no longer work. Luckily, our hero technology came to the rescue. Tube wells were drilled, and motorized pumps began extracting water like crazy, and the crops prospered.
Naturally, with this increased demand, underground water tables dropped. Consequently, less groundwater naturally flowed back into the river. So, to an increasing degree, the Ganges is looking less like a mighty river, and more like a big mudflat. [LOOK] Breezes drifting over the mountain from the future have the pungent aroma of food shortages. Progress!
Clive Ponting noted that many folks today are still able to snatch as much water as they want, pay nothing for it, and not worry about waste. Irrigating cropland with state of the art, maximum efficiency technology is prohibitively expensive. It’s far more practical and affordable to continue using highly wasteful methods. In India and China, two-thirds of irrigation water never reaches the plants, because of losses due to evaporation, or seepage from delivery canals. U.S. farmers merely waste half of their water.
Postel wrote that water tables are dropping beneath large regions of northern China, India, Pakistan, Iran, the Middle East, Mexico, and the western United States. Ground water is being pumped out faster than the aquifers are naturally replenished. When a well begins to wheeze, they keep drilling it deeper and deeper, until it finally goes dry. Up to 10 percent of the global food harvest is made possible by aquifer mining. This path does not have a happy ending.
Subsidence is a common but unintended consequence of aquifer mining. It affects locations where the geology is not sufficiently rigid. Underground, as the water is removed, it leaves behind an empty void that the land sinks to fill. Aquifer compaction can be irreversible — nature may never again be able to recharge the aquifer. Game over.
J. R. McNeill reported that in 1990, Mexico City was using 35 times more water than it did in 1900. The land surface subsided. On the streets, some locations have unevenly sank up to 23 feet (7 m), which damaged sewer pipes, streets, and buildings. Walter Youngquist wrote that the entire San Joaquin Valley is sinking. In some areas, the water table has dropped up to 500 feet (152 m). Near Mendota, the land surface has sunk more than 28 feet (8.5 m). [LOOK]
Subsidence is an issue in many places, including Osaka, Tokyo, Bangkok, Beijing, Alexandria, New Orleans, Houston, Las Vegas, and southern Arizona. Jakarta, Indonesia is the fastest sinking major city in the world. It gets 300 days of rain per year, and it sits on a big freshwater aquifer, which its huge population is guzzling faster than it can recharge. Because so much of the city is paved, not enough rain can soak into the ground to keep the aquifer full.
Around the world, farmers, industries, and cities engage in aquifer mining. Subsidence is the shadow of overpumping. The problem will increase as long as irrigation and extreme overpopulation continues. While population continues growing, water mining makes it harder for food production to keep up with growing need.
Big Mama Nature often presents prestigious awards to honor the great achievements of human cleverness. One of her golden awards for the invention of irrigation is called salinization. By around 6,000 years ago, irrigation was cleverly transforming the deserts of southern Mesopotamia into a (temporary) utopia of highly productive fields of wheat, barley, peas, and lentils. The long and winding soap opera in this region could fill 100 pages. Let’s boil it down to a quickie.
Southern Mesopotamia is a flat, hot, nearly rainless desert covered with fertile soil that has above average salt content. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow through the region. To the north, a higher and wetter region, there is an annual rainy season. When the rains arrive, both surging rivers move heavy loads of silt downstream. Something odd happens here.
Over the centuries, as silt dropped out of the water flow, layer upon layer accumulated in the flood plains, deeper and deeper. Eventually, both rivers were travelling through channels that were elevated above the surrounding land. Clever folks recognized the possibility that life-giving water could be diverted from the rivers into irrigation canals, via a labor saving magic called gravity. So they did.
Now, all they had to do was dig miles and miles of irrigation canals to deliver the water across the desert and start growing crops — good healthy exercise. Unfortunately, year after year, the rivers continued to deliver more and more silt, which took great delight in repeatedly plugging up the tidy canal systems. Keeping the canals clear was a never ending challenge.
Big Mama Nature thinks this is hilarious. She laughs until the tears flow. Technology and progress always bites us on the ass. It’s so much easier to simply adapt to elegantly sustainable wild ecosystems, like the rest of the family of life does.
Anyway, irrigation made it possible for folks to produce lots of food, and feed lots of people, which enabled the emergence of the first states, cities, and empires — and the endless bloody clashes between super ambitious, testosterone powered, glory-seeking control freaks. Meanwhile, out in the fields, dissolved salt ions were deeply involved in a project to teach the too-clever critters important lessons about agriculture, irrigation, and unintended consequences.
Several types of mineral salts, at varying levels of concentration, are natural components of soils and water. Even rain drops can contain traces of dissolved salts. All irrigation water contains some salt. Salinization is a process in which the accumulation of salt in the soil can reach levels that affect plant health, or even prohibit plant life. When cropland is not well drained (as in Mesopotamia), irrigation can make the water table rise. When this happens, water containing dissolved salts moves upward, closer to the root zone of the crops above.
When salty moisture migrates close to the ground surface, the water evaporates, and the salt is left behind. When plants are thirsty, their roots take in water, and leave the salt behind. As salt levels intensify near the soil surface, eventually not even weeds can survive. At the end of the road, evaporation of saline water can leave the ground surface covered with a white layer of salt crystals, looking a bit like fresh snow. Coroners would issue these lands a death certificate. They remain useless to this day.
Clive Ponting indicated that salinization can be a slow motion catastrophe that may remain largely invisible to multiple generations. In Mesopotamia, wheat and barley were grown in equal amounts in 3500 B.C. Barley is more salt-tolerant than wheat. By 2500 B.C., wheat was just 15 percent of the grain grown, indicating salt problems. By 1700 B.C., wheat growing had gone extinct. Around 2000 B.C., there were some reports that “the earth turned white.” At its peak, Mesopotamia maybe had a population of 1.5 million. By A.D. 1500, just 150,000 lived there.
Now, let’s fast forward to modern times, an era when folks built lots of big dams — a subject that fascinated Marc Reisner. Many were built in the Colorado River basin, for flood control, hydroelectricity generation, recreational fishing and boating, and to store water for irrigation and municipal water systems. Historically, salinization has been a tireless serial killer of civilizations. In the big dam era, human cleverness achieved new levels of brilliant incompetence. Irrigation grew explosively.
As water in the Colorado moves downstream, it is diverted multiple times to irrigate the land it passes on its long journey from the Rockies to Mexico. The water is dumped on a field, where it keeps crops on life support, dissolves salts in the soil, and eventually finds its way back into the river. The salty water flows down to the next irrigation project… and then the next, and the next. Along its journey, the water takes rest stops in reservoirs, where about a tenth of it evaporates, concentrating what is left behind. By the time it reaches trendy restaurants in southern California, the water is so salty that it’s sometimes served with a lemon slice.
Reisner noted that in the Grand Valley, when Colorado River water is diverted for irrigation, it contains 200 parts per million (ppm) of salt. When it returns to the river, it has 6,500 ppm. On rivers like the Colorado and Platte, the water may be used up to 18 times. Eventually, the Colorado flows across the border into Mexico, where the water has become “liquid death.” At the end of its journey, the river used to empty into the Gulf of California. Today, it dries up before it can reach the finish line.
The salt problems could be reduced by installing state of the art drip irrigation systems, in which far more water actually makes contact with plant roots, but this option is insanely expensive. Another option is installing drainage systems in irrigated fields, so dissolved salts can be leached out of the soil. This is also insanely expensive, and it produces very salty dreck that should then be disposed of in a thoughtful mature manner.
Regions of salt damaged soils are found in Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. Writing in 2015, Pooja Shrivastava summed it up like this: “It has been estimated that worldwide 20% of total cultivated and 33% of irrigated agricultural lands are afflicted by high salinity. Furthermore, the salinized areas are increasing at a rate of 10% annually for various reasons, including low precipitation, high surface evaporation, weathering of native rocks, irrigation with saline water, and poor cultural practices. It has been estimated that more than 50% of the arable land would be salinized by the year 2050.” Hmmm… Maybe we won’t be having ten billion for dinner after all.
On the day you squirted out of the womb, you took your first breath, and began a fun-filled journey that will inevitably conclude with your final breath. Likewise, the working life of every dam is also finite. Brilliant engineers design them to survive earthquakes, landslides, and intense floods — and they usually do. Most will peacefully die from a natural cause, siltation. Rivers transport both water and silt. When the water flows into reservoirs, it slows down, and the silt is dropped. Year after year, the silt accumulates, displacing space for water storage — the purpose of the dam.
The Advisory Committee on Water Information (ACWI) is an organization within the U.S. Department of Interior. One of their areas of concern is dam sedimentation, and they have created an excellent document that addresses FAQs (frequently asked questions).
Every dam that doesn’t experience a catastrophic failure will eventually fill with silt, and become a concrete waterfall — as useful at the tits on a bull. Engineers understand this. Typically, dam project plans are calculated to have a sediment design life of 50 or 100 years — planned obsolescence. So, mommy and daddy get to enjoy the wonderful benefits from their hard earned tax dollars, and the grandkids inherit a collection of concrete waterfalls that are obscenely expensive to properly dispose of, and increasingly prone to failure as they deteriorate with age.
More than 5,000 large dams in the U.S. are over 50 years old, approaching the end of their designed lifespans. Some are already goofy bull’s tit waterfalls, enduring monuments to shortsighted pork barrel politics — idiotic projects demanded by slick-talking legislators to delight their donors, and enrich the rich. The folks who get most of the financial benefits are entrepreneurs who adore the golden benefits of socialism, but hate government, and are hysterically allergic to taxes.
Marc Reisner wrote that President Jimmy Carter detested dam projects because the national debt was in the stratosphere, there was double-digit inflation, and dams made little or no economic sense. He was cursed to frequently suffer from painful mental impulses known as principles. “He began to wonder what future generations would think of all the dams we had built. What right did we have, in the span of his lifetime, to dam nearly all of the world’s rivers? What would happen when the dams silted up? What if the climate changed?” This didn’t win him many friends in the arid west. He didn’t get reelected.
Anyway, the ACWI FAQs note that “proper maintenance” is required to provide dams with eternal life. Proper maintenance involves periodically dredging out many tons of polluted sediment, hauling it somewhere, and disposing it in a thoughtful mature manner. Proper maintenance is massively expensive. This begs a follow-up FAQ: “Is reservoir sediment managed in the USA?” Answer: “With only a few exceptions, the answer is no.” It is done at just two reservoirs that fill rapidly. There is no dredging. The dam gates are opened, and the sediment is flushed downstream, which blindsides the riparian ecosystem. This proper maintenance is highly destructive.
An extreme example of “proper maintenance” is the Xiaolangdi Dam on the Yellow River in China. Its reservoir accumulates an estimated 30 million tons of sediment each and every year! So, every year, a team of maintenance professionals open the base drains, and allow 30 million tons of muck to ooze downstream. It’s much cheaper than dredging.
In 1950, there were about 5,000 large dams in the world. Today, there are more than 45,000. Big dams are enormously expensive, and the cost of decommissioning a hydropower dam can exceed the cost of building it. Corporations have no interest in building them, because the odds for making meaningful profits are slim at best. So legislators order them, and taxpayers enjoy getting the huge bills
Of course, dams can also be very exciting. Reisner shared some thrilling stories. In the summer of 1975, typhoon Nina blasted Asia. In the vicinity of China’s Banqiao Dam, a massive flood resulted from 64 inches (163 cm) of rain, half of which fell in just six hours. The dam collapsed, and the outflow blew out a number of smaller dams downstream. Floods killed 171,000 people, and 11 million lost their homes. Today, everyone in the Southwest prays several times a day that there will not be a similar chain reaction failure on the Colorado River.
In the 1960s, the Bureau of Reclamation was running out of ideal sites for new dams. For maybe 40 years, Idaho farmers had begged for a dam on the Teton River. Conservatives who detested socialism were eager to have U.S. taxpayers buy them a dam, despite the fact that the costs would far exceed the expected benefits. This was earthquake country, and the proposed site had highly porous bedrock, an unbelievably stupid place to build a dam. It was OK’d in 1973, and built in 1976. The Teton Dam did a spectacular blowout two days after it was filled.
The reckless and idiotic impulses that conjured the Teton Dam into existence, and non-existence, strongly resemble the impulses that have brought the twenty-first century global economy into existence. It too was built on a dodgy foundation, and is now springing more and more leaks.
Oh-oh! I feel a rant coming on. What right did we have to build the dams? Who is going to pay to remove the ever growing number of useless concrete waterfalls? Where are we supposed to put millions of tons of polluted silt where it will not poison life? The dam building binge was an atrocious insult to younger generations of all species. Why are we promoting sprawling cities in bone dry blast furnace climates, regions that import most of their food, and depend for survival on snowmelt water from faraway places? Perpetual growth is not the purpose of life. It isn’t even fun.
In my perception of reality, salmon lives matter. Eel lives matter. Sturgeon lives matter. Vast regions of land are now used to grow corn and soybeans to feed cattle who are far happier eating the natural food they evolved to enjoy, grass. Is the Extinction Rebellion complaining that the climate is being destroyed by salmon farts and belches? Salmon need no ranchers or herders. They feed themselves. They don’t overgraze public lands, or rubbish riparian areas. They don’t fill huge sewage lagoons. They don’t need to be treated with antibiotics or pesticides.
They are sacred wild and free beings, not enslaved feedlot meat machines. Their flesh is highly nutritious, and organic. When they return to the place of their origin to spawn and die, they leave behind enormous amounts of precious nutrients from the sea, not synthetic fertilizers from chemical plants. Salmon carcasses enrich ecosystems, rather than running off into waterways, stimulating algal blooms, and creating sprawling oxygen-free dead zones where nothing can live. Salmon rock! Dams don’t. Long live the salmon!
There! I feel better now. Sorry!