America’s water mirage
Even at Hoover Dam, the ugly truth about our water crisis is being ignored.
By Cynthia Barnett
On an unseasonably hot morning this fall, my 11-year-old son and I set off for Hoover Dam, his first time to tour the American engineering wonder that draws nearly 1 million visitors a year.
In recent years, I’d visited the dam and adjacent reservoir, Lake Mead, as a journalist who reports on water. But I hadn’t been there as a tourist since my own childhood. I looked forward to hearing how the dam’s minder, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, would tell such a big story to such a big audience.
I expected to hear about the drama, human sacrifice and technical prowess behind the dam’s construction. I also expected some of the growing concerns about the Colorado River that feeds the dam, having seen the bureau’s worrisome charts that show how demand for the water shared by seven U.S. states and Mexico has exceeded supply — a gap growing ever wider amid epic drought and epic waste.
Americans operate under an illusion of water abundance. That fiction makes the reality of water scarcity a particularly hard concept to get across. From California to Florida, freshwater aquifers are being pumped so much faster than they recharge that many parts of the country can no longer rely on groundwater to supply future populations.
But we can’t see dried-out aquifers the way we could see black Dust Bowl storms in the 1930s or water pollution in the early 1970s. So we still pump with abandon to do things like soak the turf grass that covers 63,240 square miles of the nation. We flush toilets with this same fresh, potable water, after treating it at great expense to meet government standards for drinking.
We fill the fridge with beef, the shopping bags with cotton T’s, the gas tank with corn-made ethanol — all with little inkling of how we’re draining to extinction the Ogallala aquifer that irrigates a quarter of the nation’s agricultural harvest. Water authority members who oversee the Ogallala and farmers who pump it have a chilling term for its use: “managed depletion.” Your guess is as good as theirs where the staples will come from when the depletion is done.”
Photo: Lake Mead’s “bathtub ring” is stark visual evidence of the misuse of a precious resource. (Julie Jacobson / Associated Press / March 23, 2012)
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