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Human Impact on World’s Rivers ‘Threatens Water Security of 5 Billion’

Adam Vaughan, Guardian/UK
Study on effect of all human intervention on water supplies finds water security and biodiversity severely damaged

Nearly 80% of the world’s rivers are so badly affected by humanity’s footprint that the water security of almost 5 billion people, and the survival of thousands of aquatic species, are threatened, scientists warned today.

The global study put together by institutions across the globe is the first to simultaneously look at all types of human intervention – from dams and reservoirs to irrigation and pollution – on freshwater. It paints a devastating picture of a world whose rivers are in serious decline. While developing countries are suffering from threats to both water security and biodiversity – particularly in Africa and central Asia – the authors said they were surprised by the level of threat posed to wildlife in rich countries.

“What made our jaws drop is that some of the highest threat levels in the world are in the United States and Europe,” says Prof Peter McIntyre, one of the lead authors, who began work on the project as a Smith Fellow at the University of Michigan. “Americans tend to think water pollution problems are pretty well under control, but we still face enormous challenges.” Some of the worst threats to aquatic species in the US are in the south-eastern states, including the Mississippi river.
(29 September 2010)

Groundwater Depletion Raises Likelihood of Global Food Crises

Sandra L. Postel, National Geographic Newswatch
Water budgets are badly out of balance, throwing many regions into water debt.
The water depleted annually could feed 940 million people for a year.

This post is part of National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative.

Out of sight, out of mind means deep trouble when it comes to the reserves of freshwater stored underground. New numbers are out on the rate of groundwater depletion around the globe, and if they hold up to further scrutiny, the world is almost certainly facing a future of food shortages.

In an upcoming issue of Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, Professor Marc Bierkens of Utrecht University in the Netherlands and his colleagues estimate that the rate at which humanity is pumping dry the underground reservoirs that hundreds of millions of people depend upon for food and drinking water more than doubled between 1960 and 2000.

Using global groundwater data and hydrologic modeling to calculate the volumes of water added to and withdrawn from underground aquifers, the researchers estimate that groundwater depletion rose from 33 trilliongallons (126 billion cubic meters) per year in 1960 to 75 trillion gallons (283 billion cubic meters) per year in 2000. The rate increased more or less linearly from 1960 up to the early 1990’s, but then climbed sharply–likely due to escalating groundwater use in China and India.

Although the research team doesn’t delve into the implications of their findings, a lot is at stake–especially for the world’s food supply. Irrigation, which accounts for 70 percent of world water use, is the principal cause of the groundwater depletion. About 40 percent of the world’s food supply comes from the 18 percent of farmland that’s irrigated, making irrigated farming a cornerstone of global food security. But in recent decades as more farmers have turned from rivers to groundwater for their water supply, groundwater pumping in many areas has become unsustainable.

Just as a bank account shrinks when withdrawals exceed deposits, so does a groundwater account.
(27 September 2010)
Sandra L. Postel National Geographic Freshwater Fellow and a Post Carbon Institute Fellow. -BA

Water Use in Southwest Heads for a Day of Reckoning

Felicity Barringer, New York Times
LAKE MEAD NATIONAL RECREATION AREA, Nev. — A once-unthinkable day is looming on the Colorado River.
Barring a sudden end to the Southwest’s 11-year drought, the distribution of the river’s dwindling bounty is likely to be reordered as early as next year because the flow of water cannot keep pace with the region’s demands.

For the first time, federal estimates issued in August indicate that Lake Mead, the heart of the lower Colorado basin’s water system — irrigating lettuce, onions and wheat in reclaimed corners of the Sonoran Desert, and lawns and golf courses from Las Vegas to Los Angeles — could drop below a crucial demarcation line of 1,075 feet.

If it does, that will set in motion a temporary distribution plan approved in 2007 by the seven states with claims to the river and by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, and water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada would be reduced.

This could mean more dry lawns, shorter showers and fallow fields in those states, although conservation efforts might help them adjust to the cutbacks.
(27 September 2010)

The Water Fountain

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon’s Book
Like everyone in the rich world, I carry bottles of water with me everywhere I go. Were someone from the past to spot me, they’d be stunned by the sight of all the people, clearly headed on long treks into the uninhabited jungle, carrying water lest they die of dehydration. Because, after all, in historical terms, at least in the US, one carries a canteen or other source of water while camping or otherwise engaged in a trek to uncertain, undeveloped lands. In populated areas, folks 30 or 40 years ago, would have told a thirsty person – “wait until we get to the water fountain.”

You remember those water fountains, right? The things that meant you didn’t have to buy soda or haul a bottle around? You just waited until you passed the next one, and drank your fill. You remember playing the game of getting enough water up, or squirting your sister in the nose? I do.

They were in public parks and by public restrooms, in town centers and everywhere you went. They obviated the need to purchase anything when you had such a simple, basic human concern as ordinary thirst. You could trust them to be there – if you whined “Daddy, I’m thirsty” – waiting for the next water fountain was reasonable, achievable, because they were always there.

And, of course, it was this very public-ness that was dangerous. Dangerous once because one’s lips might touch metal that had touched the lips of a person of another skin color. Then dangerous because one might get germs from them. After all, they are PUBLIC, and public is scary, because anyone can use it. Even poor people. Even icky people. Even people we would normally never actually choose to share anything with.
(30 September 2010)