Lake Mead


I just finished reading The Water Knife and started Cadillac Desert. So I thought this Mother Jones article on the mega-drought was interesting.

The Groundwater Threat

This Nature article about "The Global Groundwater Crisis" (http://www.readcube.com/articles/10.1038%2Fnclimate2425 ) showed up in my newsfeed today. Although published in November, 2014, J. S. Famiglietti's claim that "Groundwater depletion the world over poses a far greater threat to global water security than is currently acknowledged" is no less true today. Groundwater accounts for fully a third of humanity's total water use -- another way of understanding this, Famiglietti says, is that two billion people's lives depend on groundwater. That's not entirely accurate, since we're not talking about whether people drink from taps connected to wells or rivers. 80% of water use is agricultural. But half of agricultural water currently comes from groundwater. So it's very fair to say a disruption of this source would have big implications for status quo agribusiness techniques. And that could endanger lives.

The article mentions that "very few major aquifers have been thoroughly explored in the manner of oil reservoirs. As a result, the absolute volume of groundwater residing beneath the land surface remains unknown." This is really astonishing, when you think about it. Out of sight, out of mind. But the fact that the Ogallala Aquifer has allowed the area wiped out by the Dust Bowl to be put back under the plow would suggest we ought to at least wonder how much water there is, wouldn't it?

The article says "Precipitation, snowmelt and streamflow are no longer enough to supply…society's water needs." But in its recommendations, the article suggests "surface and groundwater must be managed conjunctively, as 'one water.' " This approach seems likely to bury our awareness of groundwater depletion at a time we should be focusing on it. If we don't know how much groundwater there is, but we know we're mining it at an unsustainable rate, shouldn't we be preparing for the moment when it is gone?

The article concludes by observing that groundwater is "a critical element of national and international water supplies." This is another very explosive issue buried in calm institutional language. River flows are already the subject of interstate and international conflict. John Wesley Powell apparently suggested that state borders in the western US ought to conform to watersheds (according to Marc Reisner, whose
Cadillac Desert I'm currently reading). If everybody just pumps as much as they can before the folks in the next state or country do the same, it'll all be gone quickly. All the more reason to examine how (and where) we're going to survive on rainfall and snowmelt.

The Water Knife

Just finished reading Paolo Bacigalupi's 2015 novel, The Water Knife. It's a futuristic thriller, set in a dystopian Nevada and Arizona. How distant the future setting might be is not specified, and I suppose depends on your opinion of how quickly the water is going to run out in the Southwest. However, it's not the remote future. Texas refugees are the "Okies" of this story, called "Merry Perrys" due to their irrational belief that if they just pray hard enough, the rain will come.


Bacigalupi is the former Web Editor for High Country News and lives in Colorado, upstream from the action of the novel. Unlike some of the other sci-fi books I've been reading this summer (Seveneves, The Three Body Problem, Howey's Silo Series, and even Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl), there's not a lot of really out-there speculative science to grab onto here. There are Arcologies, but that's not so undoable in today's world. The only tech we don't have might be the growth-hormone drip the protagonist uses to recover from being shot full of holes.

So this is a story about the present, disguised as a story about the future. An interesting solution to the problem another of the main characters has in the book, when a scary "executive" from a California water company suggests she "could write about anything I wanted, but maybe I should stop worrying about what California was doing here or there and spend more time worrying about other things." (p. 164) Later in the story, the reporter agonizes over the stories that don't get written. Made me wonder whether Bacigalupi or any of his journalist friends had ever had a conversation like that. Also reminded me of why my revenge novel about the 2000 Cochabamba Water War is still in a drawer. Needs to become a little more fictional.

The most interesting but also LOL aspect of the book, for me, was the constant reference to Marc Reisner's Environmental History classic,
Cadillac Desert. The evil water-queen of Vegas has a signed first edition. A mid-level Cali water exec also has a copy, in which he hides the document everybody is looking for. And close to the end, the protagonist says to the reporter:

Every water manager, every bureaucrat--even you got that damn book. All of you with your nice hard-copy first editions, all of you pretending like you know shit…Acting like you saw this shit coming…That guy Reisner now, That man saw things. He looked. All these people now, though? The ones who put that book up like a trophy? They're the ones who stood by and let it happen. They call him one of their prophets now. But they weren't listening back then.

So. We can consider ourselves warned.