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06.13.11Alan Harris

We Have Plenty of Water

Plenty of WaterMississippi flows over its banks in 2011, but the water level is tragically low in 2013.

But do we have enough water?

I laugh when I hear people talk about a water shortage.  A shortage falsely implies there is a chance we could run out of water. While the total amount of water on the planet does not increase in volume, it also does not decrease.  We have had the same amount of water we have always had, about 326 million cubic miles and will continue to have the same amount as long as the earth and the atmosphere is in tact [1].

What we do have are distribution problems both at the micro and macro level.  On the macro level about 97% of water is the oceans and another 2% is frozen in polar ice caps or glaciers.  So 99% of the water on Earth is either too salty or too inaccessible for human use.

The water we borrow for our use comes from groundwater, lakes, rivers and wetlands.  A little more than ½ of the remaining 1%  is stored underground as groundwater. While a little less than ½ of 1% is stored in lakes, rivers, and wetlands and as vapor in the atmosphere.

From vapor to precipitation, water is in a constant state of motion.  Like a very large terrarium, the Earth is a closed system.  Plants transpire and oceans evaporate to form vapor which cools in the upper atmosphere and falls back in the form of rain which recharges the lakes, streams and groundwater.  Where the rain falls is not always convenient to where we would like it to be thus creating distribution problems at the micro level.

In the U.S. we need to borrow over 137 million gallons of water every day of which 60% goes to irrigation.  Most of the 82 million gallons  go to massive irrigation to support large-scale farming in order to provide food. Irrigation makes it possible for the mega farms to grow crops in the dessert where nature never intended.  Getting water to the desert is a micro distribution problem.

We are our own worst enemy when it comes to creating the micro distribution problem.  Air, water and a little food are the only things we really need.  Air is free, while water and food are commodities we can make available anywhere with the right amount of time and resources.  The problem is the more we make an area livable by providing water the more the population increases and eventually the demand for water outpaces the distribution system especially in times of drought.

The nomads in the dessert learned centuries ago they must go to where the water is.  When the economics of water distribution no longer makes sense, will the growth and development slow and will the populations adjust accordingly?

If you liked this post about how much water we have, please share it with a friend, leave a comment, check out my previous posts , follow me on Twitter @h2oMatters and

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[1] As a side note I understand about metabolic water “creation”, but this process borrows water and is eventually returned to the water cycle…think human sweat or plant transpiration

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Alan Harris

Alan Harris is a water management pioneer. With roots in landscape architecture, Alan has worked with irrigation throughout his career experimenting with hydrozones and a variety of high efficiency irrigation systems. Now, over thirty years in the landscape industry, Alan continues to stay apprised of the latest technology even in a sales leadership capacity as our Director of Sales Operations and Regional Sales Leader for our landscape maintenance division. In addition to his contributions to this blog, Alan keeps his hand in water management as a regular contributor to Lawn & Landscape Magazine.

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COMMENTS (10)

  1. Tuesday, 12:50 David

    I’ll be dammed: a wellspring of thoughtful insights! Sure hope more of your ideas will soon be flowing freely, without pay or encumberance of any sort. Seriously, well-written.

    .

  2. Tuesday, 6:51 Alan Harris

    @ David – thanks for your kind comments. I am committed to posting at least every other week, but I am going to have to work more than just 1/2 days (12 hours a day), but who needs to sleep! Please subscribe so you get notified when the next post is published.

  3. Tuesday, 7:09 Robert O'Donnell

    It is a very good choice of topic…thanks for propping the question! My personal view is that the last thirty years of financialization (cheap money, focus on development at any cost; pressure to deploy capital by money managers who were flooded by baby-boomer pension and IRA assets; and the “flip mentality”) led to a lot of poorly planned communities built cheap and not for longevity. My guess is that in addition to mass migration as a result of “desertification” of many areas around the globe we will experience a micro-mass migration (intra North America) from the “sun belt” (becoming relabeled as the “sand belt”-dry and dusty) to the “Water Belt” (the former ‘rust belt” on the US north coast along the Great Lakes).

    The disadvantages/inconveniences, and lack of water security of the “sand belt” (southern Cal, AZ, NM, parts of TX, FL, GA, etc) to any commercial operation is increasing on a quarterly basis. Many of these businesses are considering water security of supply as a key variable in planning and strategy. The inescapable conclusion is that unless a manufacturing firm (or service to manufacturing business) there is little likelihood that commercial operations will grow operations in the sand belt unless they are inexorably tied to either the people or a resident resource (power supplier; hydrocarbon extractor).

    The municipal finance challenges also further the “flight” or migration trend as a result of the local/state governments increasing inability to opaquely subsidize water and wastewater services meaning that the consumer (residential and industrial) will finally be charged what the cost of water and treatment really costs. There is a great book recently published by a political economist that reveals the economic artifice of water as a mispriced public service- The title is “End of Abundance” by David Zetland…I believe is is available on Amazon and the cost is low relative to the value of the content.

    I firmly believe (as a person rather than as a professional in the “water information” space) we will see major relocations. My reason for saying that is an analysis of the North American mortgage backed securities market which revealed that mortgage payment arrearages, defaults, and foreclosures are highest, and appeared earliest, in the overdeveloped poorly planned growth of the “Sand Belt”…the “rust belt” has experienced 4 decades of flight/migration and may be the greatest place to currently invest in property as the presence of labor, intellectual capital, and cheap infrastructure ( existing rail-lines for freight, inland/global seaways, and good interstate systems) and the advantage of water wealth should favor corporate expansion, increasing property values, and higher employment availability.

    Again- thanks for starting this post!

  4. Monday, 6:48 Alan Harris

    @West Palm Beach… where will you go for water in July? How long will the country be able to support your needs? Potential New WPB Tourism Slogan – “Come see our beaches, but bring your own bottled water”

  5. Thursday, 10:54 Alan Harris

    WPB ponders next step drought persists. Serious issue. Interesting Comments. http://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/1563435.html. May end up blogging about the comments.

  6. Sunday, 6:27 Alan Harris

    More places we have plenty of water and the ripple effect:
    “The state has received record rainfall in the last month and also has a huge snowpack in the mountains that is melting, which has resulted in widespread flooding in recent weeks.” http://tiny.cc/3y73k

  7. Sunday, 2:22 annice

    Thank you for posting this. I have shared it on my FB for all the so called environmentalist who spread misinformation.

  8. Monday, 4:34 Alan Harris

    @annice – thanks for sharing on FB and comment. Remember while we may have plenty of water the cost and energy to make it drinkable will continue to increase due to a growing population. I listened to a presentation last week which used a great analogy about straws. The more straws you put into a drinking source the faster it is emptied. Put enough straws in and you will suck the water out faster than nature is able to replenish the water. In many communities that is the current state of water, unless of course you are currently being flooded in which case you have enough water…for now.

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