I Must Be Confused, or How to read a pie chart: Water Edition

Ignore the fact that out West 70-80% of water is used by agriculture. Don’t talk about the fact that in 2022 we still haven’t rethought farming in a desert. And definitely never even consider it problematic: people need to eat and, ‘Like, buy local, right?’

It’s the same story with emissions, but let’s talk water for now, and let’s talk water specifically in the southwest United States.

Don’t get me wrong. Actually the only thing I really want out of life is to belong to (rather than ‘to own’) a small self-sustaining farm where I can write my books. I read ancient Greeks talking about farming and it only increases the longing in my mind. I am an agriculture-junkie, really always have been. Plus the labor would be a useful kind of meditative exertion.

But a farm in the desert? In the desert? That sounds ridiculous. First of all, the added heat mixed with the extremely low humidity would mean that plants have to be given even more water to keep from drying out. As the temperature rises, so too does transpiration; as humidity falls, transpiration rises. Knowing this alone is enough for me to scoff at the idea.

But it is actually feasible. It just requires learning Native methods developed over many millennia in the region for that region and adapting what is grown to match the environment. But Europeans came in and have gone on acting like they’re farming around the Great Lakes in Arizona, they farm in New Mexico as if they were in Iowa or Georgia. The Southwest is not the Midwest, nor is it the Southeast. The region cannot sustain that kind of intensive industrial agriculture, not as practiced currently at least. Yet if you’ve ever driven anywhere out West you’ll’ve noticed the farms and the giant irrigation equipment. On I-10 outside of Tucson to the southeast, there’s a huge orchard with miles of trees on either side of the highway.

To be sure, the desert farms make historical sense. A bunch of European settlers went out West convinced of a ‘manifest destiny’ to occupy the continent coast to coast. Anyone who’s played Oregon Trail knows that those settlers needed to eat and there were only so many bears or elk coming by. They needed the other half of the formula for human settlement, namely agriculture.

Too bad Europeans turned out to be so inflexible. And too bad no one stopped to wonder whether the Native Americans whose lands they were occupying might have had a better idea of how to survive than themselves—perish even the suggestion!

So Europeans did in the Southwest what Europeans and other WEIRDos are still doing around the world: they imposed a singular regime for The Way Crops Are Grown, varying of course according to the crop but without regard for the environment in which that crop was grown. And let’s not forget that industrialization goes hand in hand with the forced-labor camps* of the South, so-called ‘plantations,’ those earliest industrial farms that relied on enslaved humans for want of machines. Farming as a means of amassing a fortune. That, too, went West.

As a result we have massive industrial farming operations in the middle of the most arid regions of the country. Farmers held the land ever since the settlers settled and have passed on their farms and their ranches to the next generation, as happens; they’ve built up their holdings over that period and intensified their production, trying to stay ahead of the loans necessary to grow the crops, without much hope of making any kind of profit, squeezed in so many directions simultaneously but committed, they declare, to feeding the world (though that strikes me as more a justification than an actual cause).

Let’s remember: these days farming is not a get-rich occupation. Gone are the days of cotton barrens and wheat magnates. For so many different reasons worth considering elsewhere, farmers do not see much of the profits made off of their harvests and livestock. But it’s what their dad did and his dad before him, no doubt going several generations back, so it’s what current farmers have been doing, because, at least in part, carrying as much of the Old Ways into the present for the next generation tends to be a component of farm culture.

Meanwhile the water is running out and the warming climate has produced a drought worse than anything seen in the region in 1,200 years, so the snowpack that farmers and municipalities alike rely on for water has dwindled dramatically; with ‘normal’ usage the water would be drained nearly entirely horrifically soon. Lake Mead has grabbed the attention of many, as has the Colorado River Basin itself, a massive swath of land through some of the most arid areas of the country. And now there’s focus on the Great Salt Lake, which is also drying rapidly, but with the twist that its lakebed contains heavy metals like arsenic that will get kicked up in the constant winds, threatening Salt Lake City, which is growing steadily.

This is bigger than any one farmer or any one state. This is a systemic issue, a sociocultural problem. We must rethink the way we are living. Why are we honestly growing crops in the desert the way we grow crops in the Midwest? If we can’t figure out a way to grow things without draining reservoirs and aquifers, then we cannot be growing things in the desert.

Anyway, it’s not the 1800s. There are established means of transport that, up until recently, were always steady, but anyway also need to be rethought and made steady again. We have the means, the skill and the knowledge to get food from the Midwest to the arid Southwest to supplement what foods can be sustainably grown locally.

We do not have to live like this just because this is how we had to live two centuries ago.

But the focus on water in the Southwest consistently narrows in on individual water use, just as with emissions. Always blame the individual when it’s convenient for a corporation: that is the modern ‘American Way,’ another one of the ways that conservative narratives have been adopted wholesale. And why not when it’s such an effective means of deflection? Instead of sharpening our gazes at fossil fuel and coal companies, as well as industrial production and farming operations, for emissions releases, we look to ourselves as if we were each singularly the problem. Likewise instead of forcing agricultural producers to adapt to radically altered water usage rules, to change their crops and the way they farm them, we’re made to ration our showers and let waste collect in the toilet. (To be clear: most of us do not need to use as much water as we are using; however, that is not the problem and will not solve anything.)

News coverage reflects anxiety over population growth in the Southwest given the decreasing availability of water, exemplified again by a recent episode of The Daily focusing on the Great Salt Lake basin. Unfortunately they talk exclusively about individual/municipal uses, except to notice once that 72% of the water goes to farming briefly before moving back into individual use.

It appears that that number is actually ten points higher now, and that that 72% figure is relying on figures from 2010. In 2015, 82% of Utah’s water went to agriculture. I suspect that this latter figure in the low 80s is probably more reflective of current water use in the state—which apparently only appears to consume so much more water than other states because they account for all water used while other states are more selective about what counts as water used.

Across the country, the numbers appear to be much different. The USGS 2015 report includes a category called “thermoelectric power,” which skews their numbers significantly because they report total water withdrawn from a source rather than only water used. I am puzzled at this, because much of the water withdrawn for power generation is returned to the source: in once-through systems, which account for 96% of the thermoelectric water withdrawn, only 1% of that water is actually consumed; recirculating systems account for the other 4%, consuming 57% of the water withdrawn (and, the report says, 67% of total water consumption for power-generation, although I cannot make that square up).

In Michigan, eg, which uses a great deal of surface water from the Great Lakes for energy, 7,800 million gallons per day (mg/d) were withdrawn altogether, 117 mg/d were consumed, while 7,683 mg/d were returned to the source. I cannot actually understand why the report uses the 7,800 figure rather than the actual consumption data (117), but there it is. Once-through systems withdrew 7,620 mg/d but only consumed 70.2 mg/d (.921%); recirculating systems withdrew 183 mg/d and used 46.9 mg/d (25.63%).

Most notable in the report, however, is the regional-distribution graph of total water use: there are large green bars for irrigation in Western states, very little further east.

Sure, individual use is a concern. And some of the things people like to do, like (over)water their grass or maintain a large pool, need to be curtailed across the country, not only in the Southwest. But things have come to this point of extreme concern specifically because farming around those urban areas is sucking up 70-80% of the water used every year. It has almost nothing to do with individual water use even in large urban centers. Municipal and Industrial (M&I) water use accounts for only whatever is leftover after the farms take their shares, and typically this is about evenly split between municipal and industrial. Individual water use is on average no more than 10-15% of total water used (in 2010, the US average was 12% municipal, and that same year it was 15% in Utah).

We are being urged to conserve in our own lives as if that is some kind of miracle solution. But it may not achieve even a decimation (a 10% cut).

So let’s play along and let’s say in an ideal world everyone does conserve water: no more outdoor water use, let’s say—which accounts for the majority of municipal usage, we’ll take Utah’s figure of 75%. Great, we’ve cut water use from, let’s be generous, 13% of the water used down to 3.25% of the total water used. For sure, that 9.25% would make a difference, though that would require it to not be diverted into other uses, like back to farmers to use. Our ideal model has gotten us nowhere near solving this serious problem because the problem is not municipalities.

I loathe grass lawns. They’re ecological dead-zones. And they’re boring. Where are the flowers, the strawberries, the trees? Grass is so destructive. But watering the grass, filling pools and water features: these outdoor uses are a sliver of the total water used. There are industrial farming operations pouring millions of gallons of water over thousands of acres of arid land. This is the obvious issue and we cannot move forward until we address it.

Now according to certain farming groups in Utah, people have to look elsewhere for water conservation because farmers have already cut back 70-75%. Sounds nice. But really it’s only because the water available for allotment was 70-75% less than previous years, as was already made clear a year earlier. It was not a choice they made or one they would have made.

But what alternatives do they have? It’s not like a farmer can just give up farming. What would they do? How would they live? And how would they live with themselves after giving up (probably) their ancestors’ farms when their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and onward worked so hard to get to the farm as it was? There is more than science and logic at play with farming: it is not a job, nor a career nor even a vocation; it is a literal way of life that obeys natural rhythms totally unconcerned with the desires of a market. So they keep at it, like a train on a tracks set to crash into a ravine.

We must address the systemic issues, and not only find better ways to do things (which I’ve come to realize we’ve already fairly well figured out) but then actually implement these changes in a broad way.

We’ll never get to that point, however, so long as we keep talking like a rising population is going to create a water crisis. The crisis is already here and municipal water use has had very little to do with it. The crisis had already been created: it began outside the cities, in those farms and orchards in the middle of the desert that should never have been there in the first place.

Ps. In the realm of personal actions we can take: check out this segment on water reclamation in Tucson.

*. As Nikole Hannah-Jones noticed on a certain NPR show that I forgot to bookmark, ‘plantation’ is a euphemism used to whitewash the reality of slavery and evoke a romantic Scarlet O’Hara vision of what are truly bloodied properties.

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