Water is essential to the economy-even Google searches aren't possible without good old H2O to keep their massive servers cool. But guess what? We're running out of it. And our government isn't doing much about it besides praying. Robert Glennon, the author of Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What to Do About It, has some answers on the root causes of the crisis and what we, and our elected officials, should do about it. It turns out that prayer isn't the answer.GOOD: Why haven't we heard more about America's water crisis?Robert Glennon: We are spoiled. The water managers have done too good a job. We wake up in the morning, turn on our taps, and out comes a plentiful supply of clean water for less money than we pay for cable television. But in some sections of the country, people are noticing. Last year, Atlanta's principal water supplier, Lake Lanier, came within 90 days of drying up. That was a real wake-up call [but] Atlanta failed miserably. They took very modest steps that did not include banning new ground?water wells. People were free to drill wells and didn't even need approval of the state unless they were pumping over 100,000 gallons per day. It was open season on the groundwater supply.G: Who uses 100,000 gallons per day?RG: Industrial users, large-scale agriculture, and homeowners who have extravagant water uses. All of these people were completely immune to any conservation. The governor [of Georgia] decided he needed to do something, so he held a prayer vigil. I'm not joking.G: How are other elected officials responding?RG: [This April], the mayor of Los Angeles said that things are so severe that people should only water their lawns twice a week. L.A. is a desert. It gets 15 inches of rain a year. And the mayor thinks that's a dramatic step? That is a community in utter denial. We humans have an infinite capacity to deny reality. But the scary part of the droughts in California and Georgia is this: Hydrologists looked at the amount of precipitation in both droughts and realized there is nothing particularly unusual about this drought as compared to earlier droughts. What's different is that we have exhausted our supply. Population growth and increased farm use, that's what's different.G: How bad can it get this summer?RG: I don't know. They might get through the summer, but the handwriting is on the wall. It begins with population growth. The Census Bureau predicts that the population of this country will be 420 million by 2050. Where is the water going to come from for these people? And it's particularly acute because these people are moving to places without water-Arizona, Nevada, California, Colorado, Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina.
"Let's not rebuild this weird system that wastes water, wastes energy, and compromises human health."G: Well, you can't tell people where to move.RG: People are going to move and you need to figure out what to do about it. I have no illusion about that. You could ask, Well, what about the entire population policy of this country? We have a population policy that gives tax incentives to people with more kids, for example. That doesn't make any sense. Government should take away that tax break. I would favor incentives for people to limit the number of kids they have. I would make birth control readily available. Population planning, that's way beyond the scope of the book, of course, but population is a huge issue.G: What else can the government do?RG: The first thing the federal government needs to do is to have a much stronger data-collections system. Right now we are spending about $10 million a year on groundwater. Groundwater constitutes one-quarter of the nation's water supply and that's all we're spending to figure how much water there is, who is using it, and where it is? Take Georgia, for example. The first thing Georgia should do is say, No new wells without a permit. Think of the water supply as a giant milk-shake glass and each demand on the supply as a straw in the glass. Georgia and many other states permit a limitless number of straws in the same glass. That's just a recipe for disaster.G: What can the average person do?RG: Conservation, definitely. We use water in some surprising ways-even something as simple as washing fruits and vegetables in the kitchen sink or using the food disposal. I also think we need to figure out a better way to dispose of human waste than flushing it down the toilet.
G: What would replace toilets?RG: There are waterless urinals that work very well. Sports parks have them. For fecal matter, there are very high-quality composting toilets now that do a really good job and have pretty much solved the odor problem. It requires the homeowner to empty it. It's easier to look at this for new construction rather than retro-fitting because of the plumbing problems. My point is, very simply, let's not rebuild this weird system that wastes water, wastes energy, and compromises human health. Let's now move down a different path.G: Would Congress spend money on this?RG: If you are looking to stimulate the economy this would be one piece of the equation. Maybe there aren't as many "shovel-ready projects," but these types of infrastructure overhauls are the kind of things that Obama is proposing. The bigger picture is, we did not get into this crisis overnight and we will not get out of it overnight. We don't want the crisis to become a catastrophe.G: Are you confident we can avoid the catastrophe?RG: Absolutely. This is not rocket science. We are [now] reallocating water in the United States. Some states are now saying, If you want to put a new straw in this milk-shake glass then you need to pinch someone else's straw. You need to purchase and retire an existing water right. We can do it. We absolutely can do it. We just need to make it a priority.Photo by Mike Slack