All Wet

The CEO of The Dow Chemical Co. is famously quoted as having said: “Water is the oil of the 21st century.”

Center-pivot irrigation has greened the High Plains with circular fields, but also depleted groundwater even in such vast reserves as the Ogallala Aquifer, which extends from South Dakota to Texas. Photo by: © Joyce Michaud |
The CEO of The Dow Chemical Co. is famously quoted as having said: “Water is the oil of the 21st century.”

Oh, really?

Despite the post-petroleum doomsday scenarios found on FEARnet and the Syfy Channel, life can go on without oil. Without water, it –


When you think about it, we can’t exist without water. There is not going to be a ‘post-water’ era, not for humans. If there is a “post-water era”, we’re not going to be involved.
– Mark Shannon

Shannon is J.W. Bayne Professor in the University of Illinois Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering and has been instrumental in focusing the world’s attention on water issues past, present and future.

Were the Earth a pristine planet in a parallel universe – untroubled by the exploitations of homo sapiens – its water system would function perfectly, albeit on its own terms. Instead, what the world has is a double waterworks. There’s the beautiful, scary, self-sustaining system of rain and rivers, floods and oceans, springs and clouds that water has built for itself. And then there’s the messy and often misguided one that humans have improvised atop it.

For researchers looking at big-picture water problems – and there’s a lot of work of this kind going on at the University of Illinois – solutions lie beyond the shallows of form and content – river, ocean, reservoir, beaker; minerals, pesticides, purifiers – out in a deep place where water asks its own question, that being: What have you done to me?

From current imbroglios (like the “Tri-State Water Wars” among Alabama, Georgia and Florida over rights to water from the Chattahoochee River) to earliest history (the crafty king of the Middle Eastern kingdom of Lagash deprived neighboring Umma of water circa 2400 B.C.), civilization has expended a lot of effort, not always that successfully, to come to terms with water. In Johannesburg, South Africa, and New Delhi, “there are fights in the street every day over water,” noted UI watershed hydrologist Murugesu Sivapalan. “People have to queue up to get drinking water.”

Though scattered across time, place and ethnicity, such conflicts universally derive from the paradox that water is at once a valuable commodity and a commonly held resource. So central indeed is water to the greater good of countries that – in many places and nowhere more than in the U.S. – governments pick up a lot of the cost of irrigation, through projects large and small.

Sivapalan, who teaches a course titled “Water Planet, Water Crisis” for the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment, points out that the true cost of most agricultural products is thus not reflected in their market price. At an interview in his Davenport Hall office he posed the question: How many liters of water does it take to produce a hamburger?

Answer: 2,000.

“We don’t realize it,” he said, “but when we’re selling goods, we’re actually selling water.” And this means industrial as well as agricultural products.

“If you buy a bicycle,” Sivapalan observed, “water is in it.”

We … are big beef producers. For every kilogram of beef, that’s equivalent of 15,000 kilograms of water. We’re a big cotton-producing country. For every pair of jeans that’s something like a thousand liters of water. Each cup of coffee is 140 liters of water. Our habits are very big water glutton habits.
– Mark Shannon

In water, as in so much else, the world is made up of “haves” and “have-nots.” In America, the Mississippi watershed sets the boundary between the two. As Praveen Kumar, Lovell Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Illinois, explained: “The West has water scarcity problems all the way to California. In the East the problem is water quality.”

A stupendous achievement in the taming of the West’s water, the Hoover Dam, above, is now one of more than 20 stoppages along the flow of the Colorado River. Right, NASA satellite imagery shows the mouth of the Mississippi River, where runoff from Midwestern fields enters the Gulf of Mexico. Photo by: © Glenn Nagel |

A stupendous achievement in the taming of the West’s water, the Hoover Dam, above, is now one of more than 20 stoppages along the flow of the Colorado River. Right, NASA satellite imagery shows the mouth of the Mississippi River, where runoff from Midwestern fields enters the Gulf of Mexico.
Photo by: © Glenn Nagel |

For the Corn Belt, an abundance of water and black loam has helped shape the greatest farming area on Earth. But this abundance also creates environmental problems elsewhere. Fertilizer washes out of the tiled drainages that make fecund the legendary fields of Illinois, Indiana and Iowa, and with corn and soybeans ganging the furrows just a few months each year, there’s no permanent root system to absorb the nitrogen and phosphorus.

Along the Mississippi River, dams capture a lot of the sediment from farmlands – depriving wetlands downriver of the stuff from which they are naturally formed and renewed. But the nitrogen fertilizers sail on, along with other nutrients, pesticides and herbicides, into the Gulf of Mexico. Both the Midwestern agricultural industry and the scientific community agree that the hypoxia which appears each summer in the Gulf – underwater oxygen shortages that kill sea life – is caused by nitrogen runoff. When it comes to downstream problems, this is a big one.

“The combination of intensive agriculture and tile drainage,” as Mark David has put it, “makes nitrates very readily come out of the soil.” A biogeochemist for the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, David has been seeking solutions to runoff pollution for 18 years. He’s found them, too. Nitrogen runoff can be cut by fertilizing in the spring instead of fall, as is traditional. Nitrogen runoff can also be cut by building wetlands near fields, and by planting margins of perennials (including miscanthus grass and switch grass, both potential biofuels of the future) and winter cover crops like rye grass, and by installing bioreactors, which turn nitrates into gas. The trouble is, these things all cost money. And nobody’s willing to pay.

“There is no mechanism to make farmers do anything different. There is no mechanism to make fertilizer dealers do anything different,” David said. “The farmer is just trying to maximize his income.

“We as a society are saying that we want more corn. The more you grow, the more money you make. We have created a very simple system – corn and soybeans. There are no other crops, no animals. The corn and soybeans are there some of the time. The fields lose nitrates the rest of the time.”

In some places the water table has gotten so deep that the water is actually getting salty, so it has to be blended or desalinated. In inland Texas they are actually building a desal plant to desalinate the groundwater. Then they have to take the brine, pump it 20 miles and pump it down into a deep oil well to get rid of the brine.
– Mark Shannon

At places all over the country and the globe, the water both above and below ground is being drawn down by the endless thirsts of city and country alike. In arid areas, farmers who move from subsistence to commercial agriculture – a growing global trend, according to Kumar – can and do deplete the water table, meaning deeper wells and scarcer water year by year. In the American West, the Ogallala Aquifer – a basin of ancient glacial melt that underlies a huge area from Texas to South Dakota – is near exhaustion from the center-pivot irrigation that has filled the High Plains with circular crop fields; recharging this enormous underground reserve is a matter of geological, not human, time. Though irrigated agriculture may seem innocuous, like a large-scale version of watering the lawn, it can damage the land beyond imagining – like salt tables rising in agricultural areas in the U.S. and Australia, wicked up from deep levels by the depletion of groundwater and the loss of trees.

“Water is interconnected everywhere, except for deep aquifers and glaciers,” observes Barbara Minsker, a UI professor of environmental and water resources systems engineering. “Ultimately,” she says, “the Earth is a big water ball.” NASA Earth Observatory Photo

“Water is interconnected everywhere, except for deep aquifers and glaciers,” observes Barbara Minsker, a UI professor of environmental and water resources systems engineering. “Ultimately,” she says, “the Earth is a big water ball.”
NASA Earth Observatory Photo

Yet, observed Marcelo García, a UI hydraulician who heads the College of Engineering’s Ven Te Chow Hydro-systems Laboratory, the biggest water challenge ahead is to large metropolitan areas – including Chicago which, on its face, should have no water issues whatsoever. “Chicago has the quintessential water management problem,” he noted. “Fresh water comes from Lake Michigan, and there’s pressure from other states and Canada for Illinois to minimize water diversion.” (To read more about Chicago and water, see p. 37 and pp. 54-55.)

As Barbara Minsker, a UI professor of environmental and water resources systems engineering, pointed out: “Sewage from Chicago used to go into Lake Michigan. Then they reversed the direction of the Chicago River. Now the waste from Chicago goes down the Illinois River. Cities downstream, like Peoria, pull out the water and use it for drinking. We see this everywhere – upstream discharge, wastewater going to cities downstream.

“Water crosses political boundaries,” she said. “It pays no attention to those boundaries.”

In the West, the coupling of agriculture – as in the irrigated jewels of California’s Imperial and San Joachim valleys – and the growth of desert cities – Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles – are testing the waters to and beyond capacity. The Colorado River – interrupted at more than 20 junctures, most famously by the Hoover Dam – bleeds water along its length, expiring into mud flats before it can reach the sea.

There is a 10 to 20 percent chance in the next 10 years that water intakes will drop below the intake levels of Lake Mead, and 30 million Americans will be cut off from water within days – days. You can imagine the freeways lined with cars leaving Southern California, Nevada and Arizona, searching for water. That can actually happen in the next decade. But at the same time we’re not doing anything to try and prevent that.
– Mark Shannon

And America’s water worries are dwarfed by the thirst of Africa and Asia, where water is rare and water purity rarer still. Nick Brozović, an environmental economist in the agricultural and consumer economics department at Illinois, cites the water quality issues of the developing world, such as water-borne illnesses that result from lack of safe water and sanitation. In some cases the problems seem intractable. In Bangladesh, until recently, “People were drinking contaminated river water,” he said. The development of tube wells gave the population access to an alternative source of water, from underground. But, terrible to say, some of the wells have proved to be contaminated by indigenous deposits of poisonous arsenic.

And of course the droughts and floods of the natural water system have been making the water crazy at least since the biblical times of Noah and his ark. Like Noah, the rest of the human race has found ways to deal with water – mostly by containing and controlling. With innovations that have ranged from the drinking cup to the Three Gorges Dam, humans have wrought on the world’s water a huge, complicated and ever-changing system. But not only do many parts of that system need upgrading – like the improved levees that could have protected New Orleans from hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 – it has to be refashioned to meet the coming need of a world population headed for 9 billion by 2050. Mirroring the system itself, solutions await discovery at every level, from local to global, requiring, in Kumar’s view, “a complex balance … between regulating commercial use and meeting basic needs.”

“Water is a basic necessity,” he pointed out. “If water is commercialized, there will be less access to it.”

Over the past 16 years, Kumar has been studying hydrocomplexity. “My primary interest,” he said, “is in understanding the link between the water cycle, the climate system and the biosphere.” Kumar’s office is located on the upper level of the Hydrosystems Laboratory, where a walkway overlooks an array of tanks, sluices and other vessels rigged to study water in motion. His own work, though, happens on the lab’s supercomputer, where he models water phenomena at all levels, mapping “in space and time,” in his words, “the change in how water circulates through the terrestrial and atmospheric systems.”

With climate change, Kumar noted, “a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture and evaporate more water” – accounting for higher incidences of droughts and floods. Transpiration – the process whereby trees return rainfall to the atmosphere by “breathing” – CO2â‚‚ in, oxygen out – has been affected by the loss of forests worldwide. Compound such developments with the declining aquifers in arid regions where more water is being pumped up out of the ground than is trickling back down, and one can see why Kumar and a lot of other people are concerned about where the water of the 21st century will come from – especially when 70 percent of freshwater usage goes to agriculture and thence to food. Moreover, as Kumar observed, water is critical to energy independence because petroleum alternatives such as bioenergy require large amounts of H2O to produce.

“That’s why water,” he said, “is going to be a limiting resource.”

Ximing Cai, who is the Ven Te Chow Faculty Scholar in Water Resources at Illinois (and whose office in the Hydrosystems Laboratory is just a couple of doors away from Kumar’s) has researched where, in the coming years, the water will go, and, like Kumar, he both sees and foresees large-scale changes. Cai recently published a study on the effects of climate change on farmland, predicting that arable land will increase in northern regions – up to 67 percent in Russia, for example – while southern regions will lose farmland – as much as 18 percent in the case of Africa. Such shifts threaten to diminish food supplies in places where there’s not enough to eat even today.

Cai’s aim as a researcher is to address water scarcity and food security for a world population poised to grow by almost 30 percent in less than 40 years. He does so by researching and developing hydrologic and economic models allowing communities and countries to deal with present and coming water shortfalls. He’s already gone to work on the Nile. The storied river of the pharaohs flows through nine sub-Saharan African countries, all of which depend on its waters for farming, drinking, sanitation and industry. In 2010, Cai led workshops in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, gathering officials to discuss management techniques that can help the entire region better steward scarce, shared water resources.

But such issues, for Cai, “cannot be solely solved by hydrologists.” Though these are real-world problems, he noted, “information is rarely used in water management decision issues.”

So it goes when some places have it, some places don’t, but everybody needs it. “In some regions, water is so limited they have to hold it in reserve,” Cai said. “They have to import food. Other areas export food.”

Which means those areas are also exporting water.

There are one-and-a-half-billion people in the next 40 years – with the reduced snowpack storage, which is what’s happening in California, in the Himalayas, the Alps – that will be without waterintermittently all year. That’s 1.5 billion people on the Ganges, the Bhambatha, the Yellow, the Yangzte, the Mekong and … the major river systems throughout the West [who] are in that boat. They are intermittent. So how do people survive? This is the question in the world. People are so focused on energy, but this is the problem.
– Mark Shannon

UI environmental economist Brozović works with Cai and others seeking solutions to water allocation problems. From Brozović’s standpoint, solutions are as much about incentives as they are about technology. Induce countries that are water-poor to obtain their food from water-rich countries, and the demand for water will start ebbing and flowing along new economic lines.

Agriculture in parched Israel shows how this can be done. The country focuses on growing and exporting high-value crops such as cut flowers – which command a good price and require little water, since they’re produced hydroponically – while importing much of its food. This progressive economic model, which has proven very successful, contrasts with the approach of many water-poor developing nations, which devote large amounts of water to subsistence crops like barley and wheat. As Brozović pointed out, “The current system can be very inefficient. There’s misallocation of where water is and where we need it to be.

“The challenge to economics,” he continued, is finding “ways to reallocate water cost-effectively.”

Tile drainage carries away surface water, making Midwestern fields the most fertile in the world — but also depositing unwanted nutrients, pesticides and herbicides in the Mississippi River. Mark David Photo

Tile drainage carries away surface water, making Midwestern fields the most fertile in the world — but also depositing unwanted nutrients, pesticides and herbicides in the Mississippi River.
Mark David Photo

Small local solutions can play a big role. Success has been found with markets allowing farmers to trade water with other farmers in their region. Brozović said he has become – perhaps unexpectedly – “much more optimistic about the potential for solutions” over the years he has been studying such problems as how to keep the salmon running in West Coast rivers and dealing with how groundwater removal in the Republican River Basin of Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado is affecting the area’s streams.

“We’re starting to regulate water usage more than we have,” he observed, noting that in the past, “regulations have been set up very crudely.

“Make better regulations,” he suggested – regulations that offer appropriate incentives to those who depend on the water for their livelihood – and “you can make more people happy.” Yet he also concurs with other economists in the proposition that in many cases water subsidies should be siphoned away and prices allowed to rise, reducing the demand for too-cheap water and allowing need to be more cost-driven (see p. 64.) This is complicated by the fact that “the institutions we have in place to manage water are,” as Brozović puts it, “extremely variable.

“In some places they work well,” he said. “In some places they don’t work at all.”

For Sivapalan, the price of water should also include environmental costs – such as pollution and aquifer depletion. Otherwise, he said, there’s a “tendency for the environment to be degraded.” He advocates moving away from capital-intensive projects, like dams, which tend to enrich the companies that build them and the wealthy landowners who get power and irrigation from them, creating scenario after scenario – from Idaho to Egypt to China – in which “ordinary people don’t get the benefit.”

“The so-called water crisis is really a management crisis,” Sivapalan concluded. “There’s plenty of water.

“I’m optimistic. This is a problem that humans can solve. It just takes some will.”

We are a water planet; we are awash with water. There is 99.23 percent of the water on Earth that is not available for humans without some treatment, and of the remaining 0.77 percent, we’ve been polluting it up so much that we have to treat it again.
– Mark Shannon

So – no.

When it comes to large questions poised to heave over the sea wall of the new millennium, oil has got nothing on water.