World Water Day

Last week while driving down I-5 in California, I noticed a number of billboards proclaiming that the current Congress had caused "dust bowls." These dust bowls looked like dry fields sandwiched between thriving orchards, vineyards, or row crops. This phenomenon illustrates the interplay of perception, water scarcity (a global environmental issue), and root causes: population growth, governmental policy, and poverty.

That the current Congress caused these dust bowls is an interesting perception of the farmers who are receiving less water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta than they received in the past. Actually, the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which mandated fish and wildlife protection, was signed into law by President George Bush in 1992—it is not a product of the current Congress.

Other top environmental issues, global climate change and biodiversity decline, are intricately linked with water scarcity both worldwide and in California. One of the impacts of global climate change is a change in rainfall patterns, which in California means less snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which is the primary source of water into the Delta and thence to the aqueducts and canals, which flow south, providing water for agricultural, industrial, and urban uses. Decreased fresh water flow into the Delta results in less diversion of water from the Delta to avoid negatively impacting biodiversity, which includes 20 endangered species such as the Delta smelt and migrating salmon.

Increased population in California translates to increased demands for fresh water. The farmers' signs also proclaimed that less irrigation water would result in higher food prices. This could exacerbate the rate of increase in hunger and poverty in America because California is the country's largest producer and exporter of nuts, fruits, and vegetables.

Continuing into Arizona, I visited the Casa Grande Ruins

Casa Grande Ruins

where I learned of another system of irrigation canals

Gila River Canals

along the Gila River built by the people of the Hohokam culture from about AD 500 to AD 1500. As the volunteer guide explained, the canals were a collective effort, built to benefit the people nearest the river as well as those farthest from the river. This system required cooperation among all the users.

This sense of collective responsibility seems to be missing from the perception of the farmers whose billboards proclaim that Congress is causing their dust bowls. A wider vision would reveal that water scarcity is a major environmental problem worldwide.

Each year the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization picks a theme for World Water Day, March 22. This year the theme is "Water and Food Security." Certainly water scarcity and food security are intricately linked: Worldwide 70% of fresh water that is withdrawn from rivers, streams, lakes, and groundwater is used for irrigation; in California 83% of withdrawn fresh water is used for irrigation, of which about one third is used for irrigated hayfields and pastures; irrigating land to feed livestock uses about 50% of the withdrawn fresh water in California. It takes 10 times more water to produce a pound of beef than it does to produce a pound of wheat.

Recently, the Harvard School of Public Health reported that eating a daily serving of red meat increased mortality risk by 13%. I don't believe that ranchers set out to squander water, a scarce resource, in order to produce red meat, which increases mortality risk. However, viewed in the harsh light of today's reality, that's what is happening.

Here is something to ponder: Will we, humans in the 21st century, be people of reason—making choices in the best interest of ourselves and our planet, or will we succumb to a consumerism driven by habit and media influence?

About the Author

Sandy Olliges

Sandy Olliges, M.A., teaches academic writing at San Jose State University. She is a former Environmental Manager for the NASA Ames Research Center.

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