Sunday, October 3, 2010

Mitigating Global Warming: Protecting Water

The following is a transcript of my talk at Transition Pima's Oct. 2 Chautauqua for Change, where the focus of the day was water.

Good afternoon. I'm glad so many of you could join us today. My name is Dave Ewoldt, and I'm one of the co-founders of Transition Pima, as well as being an independent candidate for Arizona State Senate in LD 28.

My research background, professional life, and community activism are built on a foundation of ecology, systems science, and policy analysis pertaining to sustainability and its basis in scientifically validated natural systems principles. I've also been a member of the Arizona Hydrological Society, and had a paper published in their annual conference proceedings a couple of years ago, so I'm at least marginally qualified to speak on the issue of water.

Today, more groups such as the Southern Arizona Green Chamber of Commerce, are springing up almost daily whose primary interest is sustainability; who advocate a community based on ecologically sound policies and sustainable practices; and who lobby to enact practical legislation to encourage green practices in our communities. Locally, the City of Tucson and Pima County have created sustainability departments. We also have the Watershed Management Group, Drywater Harvesters, Sonoran Permaculture Guild, Barrio Sustainability Project and other groups who focus on food and energy security that is sustainable.

My contention is that in order for these efforts to be successful, the first thing we must do is honestly define what we mean by sustainability. This can be done in both an ecologically sound and a legally defensible manner. This will provide a foundation that is consistent, that will allow rational planning, and will provide a yardstick by which to measure progress.

Most of you here today have heard the definition I propose using before, but I'll repeat it because we must keep it in mind as we talk about the water situation here in Southern Arizona. This definition contains three clauses that are intimately interrelated and that inform and support each other.

Sustainability: 1) Integrate human social and economic lives into the environment in ways that tend to enhance or maintain rather than degrade or destroy the environment; 2) A moral imperative to pass on our natural inheritance, not necessarily unchanged, but undiminished in its ability to meet the needs of future generations; 3) Entails determining, and staying within, the balance point amongst population, consumption, and waste assimilation so that bioregions, watersheds and ecosystems can maintain their ability to recharge, replenish, and regenerate.

The third clause it what gives the definition its legal teeth, because it is scientifically measurable. It provides the foundation for setting growth threshhold standards and optimum population size studies which have been successfully carried out in other communities around the country.

With this definition in mind, one thing that stands out to me in the various water forums and symposiums I've attended or participated in over the past few years is a term commonly used by local, regional, national, and international water experts. This term is overdraft. Everyone says, that everywhere you look, fresh water supplies are decreasing. We're using more than can be naturally replenished. But then, often in the very next sentence, they all go on to say we're not in danger of running out of water.

Now, I realize that math skills are also decreasing in this country, but what planet are these people from? Is there a parallel universe, or another dimension that I'm not aware of where all this water is going to come from? Isn't "inventing" new water supplies the same as the alchemy used in the Middle Ages to turn lead into gold? The best any of these experts could offer is a belief in a future technological miracle occurring to save us from ourselves. I call this the techno-rapture. None of the experts want to address the inconvenient truth that pretty much every technology that we've applied against the natural world has had the unfortunate side-effect of decreasing the ability of the natural world to sustain life.

I have this bad habit of looking at everything from a systems perspective; of studying relationships; of being concerned with underlying causes. If we don't understand what the real root of the problem is, the solutions we develop won't change anything because we'll be responding to the wrong problem.

When properly presented, sustainability additionally provides an overarching meta-vision of a just, equitable, and peaceful democratic society that is in balance (or, more accurately, in holistic integration) with the natural world. Sustainability, when strongly defined from the perspective of ecology--which is the study of relationships--fully informs the work of progressive activism, as well as providing the support and nurturing necessary for progressive activists. While some people take the narrow view that sustainability is an environmental movement, sustainability is actually a community movement.

I'll get into some of the details of why here in a moment, but the status quo needs to change while there's still anyone left around to change it. And the experts who look at global warming trends (more accurately referred to as catastrophic climate destabilization) say we're going to be looking at greatly reduced populations in the Southwest deserts over the coming decades. There is an intimate relationship here with water.

Steven Chu, Nobel laureate and former director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in regard to diminished supplies of fresh water in the Western US from the 30-70% reduction of mountain snowpack says, "There’s a two-thirds chance there will be a disaster, and that’s in the best scenario." There are a number of credible studies that have been published within the past few years that come to the conclusion that the Colorado River could be functionally dry as early as the next years or two, but at least within the decade if trends continue.

Speaking of trends, it's instructive to note that many of the worst case global warming scenarios from less than ten years ago, which weren't predicted to occur until 2085 to 2100, have already occurred. The best example is the opening up of the Northwest passage in the Arctic.

We must begin being honest about the reality of the situation we find ourselves in. There is actually no disagreement that our current water supplies are running out. The water table in the Tucson region has dropped from 20 feet to over 300 feet in the past three generations, and is continuing to drop between 2-4 ft/yr. In the 1940s in Phoenix you couldn't build a house with a basement because the water table was too high. Now it's at 1,000 feet.

We're selling water to industry for $5.80/af, but the cost to CAGRD (Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District) to secure increasingly difficult to find replenishment supplies is $200/af. The snowpack in the headwaters of the Colorado River is decreasing and is expected to be at 40% below normal in the coming years. The Central Arizona Project is pumping water over 300 miles 2000 feet uphill to Tucson in an open concrete ditch through the middle of the Arizona desert.

We're betting our future on paper water. The current ADD water process (Acquire, Develop and Deliver Water) is analogous to the fed printing money to "solve" the financial crisis. It allows the continuation of rubber-stamping growth without the water actually being there. And we're allowing our local planning departments to continue approving trophy subdivisions in the foothills, and 60,000 home "planned" communities south of Tucson. As if putting the word "planned" in there makes everything alright. Everybody seems afraid to point out that smart growth gets us to the exact same place as dumb growth, we just get their first class.

One of the things we're told by status quo water managers is that we can continue growing if we manage our water resources better; for example, if we all just begin water harvesting.

What I'm going to spend the rest of my time talking about today involves deepening this overly simplistic view. We require a much fuller understanding of the system relationships within hydrologic cycles in order to craft realistic water policies.

The executive summary is that our collective abuse and displacement of water is contributing to both global warming and local weather disruptions. Abuse through industrial and agricultural pollution is fairly well understood. Displacement is less well known and concerns moving water from where it sustains healthy ecosystems and hydrologic cycles to where it gets used in irrigation or for cities, where it generally ends up in the oceans. There is also a "virtual trade" in water due to globalization, which is the 20% of daily water use for humans that is used for export crops or manufactured goods. Urbanization, deforestation, and wetlands destruction also cause the removal of vegetation necessary for a healthy hydrologic cycle, which leads to a loss of precipitation over affected areas. This all contributes to global warming, as well as lowering nature's ability to sequester carbon dioxide. Solutions must protect water as well as watersheds and all of their users.

Here are the details on how this functions and occurs. Much of the following is taken from the work of Maude Barlow, board chair of Food and Water Watch and senior adviser on water to the president of the U.N. General Assembly.

We can't ignore the interconnected nature of our world, its cycles, and humanity's role in them. Global warming is having negative impacts on global fresh water supplies. Warmer temperatures cause increased evaporation from rivers and lakes, decreased snowpack and earlier runoff, and increased glacier melting.

However, our collective abuse and displacement of fresh water is also contributing to global warming. This issue must be added to our strategies to mitigate global warming as well as the restoration of watersheds and the replenishment of aquifers.

There are two major factors in this.

The first is displacement of water from where it sustains healthy ecosystems and healthy hydrologic cycles. We've polluted so much surface water that we're now mining aquifers much faster than nature can replenish them. We move water from where nature has put it to where we need it for food production where much of it gets lost to evaporation, and to supply the voracious thirst of cities where it usually ends up as waste dumped into waterways and oceans.

We also lose water through the virtual trade in water. This is the water used for export crops and manufactured goods, and it accounts for about 20% of the daily water use for humans that is exported out of watersheds. Piping water long distances for industry leaves behind parched landscapes.

The second factor is loss of the vegetation necessary for healthy hydrologic cycles. Urbanization, deforestation and wetland destruction destroy water-retentive landscapes and leads to loss of precipitation over the affected area.

The living world influences the climate mainly by regulating the water cycle and the huge energy flows linked to it. Transpiring plants, especially forests, work as a kind of biotic pump, causing humid air to be sucked out of the ocean and transferred to dry land. If the vegetation is removed from the land, this natural regulation system is interrupted. Soil erodes, reducing the content of organic material in the ground, thus reducing its ability to hold water. Dry soil from lost vegetation traps solar heat, sharply increasing the local temperature and causing a reduction in precipitation over the affected area. This is the unmentioned side of the urban heat island effect. This process also destroys the natural sequestration of carbon in the soil, leading to carbon loss.

So, just as removing vegetation from an ecosystem will dry up the soil, removing water from an ecosystem means reduced or non-existent vegetation. Taken together, these two factors are hastening the desertification of the planet, and intensifying global warming. Even if we successfully address and reverse greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on fossil fuels, we will not be able to stop global warming if we do not deal with the impact of our abuse of water.

It is also a tenet of sustainability that a region--however defined--cannot consider itself sustainable at the expense of another region. Central and Southern Arizona will not be sustainable as long as it depends on Colorado River water. The same can be said for some of the current pipe-dreams such as building another water canal from the Mississippi River or building desalinization plants. As if the communities dependent upon the Mississippi River would even allow the former to occur in the first place.

And of course there's also the tie-in to our energy production and use. Coal-fired power plants use approximately 1.5 trillion gallons of water a year in the US. Some folks might actually use more water turning on the lights in their foothills McMansions than by drinking a glass of it. Power plants also create more toxic waste than the plastic, paint, and chemical industries, and this waste gets dumped into rivers and other waterways from the scrubbing process. So, we've managed to clean up the air a bit and instead of breathing the toxins, now we drink them.

So, how do we answer the increasingly loud cry of, What can we do?

The solution to the water half of this crisis is massive watershed restoration to bring water back into parched landscapes. It's instructive to remember that the Tucson Valley used to be a desert wetlands. The only remaining example of this is a small section of the upper San Pedro River valley.

We must return water that has disappeared by retaining as much rainwater as possible within the ecosystem so that water can permeate the soil, replenish groundwater systems, and return to the atmosphere to regulate temperatures and renew the hydrologic cycle. This means we must be ecologically realistic about the unsustainability, as well as the basic infeasibility, of supporting a local population of one million entirely through water harvesting. Don't even get me started on the current growth lobby fantasy of doubling our local population by 2050.

We must restore forests and wetlands - the lungs and kidneys of fresh water. For this to be successful, three basic laws of nature must be addressed.

1) We must create the conditions that allow rainwater to remain in local watersheds by restoring the natural spaces where rainwater falls and where water can flow. Examples of water retention include: roof gardens in family homes and office buildings; urban planning to allow rain and storm water to be captured and returned to the earth; water harvesting and drip irrigation in food production; capturing daily water discharge and returning it clean to the land through technologies such as living machines.

2) We cannot continue to mine groundwater supplies at a rate greater than natural recharge. Future generations will not look kindly upon us if we do. Governments must regulate groundwater takings before these underground reservoirs are gone (and before our cities subside into them). This means a shift in policy from export to domestic and local production.

3) We must stop polluting our surface and groundwater sources, which is usually done merely to increase corporate profits. Water abuse in fossil fuel production and in mining must stop. We must wean ourselves of industrial and chemical-based agricultural practices and the techno-fantasy of water-guzzling agro-fuel farming. National policies and international trade rules must support local food production in order to protect the environment and promote local sustainable agriculture. Policies must also discourage the virtual trade in water, and ban the mass movement of water by pipeline. Government investment in water and wastewater infrastructure would save huge volumes of water lost every day. Local laws could enforce water-harvesting and grey-water recycling practices at every level.

Governments around the world must acknowledge the water crisis and the role water abuse plays in the warming (and drying) of the planet. All activities that will impact water must conform to a new ethic -- backed by law -- that protects water sources from pollution and over-pumping. This will require a strong challenge to government policies that exclusively focus on unlimited global economic growth, as well as directly challenging those who insist that it is politically infeasible to propose, enact, or enforce any regulations that might decrease profitability.

International policies currently focus on giving the two billion people in water stressed areas more access to groundwater sources. But current levels of groundwater takings are unsustainable. To truly realize the universal right to water, and to protect water for nature's own uses, requires a fundamental reordering in our relationship to the world's finite water resources, as well as all the other resources our economies, lifestyles, and very lives depend upon.

Until we find the courage to perform a systemic and comprehensive carrying capacity analysis, we won't know what we have to work with, or even the general direction we should be heading. This makes all of our current planning efforts moot.

We are currently overdeveloped. We are in the overshoot range of both environmental and economic carrying capacity. This is a very inconvenient truth, made all the harder to hear because we have defined our very essence by its negation.

Addressing these issues is a fundamental aspect of the relocalization project--a viable and pragmatic process to cooperatively develop a sustainable future. We're running out of time to get busy on it. But, it is something that is within our ability to do. And it starts by simply making new choices, in our lifestyles and with the people we elect to set our governing policies and regulatory framework. Simply replacing one color of the status quo with the second most popular color is not a choice our grandchildren are going to be very happy about.

Or our children. Or our spouses, for that matter. The time, quite literally, is now.

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