As the rain falls on Asheville, it's all too easy to forget how severe drought conditions were in '07 and '08. The French Broad River hit its lowest recorded level since 1895. More and more private drinking wells ran dry, and one of three wells that supplied Marshall in Madison County hit empty. In August 2008 the town was within six weeks of being completely out. Yet the city of Asheville — owner of a 21,000-acre watershed with a huge reservoir — was able to keep its public-water system flowing, although voluntary restrictions urged us to use less water for gardening or washing cars.
To some of us, the drought seemed little more than an inconvenience, but others were hit hard. In towns under mandatory restrictions, such as Cherokee and Mars Hill, carwashes and other water-dependent businesses had to limit service, and in Canton, Blue Ridge Paper Products was forced to shutdown early for a scheduled maintenance outage, raising fears that layoffs would follow. By late 2008, more than 5 million North Carolinians had to comply with voluntary or mandatory water restrictions.
"When the well's dry," writes University of Arizona law professor and author Robert Glennon, quoting Benjamin Franklin, "we know the worth of water." He adds, "The evidence [of a crisis] is everywhere — though if it is noticed, it is forgotten with the next quenching rain."
That's one of the early salvos Glennon lets fly in his book Unquenchable: The American Water Crisis and What to Do About It. And here's another key point: "We may worry loudly about the price of oil, but water is the real lubricant of the American economy."
Glennon provides no end of examples in his book, from the extravagant use of water in Las Vegas, Nev., to the tangle of disputes over the Catawba River, a water source that starts in North Carolina but supplies South Carolina communities too.
With Glennon set to discuss the issues on Thursday, Sept. 24, at Warren Wilson College, Xpress spoke to him recently about water policy, climate change and how to navigate the crisis.
Xpress: You appeared on The Daily Show last July with Jon Stewart and summed up our American attitudes toward water pretty well.
Glennon: In the U.S. we look at water as we do air, as it were infinite and inexhaustible, when in fact, it's finite and exhaustible.
That's clear in your book, with examples such as Atlanta, Ga., which came within three months of exhausting its Lake Lanier water supply.
The funny thing is, the drought in Georgia was not any more severe than previous droughts. The difference was in the population, and as sure as we're talking on the phone, this will happen again. … Seldom have [we] paid enough attention to whether there's enough water for everyone.
What should we be doing?
When someone wants to put [his] straw into the source, we need to offset that use: [That is], when you want to put a new demand on the common supply, you have to convince someone else to use less. We [also] need to price water accordingly.
Set prices to encourage conservation?
If people have to pay for their water, they think differently about it. In Fresno, Calif., water isn't metered, and they use about 300 gallons per day. In neighboring Clovis, water is metered, and use is just 200 gallons per day. Price affects behavior.
But don't we also need to ensure basic water access for essential uses?
And protections for the lowest-income residents. If the wealthiest country in the world can't recognize a basic human right to water, we're a sorry lot.
What about water pollution?
It compromises the supply and takes a lot of energy to clean up.
You also mentioned on The Daily Show that we only use about 10 percent of the water supplied to our homes; we flush the rest away.
Every time a toilet flushes, those gallons end up in the river, which ends up in the ocean, until it's recycled and returns — and that could be hundreds of years later. … Americans are spoiled. When we turn on the tap, out comes a limitless quantity of high-quality water for less money than we pay for cell phone service or cable television.
How does climate change factor in?
The scientific community has no doubt that … human causes have brought this about, creating new wind patterns, new precipitation patterns. … Some places will get wetter, some will get drier. … The Colorado River will drop 20 to 40 percent, [with] the biggest impact on California. This is a real issue, in our lifetime, [but] the problem is complex. If you have less water flow, you also have less water to fuel hyrdroelectric plants, [and] the response is [to] rely on more fossil-fuel plants.
Which contributes to climate change.
And some alternative-energy sources compound the problem: Ethanol production requires great quantities of water to produce a gallon of fuel. It's like a checkbook that's out of whack.
How do we balance it?
What we're looking at is a fork in the road, but it's going to take political willpower and moral courage.
Glennon's Sept. 24 presentation at WWC is free and open to the public, and it will be held at 7 p.m. in Canon Lounge, with a book signing to follow. For more info, call Margo Flood at 771-2002 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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