Relentlessly, our industrial society continues to destroy the natural resources essential to its survival, with industrial agriculture leading the way. Perhaps the worst — and least recognized — example, in terms of the accelerating pace and ominous portents of the destruction, is the depletion of water resources by overconsumption.
This is not a matter of new discoveries. We have known for decades, although we continue to ignore it, that we are drawing down the aquifers — underground reservoirs of water tapped by wells — that make industrial agriculture possible. Irrigators are drawing the water much faster than it can be replenished, knowing that one day there will be no more water accessible from them. One of the most glaring examples is the Ogallala Aquifer that underlies much of the mid-American breadbasket, from north Texas to the Dakotas. For half a century, industrial farmers have been irrigating their crops with enormous quantities of water pumped from the Ogallala, dropping its level up to five feet per year.
They could be forgiven for such overconsumption 50 years ago, before it was well understood that the Ogallala is fossil water; it was deposited 10,000 years ago by the melting glaciers of the last Ice Age, and cannot be replaced until the end of the next Ice Age. (In non-drought years, some surface water filters down to the aquifer, and may replenish it at a rate of a fraction of an inch per year.) Now that we know how irreplaceable the water is, we continue to withdraw it at more than one hundred times the maximum rate of replenishment.
All of this has been well known for decades. Now comes confirmation (reported recently by the Associated Press) that we are doing the same thing in California’s Central Valley, the near-desert that is the source of much of our national supply of lettuce — and fully half of our fruits, nuts and vegetables. New data supplied by satellite measurement indicate that the two main aquifers underlying the Central Valley have been drawn down drastically by the frantic pumping farmers are doing to make up for steadily declining rainfall. In six years the aquifers have lost a quantity of water that would fill Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam, the largest surface reservoir in America (which is also going dry, but that’s another story).
These aquifers, unlike the Ogallala, are replenishable; if the draws were reduced to match the drought-reduced inputs, all would be well. But industrial agriculture does not recognize the word “reduce.” And when the leader of the NASA/University of California study says, “the data is telling us that this rate of pumping is not sustainable,” his warning goes entirely ignored. This is the Tragedy of the Commons — the reaction to a shortage that says, “I’ve got to get mine, fast, before we run out” — that makes the shortage worse, faster. Government can mitigate such losses, and prevent such destructive responses, but as in other thngs, California is leading the way toward our new status as a failed state.
Moreover, as I observed in this space recently, the Marcellus Shale formation that harbors aquifers supplying water to much of the northeastern United States is under assault from natural-gas drillers using a recently developed technique called hydraulic fracturing to force more gas out of the ground by injecting water and a brew of noxious chemicals deep into the shale. As reported by ProPublica, reports of toxic spills, fish kills and well failures and contamination are coming faster and faster. One of the biggest operators, Atlas Resources, has been fined (a trifling $85,000) for 13 toxic spills between May and December of last year. Atlas shrugged.
We should not take any comfort from the fact that China, among many other countries, is facing similar problems, and is seeing them get worse even faster. The level of the principle aquifer underlying the major grain-producing area of the north-central China plain has been dropping by 10 feet a year, and at twice that rate near the major cities. Near Beijing it is now necessary to drill more than half a mile down to reach water.
A recent World Bank study of the Chinese problem concluded in unusually grave tones for a bank, predicting that a failure to bring water consumption into line with available supplies will result in “catastrophic consequences for future generations.”