Freshwater shortage looming as next world crisis | Don Brunell

Even though water covers 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, less than two percent is freshwater. Therein lies the problem. As the world’s population grows, demand for water is increasing; in periods of drought it becomes a crisis.

Remember the rhyme of the Ancient Mariner: “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink?”

Even though water covers 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, less than two percent is freshwater. Therein lies the problem.  As the world’s population grows, demand for water is increasing; in periods of drought it becomes a crisis.

California has been in the grip of a severe drought this year. As summer ends, we are beginning to see the economic impact and it is staggering. The University of California at Davis estimates the statewide economic cost of the 2014 drought will total $2.2 billion. That is nearly as much as the value of Washington’s 2012 apple production, our states largest agriculture crop.

The UC-Davis report finds direct costs of $810 million from crop revenue loss, $203 million from the loss of livestock and dairy revenue and $454 million from the additional costs to pump groundwater to keep production going. The state lost 428,000 acres of irrigated cropland and an estimated 17,000 part-time jobs.

The last drought in Washington was in 2000-2001, the second-driest year on record. Since then, we have been blessed with adequate fresh water supplies that have replenished our reservoirs and aquifers, restored salmon runs and kept electricity prices reasonable.

But there are warning signs on the horizon.

As far back as 2008, the Futurist predicted the world is incurring a growing water deficit.  Globally, demand for water has tripled over the last half century, and millions of irrigation wells have been drilled, pushing water withdrawals beyond recharge rates. In other words, we’re now mining groundwater.

Columbia University’s Water Use Center reports one of the key players in the looming water crisis is agriculture, which accounts for 70 percent of global water use.

In Washington there are 1.8 million acres of irrigated agriculture. In fact nine of our top ten crops depend on irrigation. Only wheat, our state’s second largest crop, requires no irrigation.

Agriculture isn’t our only major business sector that depends on water. For example, our state’s semiconductor manufacturers located here because of abundant supplies of low-cost hydropower and the availability of clean processing water to cleanse their silicon wafers.

As our state’s population nears 7 million, the pressure on freshwater supplies is increasing.

Three-fourths of our freshwater comes from surface sources flowing from the Rockies, Cascades and Coastal mountain ranges. Ironically, that falling water accounts for the same amount of our electrical generation—power needed to provide water for agriculture, industry and cities.

Some are calling for restoring our rivers and streams to their natural flows, but that would cripple our region’s ability to supply us with freshwater. Dams and reservoirs are key to our ability to manage water supplies and cope with a drought.

Incentives have proven to be an effective way to encourage water conservation. The City of Paso Robles, CA offers a rebate of up to $125 to homeowners or business owners who replace water-guzzling toilets with a high-efficiency version that uses 1.28 gallons per flush or less. The average household can save about 13,000 gallons of water per year, enough to fill a small backyard swimming pool.

Denver instituted a similar program and launched a broader water conservation campaign in 2006 to reduce water use 22 percent by 2016.

In today’s complex and high-intensity political environment, elected officials don’t usually focus on issues until they reach crisis proportions. But water is literally a life-and-death issue that requires a thoughtful approach and rational planning if we are to avert disaster.  That effort should begin now.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at


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