Author Robert Glennon takes on over-use, abuse of water

Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona professor of law and public policy, writes with authority, passion and — often — humor about the way Americans over-use and under-value water.

Chapter headings in Glennon’s new book, Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It, feature quotations from Genesis, Leonardo da Vinci and Theodore Roosevelt. But other quotations come from Stephen Colbert, the Doobie Brothers and U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, who cites “our God-given right as Californians to be able to water gardens and lawns.”

Glennon will deliver the first lecture in the Moos Family Speaker Series, co-sponsored by the Freshwater Society and the University of  Minnesota College of Biological Sciences as part of 2010 – The Year of Water.

The lecture, which will be free and open to the public, will be from 7 to 9 p.m. on Feb. 22 in the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul Student Center Theater.

Unquenchable is a sequel to Glennon’s 2002 book, Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America’s Fresh Waters. In both books, Glennon offers hundred of facts, figures and anecdotes to make his point that the United States is a country in which the population keeps moving from water-rich regions to water-poor areas, that technological fixes – including desalination – are not going to solve the problem and that a higher price or tax on water could be the mechanism would solve it.

. The Freshwater Society interviewed Glennon about his books and his vision of the water crisis that he says the U.S. already faces.

You talk in Unquenchable, about “an urgent water crisis, bordering on catastrophe, when levies break, wells go dry, rivers peter out…sewage overflows, pollution mushrooms…water tables plummet, and croplands fallow…” Are we close to that in this country?

Not only are we close to it, but that very long sentence that you quote describes what has happened in the United States.  So, when you have a country that has factories being shut down, power plants not being built because there’s a lack of water, you’ve got a problem, and it’s not a problem confined to the arid West.

The U.S. Geological Survey says water use across the country went down between 1980 and 2005.  Does that give you hope?

The overall numbers have gone down, but they obscure localized situations. The example I give is, when Bill Gates walks into a bar, the average patron becomes a millionaire. When you look at the numbers from the recent USGS report, what you really see over the last 20 years is that industries have responded to pressures of the Clean Water Act to reduce their discharges.  Companies like Intel, for example, have made significant improvements. That is optimistic and a good thing.  But there’s a question as to how much further industry can go.

Meanwhile, there are some very sobering things in the USGS report, including that use by those of us who are citizens has been relatively constant, about 100 gallons per person per day. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that our current population, which is just over 300 million, is going to reach 420 million by the middle of the century.  Do the math and you realize that’s another 120 million Americans, each consuming, if things stay as they are, 100 gallons per person per day, and you have a horrible crisis on your hands.

You call corn-based ethanol a “fool’s bargain.”  Explain that, please.

The ethanol water problem comes in because it takes four gallons of water to refine one gallon of ethanol, and first you have to grow the corn.  Now, if you’re growing corn in an area where there’s not much precipitation, then you’re going to be using irrigation, and wherever you grow the corn, it can take as much as 2,500 gallons of water to grow enough corn to refine one gallon of ethanol.

In your book, you talk about the Great Lakes and the possibility that arid regions of the Southwest might try to transport water from the Lakes.  Is that a serious threat?

I don’t consider it a great likelihood or a real threat.  I note that it was raised by Gov. Richardson of New Mexico when he was running for the Democratic nomination in 2008, but the reality is this: Water is too cheap and too heavy to warrant trying to move it thousands of miles from the Great Lakes to the Southwest.

You have a chapter titled, “Shall we drink pee?”  Do you see the re-use of treated sewage effluent as a significant solution to our water problems?

I do.  Now, you don’t need to drink reclaimed water. We can use it for, as we do in Tucson, irrigating tourist facilities, ballparks, cemeteries, highway medians, light industrial applications. It’s not a silver-bullet solution, though. It is expensive, it requires a completely separate system of pipes (we paint them purple in Tucson so there’s no mistaking the potable from the reclaimed system), and that drives up cost. But it is a supply that grows as the community grows, and it certainly should be part of the solution.

The City of Los Angeles has, with its Hyperion treatment plant, a volume of water that is equal to the seventh-largest river in the United States. Every drop of that treated municipal effluent gets dumped into the Pacific Ocean.  Surely, Southern California can do something better with its treated effluent than dump it in the ocean.

You suggest a national tax on water.  How high should the tax be?

Rather than any specific amount, what we need to be thinking about is a way to rationalize the price signals for water consumption. And a federal tax on water would be a good way to do that.

If you were the U.S. water czar, what decrees would you issue to protect our future?

We need to meter our water use, we need rational price signals, we need water rights that are quantified and transferable. We need to reallocate water from lower-valued to higher-valued uses.  That’s happening all around the American West. It’s intensifying and needs to go further

We need to tell anyone who wants to put a new straw into the milkshake glass, which is the way I refer to our water supply, that if you want to put a new straw into the glass you need to persuade someone else to take his or her straw out of the glass.

My approach in arguing for a water market is not to cut off growth, but to make growth pay its own way by demand offsets.

One last question.  You write that your mother-in-law takes Navy showers — getting wet, then lathering up with the water turned off, then rinsing.  What do you personally do in your lifestyle choices to conserve water?

I try to be pretty careful about water use. But I live in the desert, I do have a swimming pool and I have some plants.  The plants are xeriscape plants, that is, they’re native to the area, they’re low-water plants.

Here’s one small step that I’m taking: I try not to use the kitchen food disposal. An environmental organization in Tucson studied the water use in food disposals recently and found that if you use your disposal 2 minutes a day, even if you have an aerator on your kitchen faucet, you will, at the end of the month, have used 150 gallons of water.

That strikes me as a simple step individuals can take. Throw their food scraps in the garbage or the compost pile, but do not use water to flush them down the kitchen sink.

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