Southern Utah’s sandstone is soft, and the rock here has been worked by wind and water like clay in the palms of an artist. This handiwork has resulted in a secret labyrinth of slot canyons, deep crevices that allow the nimble to slip in between the folds of rock and shimmy into the belly of the earth. At least, that’s what it feels like to me.
With the help of a climbing harness, belay device, and rope I’ve lowered myself into a cold chamber of red rock through a slit, where now just a sliver of sunlight scrapes through. My companions and l will walk, crawl, swim, and climb our way through this canyon—over boulders and down steep drops. We’ll pass through holes in the rock that are barely bigger than our bodies, we’ll test the sandstone’s smoothness against the sticky grip of our shoes.
And the whole time our mouths will be agape. This is Zion National Park, but it feels more like a museum. Each room of rock we find ourselves in is more beautiful than the last. If you want to get a sense of time, of the slow scalpel that water has taken to the region over the last, say, 170 million years—this is the place. Looking out at the Grand Canyon and imagining the carving of that monument is too enormous to fully comprehend. But in here, where icy cold water pools up to my knees, and I can put my cheek against the cold rock and listen, water’s patience is palpable. It has heiroglyphed the rock—been both poet and soothsayer—leaving a line behind to the mark the good times, the high times. This line now reads like a warning.
I think of the stark photos that appeared in the New York Times Magazine a few years back showing the massive bathtub rings, 100 feet high, of receding Lake Mead. The dwindling pool behind Hoover Dam is a catastrophe in the making, especially for Las Vegas, which relies on the lake for 90 percent of its drinking water. But it goes much further. Lake Mead is fed by the Colorado and the 1,400 mile-long river is struggling to quench the thirst of the 30 million people in seven states who depend on it, not to mention our neighbors in Mexico. It turns out when folks got together in 1922 to divvy up water rights to the Colorado it was the wettest 12 months in the last 1,200 years. Consequently, the mighty Colorado has never been able to live up to our lofty expectations. There is simply not enough water.
It’s a story repeated across the Western U.S., especially the Southwest where scarce water resources are straining to meet the needs of bulging cities, and resort communities and golf courses seem to be cloning themselves across the desert. The word “drought” is familiar in these parts. New to the lips may be “permanent drought.” And parsing those words with “climate change” is fast becoming part of our new lexicon.
A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council found that one-third of counties in the lower 48 states will face high risks of water shortage in the next 40 years because of global warming. The areas likely to be hardest hit are the Great Plains, California, and the Southwest. But even the South, especially Florida, could be in trouble, as well as the Midwest. Higher temperatures could significantly reduce water levels in the Great Lakes. But it’s not just surface water that’s at risk; we’re also using groundwater in many areas faster than nature can replenish it. Of particular concern is the Ogallala Aquifer, which Plains states are overdrafting with astounding speed.
That’s the thing about water, sometimes you have too little and other times too much.
This may affect not just how much water we have to drink and clean with, but also how much is available for us to grow food, produce energy, drive industry, and of course, what’s needed to maintain a healthy environment. This problem is countrywide—it’s exacerbated in many places by climate change, but our water resources are also threatened by unchecked development, agricultural and industrial pollution, privatization, increasing population, and aging infrastructure. It’s made worse by a lack of consciousness about water conservation and efficiency—by a sheer blindness to the fact that our very lives depend on something we take for granted daily.
Our blue planet may be mostly water, but 97 percent of it is too salty for us to drink. Of the 3 percent that is freshwater, most of it is frozen away in glaciers and ice caps or out of reach in deep underground aquifers. Less than 1 percent is left for all freshwater life. “Deprive any plant or animal of water, and it dies,” renowned water expert Sandra Postel wrote. “Our decisions about water—how to use, allocate, and manage it—are deeply ethical ones; they determine the survival of most of the planet’s species, including our own.”
Not only is the scale of the problem vast, but it’s also incredibly urgent. Globally a crisis is already in full swing.
The World Health Organization tells us that 2.6 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation, a condition that kills a child every 20 seconds. These are the numbers that keep me up at night. One-sixth of the world’s population, nearly a billion people, don’t have a reliable source of clean drinking water to meet their minimal daily requirements of 13 gallons a day—literally the same amount we flush down the drain in two trips to the loo. By 2025 the number of people without access to drinkable water is likely to reach 3 billion. In some cases it’s an issue of true scarcity, but in many cases it’s an issue of access.
Living in the U.S., I haven’t had to think about access too much, although I know there are those in my country who aren’t nearly so lucky. By any standard I’ve got a privileged life. When I turn on the tap, clean water comes out and I pay far less for it than I do for nonessential stuff like my cell phone bill. When I lived in the high desert of New Mexico several years ago, I thought about water a lot. People talked about it in town. The weather was not just polite conversation. How much would it snow, when would it melt, would the rains come in the summer—all that was critical. The local economy depended on it. My neighbors worked to maintain the acequias, or earthen irrigation ditches, to funnel the snowmelt to their fields. My friend Paul ran an entire farm based on what fell from the sky that he could catch and store.
I got my desert initiation on a hike that was too long with too little water. I learned how quickly you can lose your mind and lose your way when your mouth sticks with thirst. I also learned the value of water and came to revel in the theater of its arrival—the sky changing from bright blue to bruised in the moments before a summertime burst of monsoon. It’s one of the reasons I’m perpetually drawn to the desert; it’s a not-so-subtle-reminder of the things that matter most in life—like water.
My hiking trip through Zion National Park in Utah was another lesson. In the belly of that slot canyon, I thought about having too little water, even as I heard the slosh inside my overweighted pack. Park bulletins said the region was suffering from drought, the rivers were low, we were in pools of water up to our knees that could easily have been over our head. Just a day after my trip there ended, a flash flood tore through one of the canyons, catching three canyoneers by surprise and washing them over 40- and 60-foot drops. They survived, but across the world at the same time rising waters in Pakistan had just claimed over 1,500 lives and the disaster was still in the making. That’s the thing about water, sometimes you have too little and other times too much.
We’ve spent thousands of years trying to figure out how to engineer our way out of that problem. Over 50,000 large dams worldwide stand as a testament to the effort. They’ve provided us with electricity and a place to store our drinking water. They’ve also given us an environmental nightmare, ruined ecosystems, and displaced millions of people. I think about that tradeoff ever day: The water I drink in San Francisco is courtesy of the O’Shaughnessy Dam snugged up against Yosemite—a dam environmental activists have spent decades trying to remove so the Hetch Hetchy Valley—which John Muir called “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples”—can be restored to its natural splendor. We’ve rolled the dice. Taken our chances. Mortgaged our future, perhaps, for fleeting moments of prosperity.
In the 20th century we went big—big infrastructure, big farms, big houses, big cars. I’m hoping the 21st century is about building smaller and smarter and more holistically. “As the limitations of big infrastructure strategies have become more apparent, a vanguard of citizens, communities, farmers, and corporations are thinking about water in a new way,” wrote Postel in a 2010 issues of Yes! Magazine. “The upshot of this shift in thinking is a new movement in water management that is much more about ideas, ingenuity, and ecological intelligence than it is about big pumps, pipelines, dams, and canals.”
I’m putting my money on Postel’s vision. We have to begin imagining a new water future, and then working to make it happen. The U.S. is still attempting to recover from one of the worst environmental disasters we’ve ever seen. And just as that rogue Gulf of Mexico oil gusher was being plugged last summer, nearly a million gallons of crude spilled into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Once again we found ourselves in a head-on collision between our energy and water crises. Building a new water future will need to go hand-in-hand with a new energy revolution—one that the world badly needs.
But the trouble we’ve seen in Gulf of Mexico is not just confined to oil slicks and tar balls. For decades, the Mississippi River and its tributaries have teamed up to deliver a toxic dose of nitrogen pollution, mostly from farms, which has created a dead zone in the Gulf that is now about the size of Massachusetts. As we begin to use water more wisely, we’ll need to grow food more wisely. This is especially pertinent because global warming is already impacting water resources in some agricultural regions and things are likely to get worse.
We’re going to need to crack the exterior of our collective complacency. Dislodge ourselves from where we’ve always felt comfortable. Fall out of our old habits.
Time is of the essence. In July 2010, news sources reported that about 60 million people who live around the Himalayas are predicted to run short on food in the next 20 years because glaciers are shrinking and there won’t be enough water for agriculture. At the same time, drought in Russia had crippled crops and ignited over 500 fires across the country. Parts of Australia were reeling from over a decade of drought and Maude Barlow, a United Nation’s advisor on water, has warned that California is following in Australia’s footsteps.
As for the precious water resources we do have left, well, they’re not in such great shape either. In the U.S. 40 percent of our rivers and 46 percent of our lakes are too polluted for fishing, swimming, or to support aquatic life. It’s time to clean up our act. Recently, environmental groups were urging the Israeli government to close down a baptism site on the Lower Jordan River because of concern that the river had become too polluted for those who bathe at the holy site. Friends of the Middle East reported that 98 percent of the famous river had been diverted by Israel, Syria, and Jordan, which were instead dumping agricultural runoff, untreated sewage, and fish pond effluent into the water. Is nothing sacred any more?
We may have reserved a place for water in ceremony—but what about holding it in such high esteem each and every day? Thankfully, there are reasons to be hopeful. Here’s one of the best: On July 29, 2010 the United Nations General Assembly declared that access to clean water and sanitation is a fundamental human right. This was a victory over powerful corporate interests and wealthy countries, including my own (the U.S. abstained from voting, along with Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand). This victory should also be celebrated as a testament to a growing grassroots movement.
It’s all part of a mass of critical work being done in communities all over the world—folks are protecting wetlands and rivers, taking on corporate polluters, working for public control of water resources, developing water efficient technologies, increasing literacy about conservation, advocating for water justice, and drawing the connection between energy, food, and water systems. These things are happening where we live and the severity of this crisis begs us to pitch in—in every way we can.
Here’s how I got hooked. Years ago, I fell in love with the writing of Terry Tempest Williams, who has made her home in the red rock desert of Utah that I’ve come to love. It was there that I understood for the first time the power of water to give and take life, to make myths, to move mountains. She wrote, “For those who have not experienced the sublime nature of Utah’s canyon country, I invite you to imagine what it might be like to see and feel the world from the inside out. If you do come visit, be prepared to be broken open like a rock fallen from a once-secure place.”
I took her advice literally. I went to her desert and it brought me to my knees. It also put me on a “water path”—now I get to read and write about water for a living and talk to people who are working to protect water resources and make sure everyone has access to clean water. I’ve ditched bottled water and take shorter showers, but it’s not enough. We need change on a Titanic scale. When Williams writes “be prepared to be broken open like a rock,” I think of that as a metaphor for change. We need to change ourselves and the world, and it’s not going to be easy. We’re going to need to crack the exterior of our collective complacency. Dislodge ourselves from where we’ve always felt comfortable. Fall out of our old habits.
Deserts may be patient, they may have all the time in the world, but we don’t. We have to act now.
From the Introduction to Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource, published by AlterNet.