Water.  It’s the liquid of life.  With it, the desert blooms. Without it nothing lives.

Intellectual wars over water rights rage in the West

Larry Waterfield
Columnist

Today we’re constantly bombarded by doom-and-gloom scenarios: global warming, giant volcanoes, tidal waves, meteorites.   

But the struggles over water are real and immediate. The doomsayers love to look askance at agriculture when they contemplate water policy.

They throw out that number: agriculture uses 70% of the fresh water. Well, agriculture also feeds 300 million Americans, and probably a couple of hundred million more abroad.

Add to that the jobs, the care of the land, the export business, sustenance for local communities — but that’s not enough for the critics. 

They’ll shift the focus to pesticide and fertilizer runoff, the alleged overuse of water, and other supposed abuses. The critics’ solutions call for water wars, curtailment, rationing, restrictions on agriculture.

There would be no domestic produce industry without recourse to water. It’s an irrigated industry. This is not to minimize the problems.

In normal years the country is split down the middle: A wet East, a dry West. In the West, the dry is extra dry with drought, which gives rise to forest fires and fights over water. It also seems to foster some insect infestations, in forests for example.

In the eastern U.S., it has been wet. It has been so wet that my house in Virginia has some kind of fungus growing on it. (Get out the fungicide.)

The wet weather has played havoc with homegrown produce. A writer in New York City claims the wet weather has ruined the backyard gardens. He figures his homegrown tomatoes “cost $20 each.”

Now shift to the western half of the U.S. I  recently stood at the East Portal at 9,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies. This is the eastern outlet for a water tunnel running 13 miles beneath a mountain 14,000 feet tall. 
 
It carries water from the west side of the continental divide to the east side and the High Plains. This water irrigates hundreds of thousands of acres of land used for potatoes, vegetables, sugar beets, grains and other crops.

This water comes from the headwaters of the mighty Colorado River, which begins at the foot of the Never Summer Mountains in northern Colorado.

From the beginning of this river, the aorta of the West, the water is channeled, dammed, diverted, used. Within just a few miles it is watering farms and towns. It flows on into western Colorado where it helps grow peaches in Palisades. 

It cuts southwest, literally, to gouge out the Grand Canyon. The rest of the way it is tamed in reservoirs and the water grows produce crops and waters towns and cities in California and Arizona.

Critics claim that none of this water ever reaches the Pacific. (Well, the Pacific already has plenty of water.)

There’s the old saying in the West, “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting.”

And there are water wars out West. There are also solutions. There is plenty of room for new technology, trickle irrigation, recycling, drought-resistant crops, carefully targeted use of water. 

“Static analysis” doesn’t work. That says that if things are bad, they will get worse. 

That ignores our capacity for problem-solving, entrepreneurship and new ideas. There are some solutions that sound better on paper than in reality. A professor at Columbia University recently wrote an article in a major newspaper calling for “vertical farming” in cities

He suggested growing fruits and vegetables in high-rise hydroponic towers. He claims these facilities could be built adjacent to hospitals, restaurants, schools, apartment towers, “where there would be a continuous supply of fresh vegetables and fruits to city dwellers.”

The upside, he says, would be reduced use of water and land, elimination of chemicals and pesticides, farm equipment, and long-distance shipping. No more worry about floods or droughts or crop loss. Oh, and chickens and fish can be grown the same way.

He doesn’t mention any downside. There might be a few. In fact, we already grow a lot of fruits and vegetables close to cities. 

New Jersey is the Garden State because it grows produce for New York and Philadelphia. 

There’s plenty of produce grown within a few miles of Miami and the south Florida cities. The same is true in Southern California.

As for land, the U.S. spreads across a continent, with hundreds of millions of acres of arable land. Water? There’s plenty of water, although it may not be where you need it.

I grew up near the confluence of the two mightiest rivers in North America, the Mississippi and the Missouri. I’ve seen those rivers flood out 20 miles wide. No shortage of water there.

It used to be that the hicks, rubes and hayseeds lived out in the country. Now they live in cities where they have no clue as to how food reaches them or what is needed to get food on the table.  

You can tell them almost anything: Grow corn and fish in a high rise. Why not? Abandon our farms and countryside? Sounds good — you don’t need farms when you can get food at the store.

Apparently there’s also a few new rubes and hayseeds among daily newspaper editors.

E-mail lww4@verizon.net

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