Red Alert for California Aquifers

So here’s the back-story, in case you don’t give a damn about dams:

Shared by seven states and Mexico, the Colorado Basin provides about 40 million Americans with a portion of their drinking water and irrigates up to 5.5 million acres. It is home to endangered species and supports about $1.4 trillion in economic activity. Because of record-high temperatures and a drying climate, the basin is also dangerously close to being parched: Lake Mead, which is just 36 percent full, is in poor health. So is Lake Powell, located upstream and only 34 percent full.

The front-story is more scary:

California’s Central Valley—one of the richest agricultural regions in the world—is sinking. During a recent intense drought, from 2012 to 2016, parts of the valley sank as much as 60 centimeters per year. “It isn’t like an earthquake; it doesn’t happen, boom,” says Claudia Faunt, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. But it is evidence of a slow-motion disaster, the result of the region’s insatiable thirst for groundwater.

For decades, farmers have relentlessly pumped groundwater to irrigate their crops, draining thick, water-bearing clay layers deep underground. As the clays compress, roads, bridges, and irrigation canals have cracked, causing extensive and expensive damage.

Fracking hasn’t helped either.

And it gets worse

They told me to cheer up, things could be worse. So I cheered up and, sure enough, things got worse.”

You see, aquifers are tough as nails and many of them were sourced in times before human history. But coastal aquifers have an Achilles heel that has to do with seawater. Stay with me, this is really important. It’s not an opinion, it’s simply liquid dynamics.

A coastal aquifer will hold out seawater unless and until it falls below the level of saltwater encroachment. Then all hell breaks loose and we are perilously close to that situation in the San Fernando Valley.

It happened in Australia.

But there’s stuff we can do

With sea-levels forecast to rise, we better get our act together in a hurry. With the worst California drought in 1,200 years underway, those aquifers are not going to be recharged by rainwater and going after what’s left in Lake Mead is no answer either.

What is an answer is to get a desalinization effort in gear as quickly and efficiently as possible. Surprisingly, in a brief look-around for a possible savior, our old climate-denier friends in the oil-extraction business come to mind. It’s kind of a Wall Street solution—calling in the guys who caused the problem and hiring them to solve it.

But check out their qualifications:

  • They’re loaded with cash, with no place to put it
  • They desperately need a growth-business to counter the slow death of oil and gas production
  • They already have huge refineries located on sea-coasts that are shovel-ready for desalination plants and
  • They could all of them use a little positive image-enhancement, perhaps even a lot

I’ve written on this before, but never with the urgency of the present crisis.

When an industry is disrupted, it better have a new plan

Fossil-fuels are over. There will always be a market, but the world is headed toward sustainably electric and the oil companies are remarkably well positioned to transition. But first they have to get the chip off their shoulder, call in the marketing guys and get a new plan, Sam.

The next existential shortage, worldwide, is water and there’s no disrupter for that. Humanity can get along pretty much with or without heating oil and gasoline, but eight billion people on the planet need water to survive.

It’s a hell of a fine business-plan and I’m sorry to see the already-oil-rich pick up all the marbles. But that’s the way it is. Elon Musk is busy with Tesla and SpaceX. We can’t expect him to solve all our problems. But if I was running a major oil company I’d sure value his advice and pay him well for it.

Will they do it? Who knows? But if they don’t, someone better dial up Elon and see if he has the energy to take this on. I know he has a very soft spot in his heart for Africa and they will be the last in line for American industry.

Elon? Are you out there?


Image Credit: circleofblue.org

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