And Then After Flooding and Bad Dams Our Water Problems Get Even Worse

Depletion of groundwater by pumping for agricultural irrigation is only one example of how we bungle the basic plumbing of the planet.EXPAND
Depletion of groundwater by pumping for agricultural irrigation is only one example of how we bungle the basic plumbing of the planet.
Federico Del Bene via Wikipedia Commons

This is the last thing I will ever write about water, I promise, really and truly. It’s all going to be about space aliens and sexual enhancement operations from here on out unless something gigantic happens. But since we’ve been chatting anyway these last few days about problems with a big suburban dam and how we might all die, I wanted to add this one last water note:

We’re committing suicide.

At the end of last week we talked about a big short-circuit in our thinking about urban flooding. We fail to recognize that modern floods are caused not by rain but by land-use policy.

Urban/suburban sprawl and the capping of permeable soil with impermeable surfaces is what causes massive rainwater runoff. The runoff overpowers streams and creeks and winds up washing SUVs off the road in places where, before the flood, most people didn’t even know water was nearby.

But that’s only one piece of our plumbing problem. We also are sucking dry the earth’s well of fresh water, because we still operate with a mid-20th century concept of water as infinitely plentiful and inexhaustible.

Last year Sandra Postel, writing in National Geographic, described the disastrously rapid pumping out of the Ogallala Aquifer in West Texas for agricultural irrigation. In the 16-county High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, the level of the aquifer dropped almost 9 feet between 2004 and 2014, almost 80 percent of that loss taking place in five years of recent drought.

Media people staring at a mud hole below Lewisville Dam last week. Water is weird.EXPAND
Media people staring at a mud hole below Lewisville Dam last week. Water is weird.
Jim Schutze

An aquifer is an underground layer of sand and gravel that holds water. Shallow aquifers can be “recharged” by rain, but deeper layers hold “fossil water” that has been there for eons and cannot be replenished by rain.

Scientists are not agreed on whether the Ogallala can be recharged by rain, but they do agree that even if it can be, the rate would be very slow, much slower than the rate at which water is being pumped out.

California is one place we can look to see the dramatic effects of groundwater depletion. Last April The New York Times described a “drilling frenzy” in California’s Central Valley, where panicked farmers are pushing drill bits ever deeper into the earth to suck out groundwater for their drought-plagued fields and orchards. The Times said water tables in some areas have dropped 50 feet in just a few years, causing the ground itself to sink as much as a foot a year, buckling roads and cracking bridges.

The sword dangling over all of these bleak scenes is called human consumption, not of water itself but of apricots and cotton, soybeans and peaches grown in arid reaches of the land where nature did not intend for them to grow. Crops are grown in these unlikely places for all sorts of reasons, historical and economic, but always so that we can have more of what we want, more often and cheaper.

As we talked about last week in terms of urban flooding in our own area, all of these things that we think we get cheaply — the apricots and the houses, the cotton shirts and the swimming pools — are only cheaper because the real cost is hidden, delayed and off-shored to somebody else. (Hint: us.)

Nicholas Pinter says anytime an environmental cost occurs, it gets paid. The question is by whom.EXPAND
Nicholas Pinter says anytime an environmental cost occurs, it gets paid. The question is by whom.
Steve Buhman, courtesy of Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Last week Nicholas Pinter, professor and chair of applied geosciences at the University of California-Davis, talked to me about this and cited the axiom that, “If there is a cost, it will be paid. The only question is by whom.”

Let’s imagine that we could add up all of the true environmental costs associated with growing things where nature doesn’t want them to be grown and then tack those costs onto a 12-ounce bag of prunes. Closer to home, we may be on the verge of finding out what a house really costs when you tack on the taxes to rebuild the Lewisville Dam.

Someone will say, “We don’t have to pay for all of that. The feds do.”

Really? Really?

That’s where Pinter’s ultimate pay-master resides. It’s those people we call “the feds” or “the state” or maybe just “the county.” We do know, I hope, that all of those are us, the taxpayers, and whenever an environmental disaster jumps the tracks of normal commerce and becomes a cost no one else can pay, we do. Because we’re here, and we’re stuck.

The real price here in Texas for fresh peaches from Southern California — if we added it all up honestly  — would probably cause us to wait for the Texas peach season to come around. You remember waiting? Not having what we want the instant we want it? Sure you do.

Never waiting, being able to put our hands on anything we want whenever we want it at a price we can afford: that is what drains those aquifers, piles up floodwaters behind soggy, earthen dams and accrues existential risk of an order perhaps never faced before by humankind and all the other creatures and plants with whom we share the planet and for whom we are stewards.

All of the water issues, from runoff to aging dams and levees to the depletion of aquifers, only occur because we fail to comprehend the complete plumbing scheme that nature intends for water. Fresh water is finite. It is not infinitely plentiful. It’s supposed to boil up into the sky, hang in clouds, fall back down and soak down through the earth into cool subterranean vaults. Every time we interrupt that process, a chain of consequences ensues, and each consequence exacts a cost, either from us or from the planet, and in the end what’s the difference?

For a terribly stark look at what can lie ahead for us all, take a peek at last week’s New York Times story about the depletion of groundwater in Iran. The story is a dystopic window on a future that awaits us all if we don’t get way smarter about these issues.

OK, that’s it. Space aliens and sexual enhancements from here on out. In other words, the Dallas City Council. 

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