According to the New York Times, I consumed about 40 gallons of water for lunch—and no, I wasn’t exceptionally thirsty. To my fellow diners, the food on my plate was nothing extraordinary. In fact, it looked just like a dish of almond chicken with brown rice from our local Chinese restaurant.
But the entire experience gave me pause as I considered the impact of that humble lunch, multiplied by the millions of Americans who also ate lunch that day. Turns out, my lunch was just a drop in the ocean of demand for one of our most precious resources: Water.
And like many of those things essential to our very survival, water’s commonness renders it invisible.
We’ve been chugging along, building the lives we need and enjoy, mining this resource. Yet the headlines we see spill forth today–water scarcity, water rights, water quality—elevate water from its lowly taken-for-granted status to a thundering, multifaceted issue.
Water has an advantage over other resources like coal because it moves freely. However, its fluidity also contributes greatly to the complexity of conflicting needs and distribution that surround this essential resource.
Take California, for example. The scope and importance of California is not to be underestimated. California agriculture is an economic engine that was valued at $24.1 billion in 2013.
Just as California’s climate is ideal for raising healthy, nutritious food, it’s also a comfy place to live. California is also home to an estimated 38.8 million people.
And therein lies the issue: All that food production and all of those people require a lot of water, just to go about their daily business of work, school and life. Mother Nature may have exacerbated the issue of water shortages with five years of drought, but she didn’t create it.
The pundits call this “water scarcity” and the debates are frequent and explosive. Many point to farmers as the problem, while others blame the swimming pools and lawns, fountains and other water-hungry trappings of modern life.
Who has the right to our water? How do we prioritize this shared resource? What happens when the downstream effects of one industry adversely affect another? There are no clear-cut answers, but a need for an on-going discussion between the needs of the many users.
As a country, we’re working to address this and the solutions will come none too soon. Minnesota is looking at balancing the needs of tourism and agriculture. Iowa and Ohio are deeply involved in balancing rural and urban uses. And Illinois is building a plan to address these challenges before they escalate to the situations we’ve seen elsewhere.
Who should win in the water war and who should lose? It’s hard to say. But it’s certain that if we don’t dig deep into these conversations and choose wisely, we all lose.