Water wars and more

As America’s west starts to suffer the consequences of one of the deepest and most severe drought in a century, largely due to climate change but also large increases in population and construction, the conditions elsewhere are increasingly bad.

We’ve long known “water wars” were a thing. The lack of water in an increasing number of geographies around the world will have as much, or potentially more impact than the carbon emissions crisis which is the leading cause of climate change.

Climate change is going to change everything. As well as a look at the impact of water shortage, and some local actions we must take, I’ll also provide some historic perspective.

Water Isn’t Just For Drinking

I listened with despair earlier this week to “The Takeaway” and this report on the The Water Crisis facing Iraq and Syria. Water is everything, drinking, growing, washing, health, manufacturing, and most importantly power. Power in the sense that those that have water, have power, but they also have likely have electricity. Until we are able to move away from monolithic power generation, it can’t happen without water.

While historic low levels at Lake Mead are a visible indication of the problem. It’s simple to understand that if their isn’t enough water, the damn turbines won’t be able to turn, no turning, no power. The invisible problem, that most people don’t realize is that coal, nuclear and turbine power plants ALL need water for cooling, no water, no cooling, no cooling means plant shutdowns. Dropping water levels will increasingly impact power sources across America. While some areas on America are likely to see an increase in rainfall, it would take a massive effort to capture that rain, clean and filter it, and supply it to other areas in the USA. How long before we have to chose water or power?

Families are not going to sit around once water shortages hit power and food eco-systems, they are going to take whatever actions they can, including migrating and moving to places where they believe things will be better, even if they are not. In the Middle East, it’s not as if Syria and Iraq don’t already have enough problems. As per the Takeaway, Turkey already has water and power problems, and the whole of North Africa are already suffering a deluge of migration which is overflowing into Europe and beyond. Unresolved, these issues, with or without climate change will continue to cause more wars and more refugees.

Everything Is Local

I live in the Colorado Front Range. The water from the snow melt in the mountains feeds both the Front Range and the Colorado river; The Colorado river feeds the west and Lake Mead. Bizarrely though, water waste is everywhere, not least in lawns. While fifty years ago green lawns in the high desert might have seemed like a “fun” thing, good for property values, for almost all residential and non-farming commercial use, it’s an environmental disaster as well as pointless.

At least here in Colorado we need to change that now.

Time For A War On Lawns?

These sprinklers are on the border of the east side of local Louisville Plaza. They go off at least twice a week like this, not sprinkling but drowning the grass, sidewalk, adjacent parking space, and the road. I’ve reported it to code compliance but I’m not hopeful.

From April to October, if you see water running down a street gulley/gutter any where around here, there is a 99% chance that is run off from lawn sprinklers. It’s a waste of water. While we do have rainwater capture, it is done via open drainage channels, and evaporation has a massive impact on efficiency. In the dry, arid conditions, building a more efficient waste-water capture system might be helpful, except increased water capture would mean more water treatment, water treatment would require more power, and more concrete.

Using more power and concrete would really miss the point, after accounting for evaporation, it would really be much better to reduce use substantially for watering lawns and not cause a problem that needs to be solved.

My HOA has rules about grass. Currently only a few neighbors have converted their back yards away from lawns, I have, we are starting to see front yards changed over, more needs to happen, and more quickly.

It’s beyond time for a war on lawns in this part of America. I don’t know, and frankly don’t care how much water is wasted on lawns, it has to stop. For those that do, the EPA says that it can account for as much as 60% of domestic water use in the west, and for facilities with large landscapes—schools, offices, and hotels—may devote more than 30% of their water use to keeping plants & turf healthy. This report has a good background and details on how improvements can be made.

The problems with watering lawns is it encourages lawn growth. Growth requires cutting; cutting often uses 2-stroke mowers, and worse than anything else, at least in my neighborhood, that means the landscape contractors use 2-stroke blowers to blow the cuttings away, clearing roads and sidewalks.

While 2-stroke engines have made enormous strides in efficiency and pollution, they are still a major problem. In a year where the Front Range has again seen some terrible Air Quality Index days, the obvious assertion is it’s caused by the mountain wildfires, much of it is not. It’s caused by car, trucking and other carbon fuel engines. The least important of which is gas powered lawn and garden equipment. This study on the EPA website has details on the problem of lawn equipment.

Rather than just mandate a change of equipment, we should mandate a much larger change. I recommend starting with

  1. Automatic watering of lawns no more than 1-day week.
  2. Automatic watering of lawn zones for less than 12-minutes per zone, per week.
  3. Cutting lawns no more than twice per month.
  4. No use of Gas-powered cutting, blowing/vacuums, edging equipment.

This would apply to all residential and commercial propoerties that are non-food production or sports complexs. Baseball, football/soccer etc. In the case of sports related properties, it would apply to all areas except the actual field of play.

This would require effective enforcement, it’s not a game, and isn’t government overreach. If water shortages have much more of an impact on the Amerian west, the Calfornian breadbasket will start to fail. Failure will mean shortages and increased prices, for what, green lawns?

And yes, your lawn will likely brown in extreme temperatures and drought periods, so what? Yes, grass root systems do store carbon, but again, that’s a downstream result of growing lawn grass. I would also exempt genuine drip-systems that use a much smaller amount of water to keep the root systems of trees and bushes alive.

Green lawns couldn’t have thrived here in the mile-high state without water from irregation systems, it’s time to end that practice over the next 10-years. I’m from this generation, and I still, CHOOSE LIFE over lawns.

How I Came to Environmental Issues?

In the late 1990’s as one of IBM UK’s leading technologists, I had the opportunity to meet with and attend a number of conferences and sit with some of the most forward thinking people IBM had access to, both inside IBM Research and outside. Many trends were just great fun to learn about, for example the growth in the average foot size. Many though were much more concerning, for example, the prediction we’d experience water wars.

I didn’t check back through my notebooks for this post, and although I still have them, and would likely be able to quote a source or citation, I never made a good job of indexing them and so it’s a time consuming labor and only tangential to the point here. I did post a presentation I gave as key note at a small number of conferences. The 2003 version was posted in 2009 to the website slideshare.net.

Back then it was perceived wisdom that by 2050, 2/3 of the Worlds population would have water shortages; climate change is likely to have accelerated that significantly. Consumption has tripled in 50-years, as of 2003. Again, here in Colorado residential development has exploded, most of that with green lawns. Dams were, and will continue to be a major causes of internal refugees. If you want to learn more, Wikipedia has a great page on water conflicts. It’s one of the many pages I subscribe to to watch for changes.

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