The biggest battle over natural resources in the future may not be over oil, but over the most basic and most needed of all commodities — water. Nonetheless, the ebb and flow of OPEC’s oil price machinations receive front page coverage while the depletion of our nation’s water supply goes virtually unnoticed by the media.
Five years ago, the fifth “best censored” story of the year revealed how our nation’s water supply was drying up. The only change since then is that now there is even less water left.
Water levels in the Ogallala aquifer, which may be the largest underground reserve of fresh water in the world, were reported falling drastically in 1981. Today, the annual overdraft — the amount of water not replenished in the Ogallala — is nearly equal to the flow of the Colorado River. A recent study estimates that by 2020 some 5.1 million acres of irrigated land will dry up. The effect on the national economy could be severe. Nearly 12 percent of our cotton, corn, grain, sorghum and wheat is watered by the Ogallala; almost half or our beef cattle are fattened on high plains feedlots. In Texas alone, 70,000 water wells have been dug into the aquifer. Parts of the Panhandle already have used up more than half the water in the, portion of the aquifer beneath them.
Meanwhile, irresponsible irrigation procedures by corporate farmers, like Prudential Insurance, hasten the day when America may well be left high and dry. In northwest Indiana, the insurance giant installed inefficient irrigation systems on 23,000 acres of previously idle land ill-suited for crops. Sucking the water out left Prudential’s neighboring small-scale farmers with dried-up water wells, corroding fixtures and appliances, sink holes, and a loss of crop production. An added irony is that Prudential received Federal subsidies and tax breaks for irrigation.
Finally, what one environmentalist felt would be “the first shot heard around the world in a global struggle for water resources” appears to have had the media repercussion value of a pea shooter.
Robert H. Boyle, president of the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, fired the shot when the Association got a court order temporarily stopping Exxon Corporation from pumping fresh water from the Hudson River and dumping toxic chemicals and sea water into it. By that time, Exxon already had taken 61 tanker-loads, each carrying about 6.3 million gallons of water from the Hudson, without seeking a permit or even discussing the practice with New York State officials.
It seems that Exxon has been taking fresh Hudson River water and selling it to the Caribbean island of Aruba without paying New York State a nickel. As it turns out, Exxon has been quietly tapping the Hudson since the 1930’s whenever Aruba’s desalinization plants weren’t productive enough to satisfy the refinery’s thirst for fresh water.
THE PROGRESSIVE, February 1985, “High and Dry,” by Devorah Lanner, pp 28-30; THE WASHINGTON SPECTATOR, 3/15/85, “Irrigation Cultivates Disaster;” UTNE READER, December 1985, “Water Wars,” by James J., Napoli, International Eco-Features Syndicate.