Category Archives: Dams and Hydropower

Study Finds We Vastly Underestimate Water Management’s Depletion of Freshwater


Here’s a frightening word of the day: “evapotranspiration.” It simply refers to water lost to the atmosphere by evaporation, or after being consumed and released into the air by plant life. It wasn’t so ominous last week, but it is this week because a new study in the journal Science puts it in a new context: unsustainable human use of freshwater.

Essentially, the study finds human have used 18 percent more of the planet’s freshwater than we previously thought, because we’ve underestimated the impact of our water-management systems, such as irrigation, dams and reservoirs. They cause more water to be lost to the atmosphere than would occur naturally, effecting precipitation patterns. Gather a lot of water in one place, like a reservoir, for instance, and more of it evaporates across the greater surface area exposed to air. The researchers studied the ratio of evapotranspiration to precipitation between 1901 and 2008, finding a significant increase in the latter half of the time period.

The additional 18 percent tips our water use into the unsustainable category given the increasing human population, the researchers warn. As Chelsea Harvey writes in her article about the study in The Washington Post, “The study highlights a critical need for better monitoring of our freshwater use and the ways our management techniques can affect the water cycle, as [study co-author Fernando] Jaramillo noted that the current effects of human water management ‘are even larger and more recognizable than the effects of atmospheric climate change.’”

Read more:

Alarming research finds humans are using up far more of Earth’s water than previously thought – The Washington Post

Local flow regulation and irrigation raise global human water consumption and footprint – Science

Related posts:

World Water Day: UN World Water Development Report Warns of Global Crisis by 2030

At the Point of ‘Peak Water,’ Our Foreseeable Future Grows Shorter

Mapping the World’s Most Water-Stressed Countries

Serious Water Conservation Demands Layered Approach and Emotional Commitment

Over-Salted: The Trouble(s) With Desalination

Study: Freshwater Shortage Will Double Climate Change’s Impact on Agriculture

Unchecked Emissions Will Drain Water Resources, Warns Leaked U.N. Report

Study Describes Vast Reserves of Water Under Ocean Floors

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Filed under Agriculture, Climate Change, Conservation, Dams and Hydropower, Drought, Environment, Groundwater, Rivers and Watersheds, Science, Sustainability, Water Resources, Water Shortage

It’s Long Past Time to Police Big Agriculture’s Water Waste

furrow_irrigation (1)

When you observe water-stressed and drought-stricken areas around the world, you hear the same question being asked again and again: Who uses the most water? A common assumption leads people to blame the general population for its wasteful ways, heedlessly watering their lawns and washing their cars despite a water shortage. But the real answer, in most cases, is agriculture — and not by a small measure. It often accounts for 70% to 80% of total water use, and sometimes more.

Irrigation and other water uses in agriculture, especially where it is a major industry for domestic and export food production, such as California’s Central Valley, make other water uses look like drops in a bucket. According to a 2012 study by the Pacific Institute, the Golden State’s 38 million people use just 4% of its water, while agriculture, including the raising of both crops and livestock, uses 93%.

The reason this matters so much is that Big Agriculture wastes epic amounts of water and often fights efficiency measures on the basis of cost. California, to stick with that example, uses much less drip irrigation than other arid farming regions of the world. Generally, efficiency standards and enforcement are not in place, which allows massive amounts of water to leak out of systems. And much of the water used simply evaporates because it is not recaptured. This goes on while agricultural users pump out deep aquifers’ groundwater far faster than it can be restored naturally, especially in times of drought.

The types of agriculture matter for the scale of water usage, as well. California rice growers flood the fields, whereas another crop might need only sips of water, relatively speaking. Beef producers use about 2,500 gallons of water per pound (as opposed to 100 gallons of water per pound of grain).  Although costly, relocating water-intensive agriculture from water-stressed regions to places where water is most abundant would make sense. In the U.S., that might mean moving some practices from the Southwest to the Southeast. In China, it would mean moving farms  from the arid north to the wet south. But in many countries, business and political interests would keep it from happening as long as possible, and in the end, severe water shortage and escalating costs would force the issue.

Where you have a massive industry, you have a wealthy lobby with a lot of political power to influence government spending. Critics of California’s $7.5 billion drought bond known as Proposition 1, to be voted on in statewide elections on Tuesday (4 November; update — it passed by a two-to-one margin), note that it provides for new dams and water-storage measures that will benefit agriculture. But it’s not yet clear what might be asked in return. About $50 million of the $7.5 billion appears to be earmarked for agricultural efficiency. Will future measures mandate adequate technology and standards of efficiency? Ultimately, the nine-member California Water Commission will decide how funds from the Prop. 1  bond measure, if passed, will be spent.  They should know that the industries using nine-tenths of the state’s water should be doing a lot more to help ease the region’s water crisis.

Read more:

UPDATE: California Propositions 1 and 2 Sail to Resounding VictoriesSan Jose Mercury News

Prop 1: Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014 – Ballotpedia

Prop. 1, a False Framing of California’s Water CrisisSanta Barbara Independent

New Report Provides Insight to California’s Proposition 1 – Pacific Institute

Prop. 1 Aims to Relieve Drought — But Not This One – Los Angeles Times

Cows, Rice Fields and Big Agriculture Consumes Well Over 90% of California’s Water – AlterNet

Report Targets Waste, Inefficiency in Agricultural Water UseLos Angeles Times


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Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Dams and Hydropower, Drought, Groundwater, Law, North America, Sustainability, Water Resources, Water Shortage

If You Could Advise the UN on Water, What Would You Say?

Image: United Nations

Image: United Nations

The Guardian, known for some of the best environmental reporting coming out of the U.K., posed a question to a bevy of experts in honor of World Water Day 2014, on March 22: “What one piece of advice would you give the UN on water?” More specifically, how should water fit into the post-2015 development agenda? Following up on my recent World Water Day posts below, here’s a link to the answers given by the water wonks from the worlds of business, NGOs and government.

There’s broad agreement among the experts that there should be specific water and sanitation Sustainable Development Goals, just as there was enthusiastic agreement at the UN briefing I recently attended at the WMO in Geneva, Switzerland. Water will be frequently mentioned among other goals because it connects everything, but mere mentions here and there won’t be enough to give the world the clean water and effective sanitation that so many people lack.

Read more:

What one piece of advice would you give the UN on water?  – The Guardian Water hub

Related posts:

Water’s Place Among Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals

At the Point of ‘Peak Water,’ Our Foreseeable Future Grows Shorter

UNICEF Says Put Down Your Cell Phone for a Few Minutes to Help Kids Get Water

Mapping the World’s Most Water-Stressed Countries

The Intersection of Environmental Issues and Human Rights

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Filed under Africa, Blog Changes and Updates, Bottled Water, Caribbean, Dams and Hydropower, Industry, Science, Space, Uncategorized, Wastewater Treatment

Past, Present and Future: California’s Epic Struggle With Water

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Alexis C. Madrigal’s new piece in The Atlantic, which he tweeted is his most ambitious yet, is a good read. It has great descriptions of California’s ongoing, larger-than-life efforts to stay hydrated in a place where nature simply won’t cooperate. The article centers on Gov. Jerry Brown’s $25 billion Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which proposes to dig two tunnels under the entire Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. If built, they’ll be longer than the Chunnel connecting England and France under the English Channel.

Read more:

American Aqueduct: The Great California Water Saga
A $25 billion plan, a small town, and a half-century of wrangling over the most important resource in the biggest state
Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic

Recent related posts:

Serious Water Conservation Requires Layered Approach and Emotional Commitment

California’s State-of-the-State Address: Brown’s Drought Plan in Broad Strokes

Civilization Lost? California’s 500-Year Drought Potential

To the Rescue in California? Solar-Powered Desalination

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Filed under Agriculture, Conflicts, Conservation, Dams and Hydropower, Drought, Environment, Groundwater, Industry, North America, Rivers and Watersheds, Technology, Water Shortage

Restoring Rivers: American Rivers Announces 51 Dam Removals in 2013, Builds New Interactive Map

dam removal

On Wednesday the nonprofit group American Rivers announced its list of outdated or unsafe U.S. dams removed in 2013 to restore rivers, tallying 51 projects undertaken by communities in 18 states working with nonprofit groups and state and federal agencies.

American Rivers says it had a hand in 25 of the 2013 dam removals, but tracks all removals, and is the only organization to do so. According to the group, the top states for dam removal last year were Pennsylvania (12), Oregon (eight), New Jersey (four), and, with three apiece, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Vermont.  About 1,150 dams have been removed since 1912, with most of those deconstructions occurring in the past 20 years.

Why remove dams? There are tens of thousands of them in the U.S., and quite a few are old, unsafe or no longer serve their intended purpose. As former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt once said, “on average, we have constructed one dam every day since the signing of the Declaration of Independence.” Removing them, especially those that no longer do enough for us (e.g., generating adequate amounts of reasonably clean hydropower), can restore river health, clean water, and fish and wildlife, and improve public safety and recreation. See a more complete list of reasons here.

To accompany the 2013 list, American Rivers launched an interactive map that includes all known dam removals in the United States as far back as 1936. The map features the name of the dam and river, location, year the dam was removed, and a description.

“For the first time ever, we have an interactive map that shows every dam removal that has ever happened in the U.S.,” said Devin Dotson, American Rivers’ associate director of communications. “There aren’t many things that have such a big impact on a river as a dam. They block a river, they can hurt clean water, they can hurt fish, they can hurt wildlife. American Rivers has pioneered a science-based approach to the removal of outdated dams.”

Read more from

51 dams removed to restore rivers in 2013

New interactive map: all known U.S. dam removals since 1936

Why we remove dams

Making hydropower safe for rivers

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Filed under Conservation, Dams and Hydropower, Environment, NGOs, North America, Rivers and Watersheds, Technology, Water Resources