Getting plants to grow in the Sonoran Desert is made possible by importing billions of gallons of water each year. Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops in existence, and each acre cultivated here demands six times as much water as lettuce, 60 percent more than wheat. That precious liquid is pulled from a nearby federal reservoir, siphoned from beleaguered underground aquifers and pumped in from the Colorado River hundreds of miles away. Greg Wuertz has been farming cotton on these fields since 1981, and before him, his father and grandfather did the same. His family is part of Arizona’s agricultural royalty. His father was a board member of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District for nearly two decades. Wuertz has served as president of several of the most important cotton organizations in the state. ... But what was once a breathtaking accomplishment — raising cotton in a desert — has become something that Wuertz pursues with a twinge of doubt chipping at his conscience. Demand and prices for cotton have plummeted, and he knows no one really needs what he supplies. More importantly, he understands that cotton comes at enormous environmental expense, a price the American West may no longer be able to afford. ... The federal government has long offered him so many financial incentives to do it that he can’t afford not to. ... “Some years all of what you made came from the government,” Wuertz said. “Your bank would finance your farming operation … because they knew the support was guaranteed. They wouldn’t finance wheat, or alfalfa. Cotton was always dependable, it would always work.” ... The still-blooming cotton farms of Arizona are emblematic of the reluctance to make choices that seem obvious.
China is bafflingly silent about strange, record-breaking changes that have been wreaking havoc on the mighty Mekong River in recent months ... The dams China has built hundreds of miles upstream from Kroolong’s home are what brought me to the Mekong, one of the world’s mightiest waterways. The river is so long that if it were in the US, it would stretch all the way from Los Angeles across to New York. It starts off high in the snowy peaks of the Tibetan plateau before plunging down through the mountains of China’s southern Yunnan province towards Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and finally Vietnam, where it pours into the South China Sea. Just under half the river’s length is in China, which first started damming it in Yunnan more than 20 years ago. ... The early dams were large but nothing like two enormous, newer ones. The Xiaowan, completed nearly four years ago, is one of China’s biggest hydropower projects after Three Gorges on the Yangtze River, with a wall almost as high as the Eiffel Tower and a reservoir that can hold 15 billion cubic metres of water. It is dwarfed in volume, though not quite height, by the newer Nuozhadu dam, which can store 22.7 billion cubic metres of water. Together, the pair can hold enough to drown an area the size of London in water 24 metres deep. ... There have long been odd stories about the impact these two dams might be having on the countries further south, where people have blamed them for everything from drought to a drop-off in fish catches. But what emerged from my visit to the Mekong, as I followed the story of the floods that took Den Kroolong’s boat, was even stranger – a cautionary tale about the world’s newest superpower, and about water, a resource under mounting pressure.
Few things are more American than Coca-Cola. ... But bottled water is washing away the palate trained to drain a bubbly soda. By the end of this decade, if not sooner, sales of bottled water are expected to surpass those of carbonated soft drinks, according to Michael C. Bellas, chief executive of the Beverage Marketing Corporation. ... “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Mr. Bellas, who has watched water’s rise in the industry since the 1980s. ... Sales of water in standard lightweight plastic bottles grew at a rate of more than 20 percent every quarter from 1993 to 2005, he said. The growth has continued since, but now it has settled into percentages within the high single digits. ... If the estimated drinking of water from the household tap is included, water consumption began exceeding that of soda in the mid-2000s.
How a 500-year experiment to revive dormant microbes could reveal the secrets to cheating time ... For almost as long as we have known about micro-organisms, we have known about dormancy. In 1702, the Dutch biologist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek collected some dried ‘animalcules’ from a nearby gutter and added water. Peering through his handmade microscope, he observed that ‘they began to extend their bodies and in half an hour at least 100 of them were swimming about the glass’. ... Aged 70, van Leeuwenhoek had just discovered the dormant states of rotifers – small, wheel-shaped animals that can be found in many transient freshwater habitats. When conditions become too Spartan, these humble organisms contract into dry, oval-shaped husks in order to survive. ... Water is essential for life, and yet anhydrobiotes appear to get by without it. How? According to the ‘water replacement hypothesis’, they exchange their cellular fluid for sugars such as sucrose and trehalose. The result is a glass-like substance that not only retains the cell’s shape on rehydration, but also slows down a lot of unwanted chemical reactions. With this scaffolding in place, they reduce the fires of their metabolisms to embers, conserving their energy like a ground squirrel within its winter den, waiting for conditions to improve. They keep things ticking over.
“Fire left,” instructs Pederson. Mistry flips a switch on the center console and deploys a flare on the left wing. “Fire right.” There are 24 cylinders resembling sticks of dynamite wired to racks on the plane’s wings, 12 on each. The flares are filled with combustible sodium chloride—pulverized table salt mixed with a flammable potassium powder. When the switch is flipped, the end of the flare shoots orange fire and trillions of superfine salt particles are released into the cloud. Water molecules are attracted to salt, so they bond to the particles and coalesce into raindrops. ... During our mission over Maharashtra, we have cooperative clouds. Twenty-two minutes after seeding the first cloud, Pederson returns to the location where he fired that initial flare. It’s pouring. “We’ve got drops!” he shouts. He dips the King Air into a victory swoop before gunning over to another cluster of clouds. My stomach churns, and I can’t hold it in any longer; I heave into my purse. Pederson doesn’t notice. The computer barks out another warning about excessive banking. He laughs and says, “Shove it, Betty.” ... Cloud seeding has been controversial since it was invented by Vincent Schaefer in 1946. A chemist for General Electric, Schaefer made the first snowstorm in a laboratory freezer. The media predicted that cloud seeding could perform miracles, from dousing forest fires to ensuring white Christmases. But doubts quickly arose about the impact of meddling with nature. Concerns that cloud seeding might “steal” water from an area a cloud is traveling toward—robbing Peter to water Paul, as it were—have been dispelled. Storm clouds continually regenerate and release only a portion of their moisture when they rain, which means you can’t “wring out” all the moisture from one cloud.
A handful of landowners—about 500 farms in all—control the rights to 3.1 million acre-feet a year from the Colorado River. That’s equal to about a third of the water used by California’s cities, with 37 million people, where a four-year drought means neighbors report you if your lawn is green. Or, to measure another way, it’s half again as much water as Governor Jerry Brown aims to save under his April executive order, which set a February 2016 deadline for a 25 percent reduction in urban use. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons (1.2 million liters) and can supply the household needs of about 10 people for a year, though actual water use rates vary widely. ... Imperial Valley farmers know their water is precious and understand that to preserve a way of life that runs back a century they have to grapple with the needs of a drought-stricken state. Politicians, regulators, and lawyers have squeezed the valley before to get at its water. In 2003, the Imperial Irrigation District, under pressure from Senator Dianne Feinstein and other federal and state officials, controversially agreed to sell as much as 280,000 acre-feet a year to San Diego. Farmers here still discuss that episode at length, and emotions are still raw, because they believe similar water transfers are likely in the valley’s future. ... “People think transferring water out of the valley is a great sin,” he says. “Wasting water can be an even greater sin.” The neatly prepared field he’s inspecting is perfectly level—he uses lasers to make sure—and slightly lower than adjacent sections so water moves by gravity at an optimal speed. ... The most basic principle governing water use in the western U.S. is this: first in time, first in right. That’s why Imperial Valley farmers have so much water. They arrived early, building the first canal to withdraw Colorado River water and ship it to the valley in 1901. ... More than half the people who own land in the valley today live elsewhere.
For decades, sewage has been treated and used for irrigating crops, parks, and golf courses, but making it fit for human consumption requires a much more rigorous filtration technology using polymer membranes. No thicker than a human hair, the membranes are at once delicate and durable. Using pores smaller than one-millionth of a millimeter, they’re capable of wiping out microscopic contaminants. ... the water division at Dow Chemical, he pulls in more than $1 billion in sales annually. The membrane market is growing more than 10 percent a year in part because of increasing water scarcity worldwide and ever more pressure to develop drought-proof water supplies from new sources. ... The whole concept of recycled sewage might be harder to swallow if there weren’t already so much sewage in the water sources we routinely draw from. ... the very reason chemists created these synthetic membranes decades ago is that, increasingly, humans have been contaminating the water supply. Industries have emerged, meanwhile, that need purer water for manufacturing. Most major players in the automotive, beer and wine, food processing, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, and semiconductor industries, for example, rely on water purified by membranes. ... recycling wastewater is about half the cost of desalinating ocean water: Both use RO membranes, but the salinity of ocean water is much higher, so it’s harder and much more energy-intensive to pump it through the tiny holes.
Since 1960, tens of millions of people have migrated toward the Pacific, settling in Las Vegas and Tempe and Boulder. Denver has tripled in size. Phoenix, having added some 3.6 million people, has more than quintupled. Today, one in eight Americans depends on water from the Colorado River system, and about 15 percent of the nation’s crops are grown with it. ... the demands on the river were never sustainable. In 1922, the seven states in the Colorado River watershed signed a compact dividing its water. With little historical data, they calculated the river’s capacity after a decade of unusually wet conditions. ... Since the current drought began, in 2000, that shortfall has averaged 25 percent. Instead of adjusting their allotments, states have drawn down the nation’s largest reservoirs, which are quickly draining. Even this winter’s El Niño weather pattern won’t bring enough rain to restore the region’s supply ... To determine who gets water and who doesn’t, states rely on a system that originated more than 150 years ago—when water was plentiful and people were scarce. ... “prior appropriation,” which promised rights to use a share of water based on who got there first. ... Prior appropriation became the foundation of western water law, and it established order in the West. Today, though, state water laws are largely to blame for the crippling shortages. Because water rights were divvied up at a time when few cities existed west of the Mississippi, some 80 percent of the region’s water goes to farmers, leaving insufficient supplies for growing cities and industries. And farmers must put all their water to “beneficial use” or risk losing their allotment—a rule that was originally intended to prevent hoarding but that today can encourage waste. Many farmers have not adopted modern technology that can cut water use by up to 50 percent, in part because they need to protect their water rights. ... Allowing people to buy and sell water rights is a more expedient way to redistribute the West’s water, he argues. Waste would be discouraged, water would shift to where it’s needed most, and farmers would be compensated. ... The West would have plenty of water if people used it more wisely: Most of the region’s supply goes to growing low-value, water-intensive crops such as hay and alfalfa—in many cases in the desert.
If Las Vegas is the most profligate place on earth, where chance is king and the future is routinely gambled away, it is also possibly the most frugal and forward-looking American city in one respect: water. And now it’s trying to leverage that reputation by turning itself into a hub for new and innovative water technology. ... In the thirstiest city in the nation’s driest state (it gets just 4 inches of rain a year), water is the last thing Las Vegas wants to gamble on. After 16 years of drought, water levels in nearby Lake Mead, the city’s primary water source, have dropped so precipitously that white rings have formed on its banks. Las Vegas, like a bankrupt gambler who suddenly realizes that things have to change, has responded with a host of water conservation measures. ... The water industry is by nature risk averse, since a mistake can have catastrophic health consequences (see Michigan; Flint). But with more pressure on water supplies around the United States and the world, innovation is increasingly important. Las Vegas’ focus on water—and the constant pressure on its supply—has driven years worth of public experimentation, establishing the area’s umbrella water utility, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, as a nationally recognized leader in water quality treatment. The utility boasts a state-of-the-art laboratory that produces ground-breaking research and a roster of scientists who routinely publish in major academic journals.
In the US, municipal drinking water is protected by the Safe Drinking Water Act, which compels utilities to monitor things like microorganisms and the disinfectants used to subdue them. In 1998 the EPA tightened its standards on disinfectants, many of which can have their own toxic byproducts. One of the worst offenders is a classic: chlorine. Its main replacement, a chemical called chloramine (really just a mix of chlorine and ammonia), has lower levels of carcinogenic breakdown products, but it also makes the water corrosive—enough to eat through metal. ... Lead is insidiously useful. It’s hard but malleable, is relatively common, melts at a low enough temperature to be workable, and doesn’t rust. The Romans used it for plumbing—in fact, that word derives from the Latin word for lead, plumbum. Even the Romans noticed, as early as 312 BC, that lead exposure seemed to cause strange behaviors in people. But as Werner Troesken, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh, explains in his book The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster, lead pipes solved a lot more problems than they caused. The hydrologists of the 19th century knew that lakes and wells could harbor cholera; they needed large, clean bodies of water that they could pump into the city. Lead made those pipes possible. ... in 1991 the EPA instituted the Lead and Copper Rule, requiring utilities to check water regularly. The critical level has changed over the years as new science has come to light, but today officials are required to take action if lead exceeds 15 ppb in more than 10 percent of residents’ taps. The metric is utilitarian, scaled to spot trouble just before it turns into disaster. It’s a good rule, as long as utilities follow it.
Over the past decade, Americans have done something that would have once seemed downright un-American: They've given up soda. And when you’re craving a can of pop, LaCroix is a decent substitute. Unlike tap water, it has carbonation and a little flavor. Unlike a countertop SodaStream, it's cheap, readily available, and portable. Close your eyes, wrap your hand around the perspiring aluminum can, and you could be holding a Coca-Cola. LaCroix is succeeding as methadone for the soda addict. ... LaCroix isn’t the only brand to benefit from the sparkling water boom. But it’s the one that’s risen to the coveted status of lifestyle brand, not just generating loyalty but becoming part of how we define ourselves. The secret behind LaCroix’s rise is a mix of old-fashioned business strategy and cutting-edge social marketing. When Americans wanted carbonated water, LaCroix was positioned to give them them fizzy water. Then, sometimes by accident, LaCroix developed fans among mommy bloggers, Paleo eaters, and Los Angeles writers who together pushed LaCroix into the zeitgeist.
Right now, the global bottled water industry is in one of those strange and energetic boom phases where every week, it seems, a new product finds its way on to the shelves. Not just another bland still or sparkling, but some entirely new definition of the element. It is a case of capitalism at its most hyperactive and brazenly inventive: take a freely available substance, dress it up in countless different costumes and then sell it as something new and capable of transforming body, mind, soul. Water is no longer simply water – it has become a commercial blank slate, a word on to which any possible ingredient or fantastical, life-enhancing promise can be attached. ... The global market was valued at $157bn in 2013, and is expected to reach $280bn by 2020. Last year, in the UK alone, consumption of water drinks grew by 8.2%, equating to a retail value of more than £2.5bn. Sales of water are 100 times higher than in 1980. Of water: a substance that, in developed countries, can be drunk for free from a tap without fear of contracting cholera. What is going on? ... There now seems to be no limit on what a water can be, or what consumers are willing to buy. It is no longer enough for water to simply be water: it must have special powers. ... At some point, surely, we will reach “peak” water. Perhaps it will be the moment consumers lose faith in the cellulite-eradicating powers of Buddha water or wonder if it’s really worth paying over the odds for birch sap.
Dead grass became a point of pride as state officials rolled out ad campaigns with slogans like “brown is the new green” and “going golden this summer.” With-it wealthier residents signaled their savvy by investing in beautiful, though dusty, re-landscaped eco-havens of olive trees, white-flowered chamise shrubs, and California golden violets with, perhaps, paths of decomposed granite wending through them. ... Turf Terminators, started by twentysomething entrepreneurs, pitched itself to people like Goldfarb who wanted to conserve but couldn’t afford to pay a landscape architect four or five figures. In less than two years, the company removed 16 million square feet of grass from 12,000 lawns. During that time, Turf Terminators was the veritable face of water-saving landscaping in and around Los Angeles, praised by government officials and some customers for providing a fast, affordable way to get rid of grass. ... The company’s short but profitable life span serves as an instructional fable for other cities that will inevitably face climate change-related infrastructure problems. The takeaway: Solutions are rarely simple or easy, so do a lot of research before throwing public money at the issues.
If water is not managed better, today’s crisis will become a catastrophe. By the middle of the century more than half of the planet will live in areas of “water stress”, where supplies cannot sustainably meet demand. ... Where water is available, when and in what condition matters hugely. About 97% of the water on earth is salty; the rest is replenished through seasonal rainfall or is stored in underground wells known as aquifers. Humans, who once settled where water was plentiful, are now inclined to shift around to places that are less well endowed, pulled by other economic forces. ... As people get richer, they use more water. They also “consume” more of it, which means using it in such a way that it is not quickly returned to the source from which it was extracted. ... To make matters worse, few places price water properly. Usually, it is artificially cheap, because politicians are scared to charge much for something essential that falls from the sky. This means that consumers have little incentive to conserve it and investors have little incentive to build pipes and other infrastructure to bring it to where it is needed most. ... around a fifth of the world’s aquifers are over-exploited. This jeopardises future use by causing contamination. It also damages the layers of sand and clay that make up aquifers, thereby reducing their capacity to be replenished. ... People do not drink much water—only a few litres a day. But putting food on their tables requires floods of the stuff. Growing 1kg of wheat takes 1,250 litres of water; fattening a cow to produce the same weight of beef involves 12 times more. Overall, agriculture accounts for more than 70% of global freshwater withdrawals. ... estimated that agricultural production will have to rise by 60% to fill the world’s bellies. This will put water supplies under huge strain. ... Hydrologists expect that a warming climate will see the cycle of evaporation, condensation and precipitation speed up. ... There is no single solution for the world’s water crisis. But cutting back on use, improving the efficiency of that use and sharing out water more effectively would all help.
The mini-farm’s inventor, Ed Harwood, of Ithaca, New York, sold it to the school in 2010. Harwood is a sixty-six-year-old man of medium stature who speaks with the kind of rural accent that sometimes drops the last letters of words. He has been an associate professor at Cornell’s famous school of agriculture, and he began his career as an inventor by coming up with revolutionary improvements in the computer management of dairy cows, an animal he loves. ... After spending part of his youth and young adulthood working on his uncle’s dairy farm, he got degrees in microbiology, animal science, dairy science, and artificial intelligence, and applied his knowledge to the dairy industry. ... He first became interested in growing crops indoors in the two-thousand-aughts. Around 2003, his notebooks and diaries began to converge on ideas about how he could raise crops without soil, sunlight, or large amounts of water. ... Aeroponic farming uses about seventy per cent less water than hydroponic farming, which grows plants in water; hydroponic farming uses seventy per cent less water than regular farming. If crops can be raised without soil and with a much reduced weight of water, you can move their beds more easily and stack them high. ... Harwood solved the problem of the crop-growing medium by substituting cloth for soil. ... Agricultural runoff is the main cause of pollution in the oceans; vertical farms produce no runoff.
Already, the four companies that in 2015 provided 88 percent of the world’s lithium can’t keep up: Lithium contract prices have increased from $4,000 per metric ton in 2014 to as high as $20,000 today. ... That’s why a host of junior entrants are scrambling to get into the game. Whoever can figure out the extraction and chemistry required to get lithium out of the ground and into batteries stands to capture a significant share of the market. But as with any commodity, it’s a precarious business. ... Lithium can be mined from rocks, as in Australia and China, but in Clayton Valley and the lithium triangle it’s extracted from briny aquifers. ... The best hope new entrants have of catching Albemarle lies in a process being developed by Tenova SpA, an Italian engineering company. This method, which strips the lithium using an ion-exchange system and returns the water to the ground, would allow companies to skip evaporation ponds, slashing production time from months to hours while yielding a higher concentration of lithium.
Bangalore has a problem: It is running out of water, fast. Cities all over the world, from those in the American West to nearly every major Indian metropolis, have been struggling with drought and water deficits in recent years. But Bangalore is an extreme case. Last summer, a professor from the Indian Institute of Science declared that the city will be unlivable by 2020. He later backed off his prediction of the exact time of death—but even so, says P. N. Ravindra, an official at the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, “the projections are relatively correct. Our groundwater levels are approaching zero.” ... Every year since 2012, Bangalore has been hit by drought; last year Karnataka, of which Bangalore is the capital, received its lowest rainfall level in four decades. But the changing climate is not exclusively to blame for Bangalore’s water problems. The city’s growth, hustled along by its tech sector, made it ripe for crisis. ... Through the 2000s, Bangalore’s urban landscape expanded so quickly that the city had no time to extend its subcutaneous network of water pipes into the fastest-growing areas, like Whitefield. Layers of concrete and tarmac crept out across the city, stopping water from seeping into the ground. ... 44 percent of the city’s water supply either seeps out through aging pipes or gets siphoned away by thieves. ... Everywhere, the steep ascent of demand has caused a run on groundwater. Well owners drill deeper and deeper, chasing the water table downward as they all keep draining it further. The groundwater level has sunk from a depth of 150 or 200 feet to 1,000 feet or more in many places.
“Offering a washer and dryer in-unit is a trend we’re certainly seeing,” says Paula Munger, the director of industry research for the National Apartment Association. A recent survey by the industry group found the addition of washers and dryers to be one of the most common upgrades to apartments in recent years. ... That has posed a problem for laundromats. According to data from the Census Bureau, the number of laundry facilities in the U.S. has declined by almost 20 percent since 2005, with especially precipitous drops in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles (17 percent) and Chicago (23 percent). (While that data includes both laundromats and dry cleaners, laundromats account for the bulk of the drop.) In the disappearance of laundromats, a longtime staple of urban living, one can detect yet another way that cities have changed in response to an influx of higher-earning residents. ... Collectively earning $5 billion each year, as estimated by the Coin Laundry Association, the U.S.’s coin-operated laundromats are overwhelmingly mom-and-pop operations and share a tightly knit history with the American city. ... Laundromats’ margins are further thinning as the price of water and sewage services have risen across the country.