U.S. News


Water as a U.S. National Security Challenge

Water is rapidly becoming a national security issue for many countries in the world, and the United States is no exception. Climate change and population growth in the United States will stress the ability of the United States to continue its role as the “breadbasket of the world” and has the potential to undermine the United States economy, as well as threaten the national security of the United States. A new study in the AGU journal (Earth’s Future) paints a bleak picture for the viability of current U.S. croplands, and regardless of the reason for the coming time of drought, it is imperative for the United States to get ahead of the curve on the issue of drought, and begin to plan now in order to confront this coming crisis.

Thomas C. Brown, the lead author of Earth’s Future and a member of the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station in Colorado, states that the “study not only provides a best guess of future water supply and demand but also looks at what we can do to lessen projected shortages.” In the past, the United States was able to adapt to changing water conditions by the use of reservoirs and the construction of canals, tunnels, and pipelines. However, the construction of these water conveyances peaked in the 1960s and have declined since then. It is estimated that in 2018 farm losses were between $10 to $14 billion due to drought.

How drought in the United States is affecting agriculture in the United States.

California, which produces more than 13 percent of crops in the United States, with a value of $50 billion, has faced increasing challenges in finding enough water to grow its crops. When faced with water restrictions because of drought, the farmers in California have resorted to digging ever deeper wells, which has caused the groundwater reservoirs to drop leading to worries that eventually the groundwater will run out.

Compounding the issue of water availability for California and the farming regions in the Southwest part of the United States, is the Colorado River Basin and the 1922 Colorado River Compact also known as the “Law of the River.”

When the 1922 water sharing agreement was signed, it was estimated that there was an annual flow of water of 15 million-acre feet of water in the Colorado River. However, this figure is wrong. “On a good year, the flow of water in the Colorado River is between 12 million to 15 million-acre feet of water. With the upper basin states of Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico allowed 7.5 million acre-feet, an additional 1.5 million acre-feet allotted to Mexico in a 1944 treaty, the amount of loss of water due to evaporation at 1.2 million acre-feet, and the 7.5 million acre-feet allocated to the lower basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada, even in a good year there is a loss of water of at least 2.7 million acre-feet from the Colorado River every year.

And this is in a good year. This water loss does not take into account the amount of water lost to plant life along the river itself. Lake Mead was constructed in 1936 and is capable of holding 26.12 million acre-feet of water. The reservoir provides water sustenance to nearly 40 million people and large areas of farmland. The lake has been below capacity since 1983 due to drought and increased water consumption. It is currently under 40 percent capacity. The current water-sharing agreement is not sustainable. It is estimated that in 2020 the first-ever emergency declaration will be issued as regards to the amount of water available for consumption. With less water available and rationing increasingly likely, negotiations are ongoing as to how the reduced amount of water available will be distributed. This will dramatically affect the ability of these states to grow crops not to mention the availability of water for human consumption, and the estimated economic fallout has yet to be measured.

The Midwest farm regions in the United States while experiencing less drought, are also facing serious flooding because of increased precipitation in farmlands, which is affecting the ability of farmers in the Midwest to plant and harvest crops. During drought conditions, river barge traffic is at times suspended as the rivers are too shallow for the barges to use. This increases the cost to farmers trying to get their crops to domestic and overseas markets. But the greatest threat to the viability of the high plains of the Midwest is the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer.

Ogallala Aquifer

The Ogallala Aquifer is a shallow water table aquifer that is one of the largest in the world and lies underneath the eight states which are considered the breadbasket of the United States. South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas are all part of the Ogallala Aquifer system. An aquifer is a groundwater storage reservoir in the water cycle. This cycle has been shifted away from natural replenishment because of the increased amount of extraction of freshwater immediately after World War Two. This is primarily due to center pivot irrigation and the use of automotive engines to extract water from underwater wells. Some 27 percent of the irrigated farmlands in the United States lies over the Ogallala Aquifer and measures some 174,000 square miles. The aquifer furnishes water to farmland that produces over $20 billion worth of crops, and the water is running out.

The water in the Ogallala Aquifer had been accumulating for over 15,000 years but it has been seriously depleted only in the last 60 years. While there has been increased precipitation in the High Plains in the last several years, the aquifer continues to decline, and the end of easily accessible water is rapidly coming to an end. Replenishing the water in the aquifer by normal means of precipitation according to the experts would take thousands of years.

Desalination Plants May Be the Answer

Desalination is defined as a process that takes away mineral components from saline water. Saltwater is desalinated in order to produce water that is potable for human consumption and for the use in watering crops and growing food. Another word for desalination is “de-sal.”

Worldwide, the estimate for de-sal plants range from 15,000 to 20,000 with more being added every year. The largest user of de-sal plants in the world is Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia produces 20 percent of its freshwater from de-sal plants. The de-sal process consumes a great deal of energy, and with its cheap source of fossil fuel energy, it is cost-effective for Saudi Arabia to use oil as a means of powering its de-sal plants.

Israel has the largest de-sal plants in the world. With Israel in an existential water crisis since 2005, Israel began constructing de-sal plants in order to water its crops and to provide drinking water to its citizens. Today, 80 percent of Israel’s potable water comes from de-sal plants. A new plant under construction in Israel will raise that percentage to 85 percent. Eventually, if Israel continues to build de-sal plants, it will be able to export water to its neighbors if it chooses to do so.

The newest example of de-sal policies can be found at the de-sal plant in San Diego. The Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad de-sal plant began operations in 2015. The de-sal plant processes 50 million gallons of potable water on a daily basis. California currently has 11 de-sal plants in operation today with another 14 planned for construction. There are currently 86 de-sal plants in the United States.

The technology currently exists in the United States to begin constructing de-sal plants whose output would be destined for the High Plains of the United States and the Ogallala Aquifer. The issue for the United States is more of a national security issue than anything else. With a steady source of water, the High Plains could continue to be the breadbasket of the country and of the world. By keeping the High Plains supplied with potable water, the ability of the United States to feed itself would be assured.

The use of desalination to provide water for not only the Midwest and California would require a steady and impressive source of energy to power the de-sal plants. The use of nuclear power plants would seem to be a logical means of producing energy. While nuclear power has its own drawbacks, the best reason for using nuclear power would be that it does not emit carbon and so would not add to the increasing amounts of carbon particulates that are affecting the climate worldwide. Admittedly there would be a need to be able to store nuclear waste, but that is an issue that can be addressed at a future time.

Another issue for de-sal plants is the left-over briny water after seawater has been processed into potable water. A possible solution to this issue is to mine the briny water to harvest lithium which could be used to make lithium batteries. The demand for lithium for the construction of various materials is expected to grow from 184,000 TPA to over 540,000 TPA by 2025. By using briny water to harvest lithium, the cost of de-sal plants would be reduced assuming a continued demand for lithium.