With apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
People, people, everywhere, nor enough drops for them to drink.
No, South Carolina hasn’t run out of freshwater for drinking, showering, farming, gardening and the zany antics of water gunning — yet.
However, this week’s fatal flooding in Texas hasn’t washed away this dreaded, dehydrated reality: Much of the U.S. west of the Mississippi faces a severe, long-term water shortage.
California’s extended drought has forced especially extreme measures while draining the illusion that our American land of plenty will always have plenty of water.
The current issue of The New Yorker further evaporates that naive notion with “Where the River Runs Dry: The Colorado and America’s Water Crisis.”
“Reporter at large” David Owen writes that the Colorado River “supplies water to approximately 36 million people, including residents not just of Boulder and Denver but also of Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego and Los Angeles, several of which are hundreds of miles from its banks. It irrigates close to six million acres of farmland, much of which it also created, through eons of silt deposition. It powers the hydroelectric plants and the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, is the principal source for the country’s two biggest man-made reservoirs, and supports recreational activities that are said to be worth $26 billion a year.”
But the Colorado River system is drying up — or is that out? More from Owen, who’s written a lot (including books) about golf, which consumes considerable water for its courses, including in deserts:
“In December, two representatives of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimated that the system now has an average ‘structural deficit’ of 1.2 million acre-feet a year.”
Pointing out that Lake Mead and Lake Powell “have acted like lower-basin credit cards” for the system, Owen draws this dwindling bottom line:
“In 1998, both lakes were essentially full and, between them, stored more than 50 million acre-feet of water — roughly two and a half years’ worth of the river’s average total flow. Today, they contain less than half that much.”
Our S.C. water supply is more reliable.
Then again, how much more — and for how long?
Post and Courier colleague Bo Petersen, citing the second straight year of a harrowing ranking from the nonprofit conservation group American Rivers, reported last month:
“Surface water withdrawal must be regulated tighter in South Carolina to keep large-scale users like agribusiness from parching the supply for everyone else. That’s what the Edisto’s designation as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the United States is all about.”
And agribusiness clout is what the failure of this legislative session’s effort to tighten regulations on the use of water from the Edisto and other S.C. rivers was all about.
Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, the bill’s sponsor, told me Friday that the S.C. Farm Bureau’s decision to oppose it was “not in the best interests of South Carolina farmers.” He pointed out that a farmer from out of state can move in upriver without a permit “and suck up the water that the indigenous farmer and his family have been using for generations.”
Meanwhile, farmers aren’t the only folks sucking up water in our state, where the population has nearly doubled — from 2.5 million to 4.8 million — in the last half century. During that same period, humanity’s ranks have also surged in our nation (194 million to 320 million) and world (3.3 billion to 7.2 billion).
Though our species is dangerously divided on many matters, we all share a need for water.
As for where we will soon have to get it, CNN reported Thursday that making the undrinkable drinkable is an expanding enterprise. For instance: “In Florida, a desalination plant in Tampa Bay transforms seawater into as much as 25 million gallons of freshwater daily.”
Desalination isn’t cheap.
And as the cinema repeatedly shows, oil isn’t the only fluid over which wars are fought.
Private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) warns in 1974’s “Chinatown” (script by Robert Towne), set in 1937 Los Angeles: “Gonna be a lot of irate citizens when they find out that they’re paying for water that they’re not gonna get.”
In 1958’s “The Big Country” (script by Robert Wilder), rough-hewn rancher Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives, who won a supporting actor Oscar in the role) tells “gentleman” Maj. Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford) that while he’s “not here complaining that you’re trying to buy the Big Muddy, to keep my cows from water ... the next time you come a busting and blazing into my place, scaring the kids and the women folks, when you invade my home, like you was the law or God Almighty, then I say to you, I’ve seen every kind of critter God ever made, and I ain’t never seen a more meaner, lower, pitiful, yellow, stinking hypocrite than you!”
And before defending your water rights, remember:
Water guns don’t soak people. People soak people.
Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is email@example.com.