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The Problems with our Industrial Water System Today

Imagine that you´re in your home on a rainy afternoon. It has been raining for two days straight now and your front yard is full of puddles. The water is rushing along the drain ways on the side of the road and the local news is talking about the stress on the local sewer system that this extra rain is causing. When you turn on the faucet in your kitchen sink to wash up the dishes from lunch, however, the water that you use may very well be coming from hundreds of miles away in an area that may very well be experiencing a drought.

Our conventional, industrial water supply has very little connection to local watersheds or local ecosystems. Rather, the focus has been on taking water from areas where water is apparently abundant and moving it to areas with high population densities or areas where water is scarce. To do this, we depend on huge, energy dependent pumping systems that most likely depend on the continued availability of cheap fossil fuels to fuel these pumps.

A City in the Desert

Las Vegas, Nevada is the epitome of unsustainability (and lunacy) when it comes to water. Located in the middle of a desert where water is scarce, Las Vegas has depended on Lake Mead for its water. However, in recent years it has become apparent that the thirsty city of Las Vegas is pulling water out of Lake Mead faster than the natural inflows can replenish it. To solve this problem, the city of Las Vegas has begun purchasing rights to groundwater throughout the state hoping to assuage their water crisis by pumping water out of the ground and sending it hundreds of miles away to irrigate the many golf courses in Las Vegas and offer luxurious hot showers to the over 100,000 hotel rooms of the signature casinos of the city.

According to the British newspaper The Guardian, “Opponents of the pipeline say draining the desert of groundwater would destroy the livelihoods of the cattle ranchers, Native American tribes, and Mormon enterprises that call this expanse home, and reduce a vast swath of the state to a dust bowl.”

The Energetic Cost of Moving Water

The ancient Romans were master engineers and built a massive system of aqueducts to move water throughout the cities of their ancient empire. In difference from modern day empires, however, the Romans realized that this could be done by utilizing a free source of energy: gravity. By the third century A.D. Rome had built enough aqueducts to offer public water to a city of over a million people. Remarkably, many of those aqueducts built throughout the Roman Empire are still in use today.

Compare that to how water is moved in California. It is estimated that almost a fifth of all the electrical power used in California is used to move water throughout the state for residential, industrial and agricultural uses. Over thirty-five GWh of energy (mostly from unsustainable fossil fuel sources) were used to move water around the state. It is highly unlikely that any of these ways of moving water will still be in use 2,000 years from now.

The Draining of the Oglala Aquifer

As our industrial society discovered that fossil fuels allowed us to gain more control over how to source, move and use water, ground water became one of the main sources of water for millions of people. The Oglala Aquifer located underneath the Midwestern part of the United States is one of the world´s largest aquifers. During the last 80 years, however, it has been tapped as the main source for household water and agricultural irrigation in the Great Plains.

In some places such as the Texas Panhandle, the aquifer has essentially been completely drained. In other areas, the water level has dropped up to 400 feet in depth making it necessary to use more and more energy intensive methods to pump the water out. Rainwater is the only way for the Oglala to be replenished, but it is estimated that only one inch of precipitation reaches the Oglala annually.

The draining of the Oglala aquifer will also have drastic consequences for food production in the bread basket of the world in the foreseeable future. When water is no longer able to be pumped out of the Oglala to irrigate wheat and corn fields, production levels will drop and more severe droughts from climate change may ultimately lead to a crisis in the vastly unsustainable industrial food sector. The unsustainable use of water, then, has feedback loops that could eventually lead to a more system-wide catastrophe.

Rivers that No Longer Make it to the Sea

The Colorado River is an icon of the American Southwest, a symbol of fertility in an otherwise arid, desert-like region. It is also an important source of water for millions of people living in the region. After almost 6 million years of flowing into the sea in Northern Mexico´s Pacific Coast, in the early 1980´s, the river stopped short of its ultimate destination.

Hundreds of U.S. municipalities take water from the Colorado along with agricultural and industrial interests. The growing demand for water from the Colorado ultimately led to its drying up before reaching the sea. It is estimated that only 10% of the water that formally flowed from the Colorado now makes it into Mexican territory. Mexican farmers and ranchers are now forced to live without access to what was once a vital source of water for their livelihoods.

This struggle to be the first to extract water highlights how potential “water wars” will continue to be an issue in the future as communities and nations will fight to secure water sources around the world. Author Lester Brown warns that “peak oil has generated headlines in recent years, but the real threat to our future is peak water. There are substitutes for oil, but not for water. We can produce food without oil, but not without water.” As water continues to grow in scarcity, more and more conflicts are sure to arise.

All of these very serious issues point to the undeniable fact that our industrial ways of dealing with water will have to end if we are to be successful in creating a long standing sustainable civilization. Instead of concentrating human beings in deserts where water needs to be pumped in from hundreds of miles away, we need to urgently find ways to reconfigure our demographics so that more and more people can learn to live within the limits of their watershed.

Tobias Roberts

After working in the development industry for over a decade, Tobias decided it was time to stop advising Central American farmers how to do things if he didn´t have a piece of land to live coherently with what he taught. Together with his family he runs a small agro-forestry farm, tourism cooperative, and natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador.


  1. So much of what the human race does only makes sense until you take a step back and truly look at what’s going on. This is absolutely one of those mind-boggingly stupid things that we do.

    Even on my property, we live on top of natural cold springs that run underground. However, this summer I installed rainwater catchment systems. My family thinks I’m crazy.

    The reason why is firstly… I don’t know how long those cold springs will last, and secondly… why not? I can now open a small valve at the bottom of a tank and send water into a series of swales/dams and irrigate my entire property anytime the rains let up for a while (like the last few weeks). The other option of using the riverbed/coldstreams would mean that I take water during a time of drought when there is already pressure on this system due to the drought. It’s better to spread out the time of plenty, store it, and release it during the drought.

    The thought of my neighbours turning on their taps and getting their power pumped from the city out to the country – when they have water all around them – it makes absolutely no sense when you take a step back and look at what’s actually happening.

    The thing is, many people just turn on the tap and water comes out, and that’s good enough for them. They don’t stop to think about what’s actually happening to deliver that water to them.

    Great article.

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