Water, water everywhere, but not enough below

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

It makes up about 71 percent of the earth’s surface and about 60 percent of the adult human body. All our lives, it’s been available in abundance, particularly in Arkansas, and it still is, but we’ll have to change the way we obtain it. And it won’t be cheap to make that change.

I’m talking, of course, about water. Arkansas consumes about 11 billion gallons a day – enough, over a year’s time, to cover every inch of the state 4.2 inches deep.

Eighty percent of that amount is used for agricultural irrigation, according to a draft of the Arkansas Water Plan 2014 Update. Updates are completed every couple of decades by the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission.

The report ranks thermoelectric power second in water use, at 11 percent. Drinking water makes up only 3.5 percent. According to Ed Swaim, the commission’s water resources division manager, almost as much water is used for flooding fields for duck hunting (a yearly average of 259.2 million gallons a day) as is used in all manufacturing (291 million gallons a day, and dropping).

About 71 percent of Arkansas’ water comes from underground, and that’s a problem, because we’re using up groundwater far faster than the water cycle can replenish it. Currently, about 8.7 million acre-feet per year are being pumped, but the water can only be replenished at a rate of 1.9 million acre-feet a year, Swaim says.

That means water tables are falling, fast, and have been for a long time. Farmers are drilling their wells deeper and deeper to get the same water.

Unlike some states, Arkansas can solve this problem fairly easily. Conservation measures will help some. More importantly, the state is covered with rivers, lakes and streams. We have so much surface water that, according to the Water Plan, the state can meet its needs by simply diverting surface water for crop irrigation. The Water Plan says we have enough to do this without detracting from water-bound transportation or harming fish and wildlife – an assertion with which not everyone will agree. Arkansas can meet its needs without even touching the mighty Mississippi River, which would be a headache because that river borders other states.

The Water Plan estimates it would cost between $3.4 billion and $7.8 billion to do this, which would come from a variety of government funding sources and user fees. In other words, the farmers would pay for part of it, and then pass on the costs to consumers. Arkansas’ annual agricultural production is valued at $9.7 billion, according to the plan. Without water, it would be a lot less.

In his book “The Seven Lamps of Architecture,” the English critic John Ruskin wrote, “Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, ‘See! this our fathers did for us.’”

The quote is displayed on a placard on the second floor of the Arkansas State Capitol – a building still as sturdy as when it was completed a century ago.

Not to be too negative here, but we don’t talk much about building for forever these days. Today’s thinking is more about making the monthly payment on the 15-year and 30-year bank note. On a larger scale, problems aren’t solved so much as patched temporarily. Much of our political system, and indeed our economy, is based on buying time – until the next election or the next harvest or the next quarterly report.

In this case, Arkansas has a growing threat to its economy and way of life – current and especially future. For a while, farmers can keep just drilling deeper. But at some point, the wells will go dry.

So we’ve got a problem, and we’ve got a solution – an expensive one. But what choice is there? There’s plenty of water around us, and not enough beneath us.

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