All is woe in the water world — or is it? Circle of Blue reporter Brett Walton reflects on an extraordinary summer.
Under an ashen sky and by the light of a cold red sun, I read the reports:
Hottest June on record in the Pacific Northwest, home of Seattle, where I live and play. No rain to speak of either in the Emerald — now Golden — City. Less rain, in fact, than Phoenix in the last three months. Seattle’s water-supply condition downgraded from “good” to “fair” as water use climbed 28 percent compared to 2014.
Streams in Washington flow today with the same feeble force as in early September, the end of the dry season. Salmon and steelhead fry, stranded in shallow pools, are being rescued by watchful volunteers. Aquifers are being drained. The wilds of Alaska are being torched: some 652 wildfires have burned more than 1.4 million hectares (3.5 million acres) this year, a patch of land the size of Connecticut.
At this, I look up. Smoke from fires in British Columbia drifts above me. The putrid Seattle sky, more Beijing brown than the familiar Cascadian blue, is refracting the sunlight into an end-of-days glow. I close the laptop — enough reports for now.
The apocalyptic story is an easy sell. Novelists, filmmakers, and newspapers have peddled terror and doom from the earliest days of their trade. The penny dreadful. If it bleeds, it leads. Tales of woe on the environmental beat are rampant, especially today in the water field, when it seems as if farmers, cities, industries, and eco-warriors are waging a Mad Max battle for the final, precious drops.
Not so. At least, not in the extreme imagery. Yes, there are lawsuits. Plenty of lawsuits. There are deep divisions about what to do with the little water that still flows. Rivers: dam them, drain them, or refill them? Too much water is still polluted by industry, agriculture, and urban development. If you are looking for conflict, there is no shortage of dark alleys.
But other stories need telling, too — the stories where the fight did not happen, where the water was shared. Take Idaho, for example. Last week, irrigators reached a voluntary agreement to reduce the amount of water pumped from the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, an essential resource for agriculture, but one that is being depleted. Well owners will cut water use by roughly 11 percent over the next 11 years to meet the goal of reversing the aquifer’s decline. Also last week, I reported on how Indian tribes in the Colorado River Basin are dealmakers who are helping to meet water demands in the Phoenix area through leases and by storing water underground. Closer to home, the Skagit Public Utility District, in northern Washington, sent water to farmers whose crops were at risk of drying out, the first time the utility had done so.
The list of such collaborations is long. It spans countries and continents. But more resolve to cooperate will certainly be necessary in the years ahead. The old ways are changing. The planet, like a snake growing stronger, is shedding its accustomed skin and morphing into a new being. Storms are more powerful. Droughts are more severe. Floods come quickly and rise higher than before. Our cities, power grids, coastal metropolises, and water systems were not built for this new, supercharged Earth.
A hotter, drier world is a more violent world — several studies have shown this. The potential for conflict will increase as the planet warms. But so will the opportunity for collaboration.
What stories of water cooperation do you see? Where is the fight not happening? Contact Brett Walton or via Twitter at @waltonwater.
–Brett Walton, reporter
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton