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Water crisis rocks LA, Mexico City; who's next?

By MARTIN SIEFF   |   April 10, 2009 at 11:12 AM
WASHINGTON, April 10 (UPI) -- Water, water hardly anywhere. Water crises are rocking two of the world's largest cities as Mexico City starts a 36-hour water cutoff and Los Angeles is in the midst of a water dearth.

The problem, however, is far wider than two of the most populous cities in the Western Hemisphere. Beijing, the capital of China, has a serious water shortage. The Israelis and the Palestinians are at loggerheads over control of the key aquifers west of the River Jordan that are vital to sustain both peoples. An unprecedented world population of 6.8 billion people -- more than three times that of 80 years ago -- and the inexorable reality of global climate change are guaranteed to make the long-term crisis worse.

The cutoff in Mexico affects about a quarter of the capital city's residents -- 5 million people. Mexico City instituted a five-month rationing plan in January with the Thursday-Friday cutoff this week deemed necessary to fix a leaky supply system and to ease -- somewhat -- a supply problem that began when the lakes that once flooded the city were drained 40 years ago.

The leaks problem is not small. Half of Mexico City's water supply is lost through lousy infrastructure alone -- primarily through leaking pipes.

The change in weather patterns over the North American continent has taken its toll too, just as it did in Los Angeles.

Mexico's National Water Commission said that the capital city's water supply system is at its lowest level -- less than 50 percent capacity after low rainfall totals last year and the leaky delivery system.

In Los Angeles, the City Council unanimously turned back a rationing plan Wednesday that had been put together by the city's Department of Water and Power, which is caught between the council and a statewide order from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to cut usage 20 percent.

If the city fails to take action, the agency that supplies the bulk of water to Los Angeles could impose rationing.

The plan the council voted down -- so it could be studied further -- would have mandated by June 1 much higher rates for water users who exceed a monthly limit, which itself would be lower than current water usage.

U.S. cities are going to be hugely vulnerable to water shortages within the next five to 10 years. There is a huge aquifer under several states in the Midwest. The aquifer, tapped primarily for agriculture, has been hugely depleted over the past couple of decades and is a future crisis waiting to happen.

Almost no one in the United States -- or anywhere else in the industrialized world -- takes the crisis seriously or realizes how directly it threatens them. About 70 percent of Earth is covered by deep oceans, but all the water in the oceans is heavily saline, with high quantities of salt that make it impossible to drink.

The unprecedented global population growth and the demands of industry and modern agriculture for gigantic amounts of water have depleted aquifers around the world. Nitrate fertilizer is universally used to maintain crop yields at levels that would have appeared magical a century ago. But nitrate fertilizer, based on an industrial process to "fix" nitrogen out of the atmosphere developed by German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch before World War I, seeps through soil to poison water tables everywhere and make them unusable.

The United States embarked on a binge of dam building to preserve water starting in the 1930s as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and continuing in the 1950s under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. But later presidents slashed funding. Under President George W. Bush and his four Congresses -- three Republican-controlled and one Democrat-controlled -- the problem got vastly worse.

On Thursday CNN cited a recent American Society of Civil Engineers report that concluded more than 1,800 U.S. dams are now in urgent need of reconstruction work and pose a significant risk of being breached. That is up from around only 360 dams at such risk in 2001.

Even the drowning of New Orleans in 2005 -- which came about after the Bush administration and recent Congresses neglected maintenance funding for the levees protecting the city -- did not translate into a wider wake-up call to protect and upgrade the national water-reservoir infrastructure.

The ASCE report concluded that it would take $8 billion to repair those 1,800 dams. But there are another 2,200 dams that also need maintenance work. The bill for repairing all 4,000 dams in all could come to almost $50 billion.

That sounds like a lot of money. But the current Democrat-controlled 111th Congress has just pushed through a gigantic $787 billion stimulus spending package, of which little more than $80 billion, or around 11 percent, was actually stimulus spending. So far, the current ruling Democrats in Congress have proved as ignorant and irresponsible about the need to repair dams and pipes and prioritize the U.S. water infrastructure as their Republican predecessors.

Repairing dams and leaky pipes is not sexy. It is not cutting-edge technology. It doesn't carry dreams of putting two or three American astronauts back on the moon or providing an astrodome defense against nuclear-armed missiles. It is only a matter of life and death for 300 million Americans.

The water shortages now hitting Los Angeles and Mexico City now "only" threaten around 40 million people. If the U.S. and Mexican governments don't get their acts together, the problem will only get far worse.

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