Author, journalist Susan Marks discusses U.S. water crisis

What impact does the United States' energy production have on water supplies? What can the federal government do to help solve water supply issues? During today's OnPoint, Susan Marks, author of the new book "Aqua Shock: The Water Crisis in America," explains how energy demand and water supply issues intersect. She discusses local and federal action to minimize water supply issues. Marks also explains how expanding the production of alternatives and renewables will affect the nation's water supply.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Susan Marks, author of the new book "Aqua Shock: The Water Crisis in America." Susan, thanks for coming on the show.

Susan Marks: Thank you for inviting me.

Monica Trauzzi: Susan, we're facing a global crisis over many of our basic resources, including energy and water, and you focus on water in your new book, but the two issues do intersect in pretty dramatic ways. What impact does our energy production have on the overall water crisis and our water use?

Susan Marks: Well, sometimes we don't realize just how broad water is in our lives. Water involves everything. We couldn't produce energy without water. Every day the United States alone uses more than 400 billion gallons of water, about half of that for energy production and it's not just hydroelectric power, that's to deliver the water, to clean the water, to transport the water, electricity requires water. People just do not realize how far-reaching water is.

Monica Trauzzi: Well, there's a lot of talk now about switching to alternatives, renewables. Is there any hope that by switching to these other forms of energy that less water will be used in their production?

Susan Marks: Well, I laugh when you say alternative energies, because one of the problems is among the alternative energies people talk about oil shale. It just so happens that the oil shale extraction and production process is a tremendously water intensive process. And where are the primary deposits of oil shale, in arid places like Colorado where they already have tremendous water issues. So, alternative energy, will that make a difference in our water supplies? I can't really tell you. I'm not a scientist. I don't know, but people just often don't realize the extent the water reaches in our lives. I mean we all have to have water to live. All human beings have to have water to live, plus every other living thing on this planet requires water. So we're facing a pretty contentious crisis in the future.

Monica Trauzzi: In your book you talk about water gods and these are the individuals who are responsible for controlling the rights to water in the U.S. What are the potential problems that could arise by having these people in charge of this resource?

Susan Marks: Many of the people are sort of by default in charge of this resource. You know, they're a person on a water board. Some people told me that the water god in their state is the head of the particular water district or whatever. So, these are people that just kind of by default control the water. There are people that have bought up lots of water. In the West, we're getting it to something here that I'll briefly touch on, water law which is incredibly divisive, confusing and convoluted at best. And these are the people that own the rights to the water. Most of the West utilizes something called prior appropriation as the way they disperse the water and that's where people are given the right. They purchase or they are awarded the right to use a particular amount of the water. Some people have bought up land simply for the water rights, so they control the rights to it. In some places in the West, where prior appropriation is king, the irony of it all today is you can't put a rain barrel out to catch the water because that's against the law, because actually the water coming out of the sky belongs to someone else. Someone else has bought and paid for it, so you're really stealing their property. I mean it sounds crazy to us today, but when prior appropriation first came about it was a way to encourage the development of the then undeveloped West. And in doing so with this prior appropriation, which is based on the first person to put a certain amount of water to a full beneficial use, first in time, first in right. They have a more senior right to the water than someone else. But it came about to develop the West because people had to invest time and money and effort in worthless land, at the time it was considered worthless land. This ensured them that there would be a certain amount of water to water their crops, to provide water for their livestock and things like that, so it's not quite as far-fetched. It seems like it's a little outdated today, but it wasn't back then.

Monica Trauzzi: So, it sounds like this issue really comes down to the local and regional level, but is enough recognition happening on the local level but also on the federal level? I mean what does the federal government need to do here?

Susan Marks: I had a number of people tell me that if you want to make health care look like a tea party mention taking control of the water nationally, in other words a national water czar. Water is personal, water is local, water is regional, water is statewide. Everybody has a different idea, a different approach, a different issue, a different concern. Water is the most personal issue we have and we all need water to live. Taking water at the federal level, people that don't have water don't want to lose control of the water that they don't have and people that have control of the water don't want to give up that control. So, you know, President Obama has appointed a number of water experts to his administration, first and foremost of course Ken Salazar, but he's also brought in well-known western water attorneys. One that comes to mind immediately is Anne Castle from Denver. She was tapped as a deputy administrator in the EPA. You know, no one really knows and maybe President Obama doesn't really know how far he can push to get water to the national level. In countries like Israel where water is very dear, it's water control on the national level, but whether or not you can get it to the national level here in United States, that's a much different problem.

Monica Trauzzi: But what about the national/international issues that could arise? I mean if there are certain countries that have a greater supply of water are we going to find ourselves in a place where some countries are at an advantage because they're going to be able to sell water like oil is sold today?

Susan Marks: Well, first of all, a lot of people don't realize this that there's a national laboratory, Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, actually studies water as an issue of national security because there are more than 250 transnational boundaries involving water and there are hundreds and hundreds of treaties that have been signed and sealed that actually control the use of that water. So it's a national security issue, so obviously they think it's going to be an issue. You know, there's already fighting. I mean you go to someplace like Africa, Lake Chad, which tens of millions of people count on Lake Chad for their primary water supply for their livelihood also. Thirty-five years ago Lake Chad was the size of our Lake Erie. Today it's 1/20 the size. And history tells us that civilizations fall apart, anarchy ensues and civilizations fall apart and disappear because of water. You have the southwestern United States, Central America, South America. Droughts are directly related to conflicts and disappearance of civilization.

Monica Trauzzi: Final question here. The title of one of your chapters is "Can Our Water Be Saved?" So, can it and do we risk reaching a certain point where we've done too much damage and we can't turn back?

Susan Marks: Can our water be saved? I can't answer that question. I think it's up to us. I believe that we, as people that live on this planet, have to recognize that we have a finite amount of what has always been a renewable resource. We have polluted it, both natural and man-made. There are many natural pollutants like radon, radium, selenium, arsenic. There are many things that pollute it naturally, but we've overused or water. We've polluted our water. We've built our cities that build up and pave over the Earth's natural ability to replenish itself. That's the way we develop land. Our infrastructure is crumbling. We haven't even gotten to and don't really have time to get into that, but our infrastructure is pummeling. There are 700,000 miles of pipes that crisscross underneath the surface of the United States alone and most of that is falling apart. The water mains keep breaking, we all hear that, and until we get that infrastructure replaced the more water main breaks we're going to have. And then on top of that, we have water treatment plants that have been built to handle 20th-century pollutants, not 21st-century pollutants. So I mean we're facing a real crisis here. But then of course everything is not gloom and doom because one of the big aspects of solving a problem is first realizing that the problem exists. And people like you, this station, and organizations, I mean google water shortage and the United States and even the world and there are many, many organizations, individuals, groups, governments that are taking steps to look at the water. But there is no one silver bullet to solve the water crisis.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we'll end it right there. I thank you for coming on the show.

Susan Marks: Thank you so much for having me, I appreciate it.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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