Water, Water, Everywhere…

When I first joined the faculty of what is now the O’Neil School of Public and Environmental Affairs, I was fortunate to have my friend Bill Blomquist (then a political science professor, later Dean of Liberal Arts) as an informal academic mentor. Joining the faculty meant–among many other new things–formulating a research agenda, and my lack of understanding of what that entailed might best be conveyed by a brief anecdote: the dean who hired me had noted that I would need to do a lot of reading to keep up in my field. I went home and asked my husband “what do you suppose my field is?” (I still don’t have one.)

Bill helped me sort out a number of academic conventions that I found confusing and/or daunting. During our discussions, I asked him about his own research agenda, and he told me he researched water.


Bill explained that water–or more accurately, its scarcity– was becoming increasingly political, especially in the West, where there were competing claims to water from the Colorado River. That discussion took place nearly 30 years ago, and as usual, Bill saw the future a lot more clearly than I did.

I thought about my original reaction to the notion of centering one’s research on water rights when I came across an article from Medium on the subject of “water wars.” The lede tells the tale:

Myriad stories have been written about the fight over water rights in the West, especially after 20+ years of a megadrought. The Colorado River Compact was written 101 years ago and no longer applies to today’s environmental conditions.

However, there’s a new area where water is running short: the Midwest.

From Minnesota to Missouri and Iowa to Indiana, the market is quickly identifying water as the most precious resource it always has been.

it turns out that some 50% of the Midwest is technically in drought right now. According to the article, 94% of Iowa is currently in drought, with 24% in extreme drought. And drought is still impacting 68% of Wisconsin and 58% of Minnesota. The report says that the small city of Caney, Kansas will have zero water by next March 1st without decent rain.

All this might be surprising since we’re in the middle of November, but you need to remember that warming temperatures extend the growing season, which increases the amount of water that needs to be used for irrigation. This is just one example of the cascading effects of climate change.

We’re seeing those same effects up and down the Midwest and Plains states, as the Mississippi River is at historically low levels, which translates to smaller loads in the barges that transport much of the country’s grain.

As of Sept. 18, between Cairo, Illinois, and the Gulf of Mexico, average loading drafts for barges are down 24% and average tow sizes are down 17–38%.

Combined, this means more barges will be needed to move the same quantity of products and more boats will be needed…

Water wars are no longer confined to the American West, and we are seeing one emerge right here in Indiana, where a proposed industrial park in Lebanon, Indiana, wants to divert 100 million gallons of water from Tippecanoe County every single day. Boone County, where Lebanon is located, doesn’t have enough water to meet the needs of the kinds of manufacturers Lebanon hopes to attract.

The proposal calls for water to be drawn from the Alluvial Aquifer in Tippecanoe County. That aquifer is not directly connected to the aquifer that both West Lafayette and Lafayette draw from but experts say it is unclear whether the two aquifers could impact one another.

For obvious reasons, residents of Lafayette have reservations. A well-attended forum addressing the issue was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Greater Lafayette; at the Tippecanoe County Fairground during a question and answer period, experts participating on the panel were asked if the pipeline valve to Lebanon would be closed if there was a drought event impacting Tippecanoe County. The question was met with applause from the crowd.

Water can clearly be political…

A United Nations publication on the effects of climate change on the supply of potable water includes the following paragraph:

Only 0.5 per cent of water on Earth is useable and available freshwater – and climate change is dangerously affecting that supply. Over the past twenty years, terrestrial water storage – including soil moisture, snow and ice – has dropped at a rate of 1 cm per year, with major ramifications for water security.

Remember the sailor’s lament from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge?  “Water everywhere, but not a drop to drink…..”