How Brand Journalists Cover A Sensitive Topic

Time magazine said that Bruce Babbitt said that the Wall Street Journal said that Mark Twain said, “When God created the American West, he provided plenty of whiskey to drink and just enough water to fight over.”

From the Summer 2015 issue of FarmLife: a look at water use.

From the Summer 2015 issue of FarmLife: a look at water use.

Well, apparently, everyone was wrong in attributing the aphorism to the ‘stached humorist, and I wasted hours of my precious time chasing that snipe and trying to confirm its source. But apocryphal or not, I’m guessing Mr. Twain would probably claim the quote these days, because 1) it rings true and 2) it’s especially topical these days.

Consider these recent headline-grabbing bits of news:


The three-year period between fall 2011 and fall 2014 was the driest since recordkeeping began in 1895. This drought in the Golden State—which produces 25% of U.S. food—was made worse by high temperatures, with 2014 setting a record. It’s predicted that 2015 could be even drier and just as hot.

Understandably, California residents and businesses are concerned. Cities and towns are being asked to reduce water consumption by 25% or more; industries that use what many claim as excessive amounts of water are being challenged by activists; and many of the latter are also pointing the finger at farmers, which use 80% of the state’s water and, at least in some cases, use it inefficiently.

To make up for the loss of precipitation, new wells have been drilled across the state, many of which have been dug deeper in order to find what’s left of the water. As a result, the depletion of groundwater continues to worsen. Yet, California is reportedly the only state without a framework for groundwater management, a fact that lead authors of a U.C. Davis study to call the situation in the Golden State “a slow-moving train wreck.”

Ogallala Aquifer

By 2060, the Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches from South Dakota to North Texas, is projected to be almost 70% depleted. One of the world’s largest underground sources of fresh water, it provides almost 30% of irrigated groundwater in the United States.

To help stem the draining of the aquifer, Kansas passed new laws to allow farmers to form groups that would set limits on irrigation. Reportedly, two years later, only one group has been formed and the aquifer continues to be siphoned off. Meanwhile, Texas is investing $2 billion in building reservoirs and other water-related infrastructure, and Nebraska proposed spending $2 million to study water usage.

Colorado River Basin

A study released last year by the American Geophysical Union showed that in the previous nine years the Colorado River Basin—which covers Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California—has lost about 65 cubic kilometers of fresh water, nearly double the volume of the country’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead. That figure surprised the study’s authors, who used data from a NASA weather satellite to investigate groundwater supplies. (For further context, consider that there’s 10.5 million cubic kilometers—2.6 million cubic miles—of fresh groundwater worldwide.)

The Wet East?

The problem is not exclusive to the American West and High Plains, however. While states like California and Kansas may be among the hardest hit at present, depletion is noteworthy in Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and the Lower Mississippi River region. Also, Houston, Tampa and Long Island have depleted water tables to the point that freshwater sources are now threatened by ocean-influenced saline groundwater.

Consider, too, the long-running dispute—a.k.a. the “Tri-State War”—pitting Georgia, Alabama and Florida against each other due to disputes over water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin. In simple terms, Georgia claims it needs more water than originally allowed to serve the growing Atlanta metro area, while the other two states say the depleted basin is affecting them downstream, especially the Apalachicola River oyster business on Florida’s Gulf Coast, which has suffered substantial losses in recent years due in large part to a lack of freshwater.

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