Water: How Fast Can We Waste It?

JOHN ROBBINS spent his boyhood on the shores of Lake Erie; and on his recent return to Cuyahoga County after two years in Asia and the Middle East as an Ogden Reid Fellow, he was amazed to see what the Great Lakes industrial boom was doing to his ancestral country. There were demands all along the line for more and more water. The change he observed in his home country, which is rich in water, set him to thinking about the more drastic changes ahead in those areas where water is even now at a premium.



A YALE UNIVERSITY study published in 1939 indicated that the minimum daily ration of water necessary for an individual was 20 gallons. It allotted one gallon for drinking, six for laundry, five for personal cleanliness (but without tub or shower), and eight for the toilet. Even if the individual takes an occasional 25-gallon bath in the tub, or a five-gallon-per-minute shower, he isn’t likely to build up a total for personal use of more than 50 gallons a day. But all this is pure theory. The amount of water which an American is actually using in 1957 is something over 1500 gallons a day.

Most of the 1500 gallons is essential in the cultivation of the food he eats and in the manufacture of nearly every article he uses in his daily life. The production of a slice of bread, including the growing of the wheat, has boon estimated to require 37.5 gallons of water. A steer, in order to create each pound of beef, must consume something like 4000 gallons, not so much from its drinking trough as from its past u reland.

Each ton of steel, in being produced, requires 40.000 gallons of water, or 160 t imes its own weight. Ten gallons of water are employed to refine one gallon of gasoline. The brewing of a gallon of beer takes eight gallons of water in addition to what actually finds its way into the bottles.

At an educated guess, we as a nation are now using around 275 billion gallons of water a day. Less than 10 per cent of the total is for domestic purposes, either through municipal water systems or from rural wells. More than a third, around 100 billion gallons a day, is necessary for irrigation. The rest, well over half, goes for the needs of industry.

There is nothing inherently alarming about the magnitude of these figures. America is well blessed with water resources. The average rainfall over the surface of the United States is 30 inches. About 70 per cent of this returns to the atmosphere by evaporating or by the transpiration of leaves. The equivalent of eight inches remains to flow through the streams and rivers to the ocean, or to soak into the ground, where it forms deposits in the porous subterranean formations. This annual increment to our surface water and our ground water is four times the amount of water we use in a year.

The disturbing aspects in all this are not generally appreciated. The first is the unequal distribution of our water resources. The second is the tremendous growth of our water usage, particularly by industry. The third is the possibility that a long-range change in the climate is going to dry up parts of the country that are already on a marginal basis. Taken together they add up to an almost inevitable conclusion: water is going to play an increasingly important role in determining the economic geography of the United States.

The uneven way in which nature has distributed our water resources must be obvious to anyone who has traveled any distance around the country. We have our deserts and we have our swamps and rain forests. In between we have a full range of climatological conditions, from Maine with 40 inches of rainfall annually, only 15 of which evaporate, to Arizona with 14 inches, 13.3 of which evaporate. The 17 westernmost states - North Dakota to Texas and westward — average less than four inches of water yield or runoff after evaporation a year. The 31 eastern states average 16 inches. Within the western states there is another general division. Eastern Texas, northern California, and the Northwest are generally well watered. But half the area of the 17 states, constituting a third of the territory of the United States, has a natural water yield of less than one inch.

In many parts of the country the water table, the top level of the underground storage water, is falling. In most of these areas it isn’t a case of drought but of overuse. In Milwaukee, for instance, when a large brewery recently began pumping at high volume from a big new well, water levels of another manufacturing plant seven miles away dropped 75 feet within a few hours. The spring water has sunk so deep in the city that the great breweries may have to switch to Lake Michigan front the wells that helped make their beer famous. Outside Phoenix, Arizona, Goodyear established a farm 35 years ago to grow high-grade cotton. Originally the irrigation water was brought a mere 20 feet to the surface by small pumps. With every passing decade the water table has dropped, and the pumps have had to be replaced with more powerful models. The lift is now more than 100 feet, and the table is still sinking.

The same pattern has been repeated in hundreds of other localities. Geologists have traced water in rare instances to limestone formations as deep as a mile belowground. The pumps to lift it more than 600 feet, however, are so expensive as to make the use of the water uneconomic.

A half century of growth in water usage was spelled out by the President’s Materials Policy Commission (the Paley Commission) in 1952. In 1900, according to its estimate, we withdrew from our streams and wells about 500 to 600 gallons a day per capita. By 1950 our population had doubled, and so had our per capita use, quadrupling our total usage. As it did with other natural resources, the Paley Commission projected its estimates of water use forward to 1975 and predicted that it would nearly double again in the 25 years.

It already appears that the Commission underestimated the rate of growth. A second Hoover Commission study based on 1955 figures reported that in the five years since 1950 water use had soared from 185 billion gallons a day to 262 billion, almost halfway to the Paley Commission’s 1975 estimate of 350 billion. Admiral Ben Moreell, chairman of the Hoover Commission task force on federal policy toward water resources, made a new stab at a 1975 figure — 453 billion gallons a day. In other words, less than 20 years from now our demand for water is likely to exceed our available supply by more than 25 per cent.

It is interesting to analyze where this growth is occurring. It isn’t in personal use, although an increase in suburban law n watering is putting a strain on some municipal systems. It isn’t in irrigation. The lands most easily and economically irrigated have long since been utilized. Any suitable land left to be irrigated would require a large capital investment for a relatively small rate of profit. The application of irrigation to land is, in fact, a classic example of the law of diminishing returns.

The increase, then, is concentrated in the need of industry for cold, clear water - cold because 75 per cent of the water employed by industry is used for cooling; clear because dirt, minerals, and salts clog up pipes, form deposits on boilers, corrode equipment, and generally raise hob.

The amount of water required by industry is staggering. Steam generators of electric power alone use 40 billion gallons a day for their boilers and for cooling their condenser coils. The steel industry last year used a total of five trillion gallons, and petroleum refining another two and a half trillion. Between Buffalo and Cleveland along the south shore of Lake Erie, power plants and chemical works built just in the past eight years use more water than the combined municipal water systems of both those cities.

New types of industries increase the use of water still further. Prime examples are the new synthetics plants. Rayon, nylon, and the miracle fabrics, for instance, need far more water than the cotton and wool they replace, and the manufacture of synthetic rubber needs American water instead of the rainfall in the jungles of Malaya.

I alike irrigation water, which either evaporates or soaks into the soil, most industrial water is returned to its source or to the surface. It may or may not have been polluted by its use. It has certainly been heated. A big industrial plant, therefore, needs a big body of water so that the water temperature won’t be raised beyond the point of efficiency.

Water has always been a factor in the selection of factory sites, either as a source of power or as a means of cheap transportation. Today it is a prime factor. The areas of the country with assured water supplies are enjoying the fruits of the economic boom. The shores of the Great Lakes, the banks of the Ohio River, and the borders of Lake Pontchart rain, for example, are sprouting with new power and chemical plants, and prosperous industrial complexes are building up around them.

This is not to say that even a heavy industry cannot settle in a water-short area in order to take advantage of some part icular situation in relation to raw materials, labor supply, or markets. But it must pay the price. Any lack of water is reflected in increased costs for washing or cooling equipment. Kaiser Steel chose to settle in Fontana, California, for instance, knowing it would have to install a recirculating system able to use partially treated municipal sewage as a coolant. Even so, Kaiser can compete in West Coast markets with water-cooled eastern steel mills because of its lower transportation costs.


THE prospects of the water-short areas, and especially of the Southwest, are complicated by the possibility that the North American continent is growing warmer and drier. Weather records indicate that most parts of the northern United States during the past half century have warmed up by two to three degrees. As to just what this means, there is wide disagreement. Some scientists think we have reached a “climatic optimum,” and that the climate is about to reverse itself and start growing cooler. They suspect that the spring rains which flooded Texas this year and which, at least for the moment, have broken the five-year-old drought in the Southwest are the signal that a change has occurred. A second school, more noncommittal, talks only in terms of short weather cycles of seven years or so. A third group is convinced that the warmingup process is still under way.

A leader of the group predict ing a 50-year coldand-damp spell is Hurd C. Willett, professor of meteorology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He bases his reasoning on t he sun-spot count. The U.S. Weather Bureau, led by Harry Wexler, chief of the scientific services division, takes the more cautious stand that long-range predictions are dangerous, and that the warming trend and the drought in the Southwest represent short-term cycles. A proponent of the warm-dry thesis is Paul Sears, head of the conservation department at Yale, whose studies have shown how changes in the glaciers affected the culture of the corn-eating “mound dwellers” by altering the rainfall pattern of the mid-continent.

In its report to Congress two years ago, the National Science Foundation noted: “Glacier studies have given clear indications that we are now in a cycle of warming which began about 1900. It is estimated that if the indicated warming continues for another 25 to 50 years, the ice will melt out of the Arctic Ocean in the summer, making it navigable. In addition, the warming cycle, if continued, may melt enough ice now tied up in glaciers to add to the sea level sufficiently to affect the lives of millions of people living along low coastal lands.” Our shores may get plenty of water — all salt!

If America proves to be really drying up, the Southwest will be the first area faced with tragedy. Fven to a greater extent than during the dust-bowl days of the thirties, families will be forced to leave their homes. The great investment in irrigation facilities, much of it subsidized by the taxpayers of other parts of the country, will be wasted. Even if the drought is broken and a damp wave is about to begin, the water capacity of the Southwest won’t be able to keep up with the national expansion of water use. The attorneys of the American Bar Association who found the tap water at their Dallas meeting place last summer so salty that it ruined the taste of their whiskey aren’t likely to advise industrial clients to expand into such a chancy area.

What is a sensible program for a country facing a tremendous increase in the load on a stable or declining water supply? A tempting suggestion is to recommend an all-out study by our scientists of how we can control the long-range climate or the short-range weather. Let them figure out, as an East Coast newspaperman urged this spring, how to provide gentle rainstorms every Tuesday and Thursday, with sunshine between, especially over the weekends. His recommendation isn’t so farfetched as it might seem. The great mathematician John Von Neumann remarked shortly before his untimely death last year that the control of the force of the climate was the greatest challenge facing science today.

Unfortunately, the prospect in the field for the immediate future is bleak. Scientists aren’t even sure what starts the climatological changes that affect the earth — solar radiation, cosmic rays, sun spots, or clouds of dust circling through the ionosphere in the wake of volcanic eruptions. Even the experiments on promoting rain by seeding clouds with dry ice or silver iodide look less promising than they did when the principle was first discovered a decade ago. After studying the evidence, the Council of the American Meteorological Society issued a gloomy statement this spring. Cloud seeding has been perceptibly effective, it said, only where conditions were such that natural rain might have occurred anyway. Over flat country it has been notably ineffective. “Present knowledge of atmospheric processes,” it added, “offers no real basis for the belief that the weather or climate of a large portion of the country can be significantly modified by cloud seeding.”


ANOTHER hope for the distant future is the conversion of sea water into fresh water. The minimum cost yet achieved for distilling the salt out of sea water is $1.50 per 1000 gallons, even for large-scale operations. That is 30 times greater than the cost of treating the poorest grades of water now used by cities and industries. The Paley Commission recommended against investing in more research on distillation. The Interior Department went ahead and issued a cheery statement early this spring, indicating that new experiments would make largescale conversion of sea water economically feasible in the near future. The Department’s watchdog committee in Congress quickly came back with a report that officials of the Department were misleading the American people while letting the research program “drift along.” And there the matter stands.

Two more likely paths to progress are efforts in the direction of conservation of water and pollution control. Government and industry, as they have become aware of the problems involved, have shown more willingness to spend money on programs of both sorts.

For industry, conservation means the use of more complicated equipment to recirculate cooling water, to reclaim used water, and to employ alternate methods of cooling such as refrigerants or air. For governments, particularly at the state level, it involves stream regulation, anti-erosion devices, small dams, artificial recharging of ground water reservoirs, and the proper use of plant life.

Industry is also accepting anti-pollution measures as part of its normal production costs. Partly from public spirit and partly under the pressure of public opinion and state laws, most new industrial plants have incorporated waste treatment devices. General Petroleum’s new refinery at Ferndale, Washington, releases an effluent so thoroughly cleaned that salmon have been caught 100 yards below the outlet. The installation of anti-pollution measures in older plants, however, is often such an expensive process that if throws their costs out of line with those of newer competitors. No town likes to see an industry shut down, cut off its payroll, and stop paying taxes. Industrial pollution, therefore, continues to exist.

The pollution problem for towns and cities is easily stated. Any government body can install sewage systems to keep from fouling its own or its neighbor’s nest as soon as its voters are convinced that clean water is worth paying for. That conviction is slowly spreading around the country.

But neither conservation nor anti-pollution measures, wholesome though they are, can solve industry’s need for water. The best solution at the moment seems to be the importation of water by pipeline from water-plus to water-minus areas. Such pipelines will be expensive. They aren’t likely to be built in large numbers around the country until the shortage of water and the shortage of industrial space adjacent to bodies of water both grow more stringent than they are today.

The most famous existing water pipelines are those serving Los Angeles, a city which has outgrown its water supply. It now supplements its limited local reservoirs with water from the Owens River on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, 240 miles away; from Mono Lake, 350 miles away; and from the Colorado River, 450 miles away. It hopes to expand its system to reach the better watered, less densely populated northern part of the state.

An example of how a pipeline can be used to protect the interests of a regional economy is the story of Saginaw and Midland, two cities in central Michigan. After nearly dying along with the Michigan lumber industry 40 years ago, Saginaw, thanks to a set of General Motors factories and foundries, made a strong comeback. Midland, a younger city, grew from a small town with the expansion of the Dow Chemical Co. During World War II a serious water problem threatened both cities and their industries when the rivers through the towns grew so polluted and the water so hard that treatment was almost impossible. They joined forces after the war to build an 80-mile pipeline to Lake Huron. It cost the communities $10 million, but it can deliver a total of 43 million gallons a day of pure, fresh water. Added to existing supplies of ground water, that is enough for all their needs for years.

From an engineering point of view, Great Lakes water could be piped for hundreds of miles to thirsty cities outside their basin. Because of a legal technicality, it can’t be. Thirty years ago when Illinois sought from Congress the authority to drain water out of Lake Michigan to flush Chicago’s sewage into the Mississippi, the other Great Lakes states and Canada protested violently. They charged - with some reason—that any lowering of the lake levels would affect their trade and prosperity. The parties involved reached a compromise. Chicago got limited permission to dig its drainage canal, but by international agreement a complete prohibition was clamped on any other device that might move Great Lakes water outside the natural drainage area of the Lakes. The effect of the agreement is going to be felt, and soon.

In the Mahoning Valley in eastern Ohio, for instance, are clustered the steel mills of Youngstown, Warren, and Niles. Although the headwaters of the Mahoning River are within 25 miles of Lake Erie, the stream flows southeast into the Ohio. Twenty years ago the Mahoning had a world-wide notoriety among geographers as the hottest river in the world. The steel mills were so concentrated along its banks that they warmed its water beyond the point where it was useful as a coolant. New dams and reservoirs have corrected that situation for existing mills, but the possibilities of expansion of industry in the valley are inhibited by the limits of the water supply. To pipe Great Lakes water into the river would be technically simple and fairly cheap. Legally it can’t be done.

Akron, on the other hand, lies just inside the edge of the Lake Erie basin. Should its need for water expand, some Akron and Cleveland interests have a plan for a 16-mile pipeline from the Lake through which water could be pumped into the Cuyahoga River at its source. The Cuyahoga flows south to Akron, then north to enter Lake Erie at Cleveland. Such a pipeline would only pose a problem in finance.

The Province of Ontario would like to open up the water-short area around Kitchener and Guelph to industry by piping water out of Lake Huron near Goderich and letting it drain into Lake Erie. The water would never leave the Great Lakes basin. It would, however, bypass Detroit, which needs every inch of depth in the St. Clair River for its harbor. Legally, the project is somewhat doubtful. Ontario might be able to swing a deal in which, as the quid pro quo, streams in the Hudson Bay watershed would be reversed and piped into Lake Superior.

Only circumstances will determine when such pipelines as these will be economically feasible to build and operate. By 1975, however, a network of water pipelines is likely to be growing that may eventually rival in scope the oil pipelines which now trace their way throughout the country.