Lessons learned in US groundwater management experience

Beef Central, 17/02/2012

In the heart of the Mojave Desert in the US, vast torrents of water flow freely in massive fountains, pirate lagoons, wave machines and casino waterfalls: the prodigality that characterises Las Vegas is sucking America dry, says one of the world’s leading water authorities.

The issue of over-exploitation of precious groundwater resources in an arid land faces Australia too, cautions Robert Glennon, Professor of Law at the University of Arizona and author of the book ‘Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It.’

Professor Glennon is visiting Australia over the next three months, as distinguished guest lecturer for the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training.

Worldwide, the burgeoning number of wells tapping underground waters that have taken centuries to accumulate is a recipe for disaster, as cities, mines, industries, the environment and farmers compete with one another for dwindling resources, Prof Glennon warns.

“Our water woes will get worse before they get better, because we are slow to change our ways, and because water is the overlooked resource,” he said.

“For example, Washington's love affair with biofuels will turn to heartbreak once America realises how many thousands of gallons of water are required to produce a single gallon of fuel. In Minnesota—the ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes’ — a local ethanol plant is already sucking local wells dry.”

Prof Glennon warns there are no quick fixes for the mess humanity is getting itself into over water – towing icebergs, desalination and diverting rivers are stopgaps that will not solve the overall problem of overexploitation.

“I’m arguing instead that we need a market-based system that values water as a commodity and a fundamental human right. And that is a path on which Australia has already advanced.”

“Both Australia and the US are struggling with overuse of a scarce resource,” Prof Glennon said.

He likens both countries’ water supply to giant milkshake glasses and each demand for water as a straw in the glass. Allowing a limitless number of straws is a recipe for an inevitable water crisis.

Prof Glennon is the Morris K. Udall Professor of Law and Public Policy in the Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona. He is the author of the highly-acclaimed Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America’s Fresh Waters (Island Press, 2002). His latest book is ‘Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It.’

In 2010, the Society of Environmental Journalists bestowed on ‘Unquenchable’ a Rachel Carson Book Award for reporting on the Environment and Trout magazine gave it an honourable mention in its list of “Must-have books ever published on the environment.”

  • The National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training is an Australian Government initiative, supported by the Australian Research Council and the National Water Commission.


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