Backing into Eden, Chapter 17: A Fundamental Challenge

So far in this blog series, I’ve talked about the management of things that live in places that can be located on the globe.  Species, like elephants and mud snails.  Ecosystems, like rain forests or coral reefs.  On a smaller level, microclimates.

These all matter very much.  But there are even bigger challenges that have no specific home but affect every place.  Air is one of them, and frankly most of climate change comes down to managing the air badly.

There is another critical element.

What do we need second only to air? What lives everywhere and takes multiple forms?  What must be cleaned and acts as a cleaner? What is a habitat and is needed by all habitats? What carves the deepest canyons in the world? What does every living being, in every place on the globe need?


I live in the Pacific Northwest of America, a place rich with water.  I’ve been on my bike almost every weekend so far this year, and mostly that means I’ve been rained on, almost rained on, or on one particularly cold ride, rained on, snowed on, and sleeted on.

When I think about the future, I often worry about water.  Some future problems will be the same ones I’ve been experiencing on my bike:  too much water.  But primarily they will be problems of scarcity.

20071112-iStock_000010035451MediumI’ll start with one specific example I found in my research.  Generally, I think of rivers as something we use for irrigation.  Last year, we irrigated the Rio Grande river.  Instead of using the river, we fed it.

That is not the usual relationship between humans and rivers.

I’ll mention three freshwater problems as a reminder of the scale of the issues:

1.     Glaciers are melting. This is causing the sea level to rise, and also reducing the amount of fresh water available in some places.

2.     Plant in dried cracked mudClimate change has been linked to drought, which has been widespread lately.  This year, Californians have lived in fear that water shortages will leave farmland fallow and may even leave some communities without any water at all. None.

3.     Aquifers are being quickly depleted, making water harder to reach via wells and also causing the ground to subside, saltwater to intrude, and water quality to decline.

There are far more problems related to water than this, but lets move on to solution.  Water conservation does matter.  The needle is moving the right direction:  per capita water use is dropping in the United States.  This is because of a combination of education, infrastructure upgrades (removing leaks from water systems), new technology (less wasteful toilets and shower heads etc.), and regulation.  We need to do more, and I’m sure we can and will.  But as bright a spot as conservation has turned out to be, it won’t help when a drought or the depletion of groundwater means there’s no water to conserve.

So we’re going to have to exert a bit more control on the water picture.  Here are a few things we’ll be doing in the future:

·      For coastal cities, there’s a reasonable obvious solution:  desalination.  It’s terribly expensive today.  But we know how to address that.  Investment in solar power has driven the cost down by roughly 60% in the last three years.  Desalination technology hasn’t enjoyed as much investment, but that could change rapidly as California contemplates building new plants.  As expensive as desalinization is, trucking water from other places could be far more expensive given the dense population.

·      There are places in the world where water is available but contaminated.  Some very interesting work has been happening to create ways to clean this water.  From a LifeStraw to new hydro-packs, there are innovative tools coming online for families to carry and clean water more easily.  These tools could also be used to carry water and clean water enough to grow healthy food.

·      It takes far more water to grow and harvest a steak than a salad.  A simple change in human diet to reduce animal protein by half would drastically reduce the amount of water needed to feed the world.  While this is a simple conservation measure, it’s not yet occurring at scale.  For example, a major crop in California is alfalfa, itself a thirsty grass.  California’s alfalfa is largely sold to China, effectively exporting the product of scarce water offshore.

·      Water rights laws are often old and inadequate or even damaging to current needs.  A new framework for water rights may help us decide how to distribute and care for water in a fairer way.  This is going to be a hard change to make with current holders of rights fighting to retain them.  But the reality is that much of our water is oversubscribed already; existing rights can’t be filled anyway. The system can be fixed.

·      IMG_2596Weather management:  We may be looking to weather management to mitigate risks of severe storms brought on by climate change. Chances are we’ll also become even more serious rainmakers than we are now.  Powerful big data analytics are helping us understand the problems inherent in climate change, and those same or similar models should also help us mitigate challenges.  Expect more tools to seed clouds to make more rain, and maybe also ways to calm a hurricane.

The care and management of any kind of garden takes water management.  In a future world where we’ve taking far more responsibility for land use, water management that looks at broad territories will be a foundational skill.   We’ll have to be bold about it.  If we don’t success at managing this fundamental resource, we will fail at many of the things we need to do.  Rivers will dry up, cities and towns will wither away, and many of the ecosystems we are working to preserve will fail. And this is just the freshwater problem….

I’m quite pleased to be back into the business of working on the blog series, and for returning readers thanks for returning after a three month hiatus.  I had some fiction to commit, which will turn into the Edge of Dark, available from Pyr in 2015.

I’ll be delivering a talk about Backing into Eden at the World Future Society in Orlando in July, and with luck, I’ll also have an ebook version available near then. 

As always, here are links to some of the articles I read for research in case you want to do your own exploration:


National Geographic:  Rising Seas

Can water under the Mojave desert help quench California?, Bloomberg Business Week, March 6th 2014, by Peter Waldman.

Huge Aquifer that runs through eight states quickly being tapped out, NBCNews, August 26, 2013, by Denise Chow

The USGS Water Science School

Value of Water Blog: Part 1: People & Water Water Per Capita Use Declines in US, Value of Water Coalition, February 18th, 2014

Natural gas loses to solar energy on costs, a first

Cost of Solar 60% Lower than in early 2011, Cleantechnica, S, Zachary Shahan

Six water purifying designs for the developing world, Inhabit, November 8th, Rebecca Paul

Well, Well.  What the Supreme Court’s new water ruling means for New Mexicans, Santa Fe Reporter, July 30, 2013, by Justin Horwath and Joey Peters

Irrigating the Rio Grande, Albuquerque Journal, July 2nd, 2013, by John Fleck

Hurricane-calming technology:  Bill Gates has a plan, USA Today, July 16th, 2009, by Dan Vergano


1 thought on “Backing into Eden, Chapter 17: A Fundamental Challenge”

  1. Sarav makka Not sure about the cost effectiveness for siglne family homes, but with the raising APARTMENTS and BIG COMMUNITIES in chennai, it would definitely work out a smart idea to have these type of water re-used by filtering IN-HOUSE. Nice thought though How you have been..?.. Good luckRaj

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