Freshwater, such as that in rivers, makes up less than 0.01 percent of Earth’s water. ©Bob Leggett

It’s been raining for the better part of two weeks where I live in Wisconsin. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the grass so decked out in neon green.

It’s a sharp contrast to what’s going on in the American West, according to a story from CBS News this morning. California is in the midst of one of its most severe droughts on record, and the state is turning a dull brown.

What’s surprising, however, is that despite this fact, the lawns surrounding many megamansions there remain verdant—thanks to generous watering by their owners. News videos often point the finger at moneyed celebrities, who would rather have a green lawn and pay the $500 fine than adhere to the state’s mandatory water conservation regulation and let their immediate environs go to beige.

Because of California’s large agricultural industry, it may be too big to fail. ©Colby J. Brokvist

For me, the bigger issue that this particular use of scarce water suggests is how we will choose to allocate our dwindling natural resources as climate change continues to rapidly reshape our world.

In other words, are some places, such as California, “too big to fail”?

Moving water to where it’s needed

Unfortunately, about 99 percent of the Earth’s water is unfit for drinking. Most of it—97 percent—is saltwater, and roughly another 2 percent is locked up in ice caps and glaciers. Freshwater (water in lakes, rivers and streams) is extremely limited, making up less than 0.01 percent of the planet’s water. Groundwater, freshwater that is underground, constitutes an additional 0.6 percent. In the United States, more than 250 million people depend on freshwater and groundwater for their drinking supplies. And every day, getting that water from its source to those who need it is becoming more complex.

About 2 percent of the world’s water is locked up in glaciers, ice caps and permanent snow. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Last year, for the first time, a team of researchers mapped the water sources of more than 500 cities. The results, which were published in the journal Global Environmental Change, demonstrated that our large urban areas move 200,000 Olympic-swimming-pool-size amounts (133 billion gallons) of water almost 17,000 miles each day.

Ranking first in the world in cross-basin water transfers is Los Angeles, California, which imports 2.35 billion gallons per day from distant rivers—such as the Colorado, as well as from rivers in the central and northern parts of the state—to satisfy the demands of its 13.2 million people.

Before we cast too many aspersions on California, however, we have to remember that when you walk into any grocery store in America today, chances are that the fresh produce you see was grown in the Golden State. Up to half of the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables are produced in the Central Valley between Los Angeles and Sacramento, one of the Earth’s most fertile regions. Not having enough water here will have immediate impacts on the food supply for all of us.


The Central Valley in California is one of the most fertile agricultural regions not just in the United States but in the world.

Taking what’s mine

This brings us back to my very green Midwest. As strange as it may sound, other places might soon be eyeing what I consider to be my water.

Twenty percent of the world’s fresh surface water (six quadrillion gallons) is held in the Great Lakes, and Wisconsin is bordered by two of them: Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. Even though no Western state is actively seeking Great Lakes water at the present time, the idea isn’t so far-fetched. If droughts worsen, desperate times could someday call for desperate measures.

In fact, in 1981 the Powder River Pipeline Company wanted to pipe Lake Superior water to Wyoming. The company planned to add this water to its coal to form slurry and then pump it back to coal-burning power plants in the Midwest. They argued that this would be cheaper and more efficient than shipping coal by rail, even though 1,900 miles of 42-inch pipe would have to be buried. Powder River hoped to obtain the water needed near the Western coal beds, but if that didn’t work out, they would lay a second pipeline to carry water westward from Lake Superior. The idea was not approved. In 1982, Congress mandated that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study the feasibility of using Great Lakes water to replenish supplies needed for the heavily agricultural Great Plains states. Luckily, it was found unfeasible. And as recently as 1998, Canadian officials green-lighted a proposal to let the Nova Group use oceangoing freighters to ship Great Lakes water to Asia.

Other places might soon be eyeing what I consider to be my Wisconsin water. ©John T. Andrews

Realizing there were no official regulations to stop such shipments, lawmakers, after years of negotiations, announced in 2008 the signing of a historic compact between the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces that was designed to decide who gets Great Lakes water and how to keep it inside the basin.

Some, such as Peter Annin, author of the book The Great Lakes Water Wars, have stated that we are leaving the century of oil and entering the century of water. While I love eating fresh fruits and vegetables just as much as the next person, I hope that as we move forward, our precious water isn’t siphoned off for things such as green lawns.

As rapid climate change continues to exacerbate droughts, should we consider transferring our water resources across long distances?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,