Water, water everywhere — but less than half of a percent of Earth's reserves are drinkable.
That's just one shocking fact Neil deGrasse Tyson and five experts dropped at this year's Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the American Museum of Natural History — all about the surprising origins, scarcity, and value of water.
Before the event, we joined a closed-door meeting with Tyson and the five experts.
Below are just a handful of facts they shared that help put water shortages like California's crippling four-year drought into stark perspective.
$0.002 per gallon is the average cost of US municipal tap water.
That's cheap but not free, as Jay-Z might have you believe. Yet the panel said we pay hundreds or thousands of times more for bottled water — even though there's no real difference compared to what comes out of a hose. To boot, the panel referenced this classic episode of Penn and Teller filling up bottles with a garden hose and serving the water in a fancy restaurant. (No unsuspecting patron was the wiser.)
What's more, bottled water requires 5 to 11 times more water to produce than the bottle holds. Panelist Kathryn Sullivan, the administrator of NOAA, the government agency which studies Earth's water stores from space, says most of that water waste comes from filtering. The process can rack up waste water in shocking amounts — up to 9 times more water is wasted than actually gets bottled.
Then there's the plastic bottle itself. Making the plastic demands twice as much water as the bottle's volume. Add in the fuel to make the plastic and truck the filled-up bottles around, and you're staring at a significant environmental conundrum. "Our world is topsy-turvy," Sullivan says. "We pay more for bottled water than we pay for oil or gas or Coca-Cola."
Agriculture uses about 80% of all US freshwater.
Despite this, says panelist Tess Russo, a hydrologist who estimates water availability around the globe, only 10% of farmers monitor how much water their soils actually need. And that leads to a lot of waste.
And that's just the average; during a dry year, farmers in California can use up to 90% of the state's water. But drought in California isn't just a "California thing," says panelist and planetary astronomer Heidi Hammel, who's scoured the Solar System for water. That's because the state is a veritable cornucopia — more than half of U.S. vegetables, fruits, and nuts come from the Golden State. In fact, almost all almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, kiwis, olives, pistachios, pomegranates, walnuts, garlic, plums, broccoli, nectarines, canned tomatoes, celery, apricots, wine grapes, strawberries, avocados, lemons, carrots, and other U.S. foods are grown there. (Did we mention California also produces a huge percentage of feed for red meat and dairy?)
You might be drinking aquifer water from the last Ice Age.
We're pumping so much groundwater in some locations, says Russo, that they don't have time to recharge naturally via rain, melting snow, and other sources. Some aquifers only have left the glacial meltwater deposited there about 10,000 years ago.
Pumping water is causing earthquakes, landslides, sinkholes, and more.
Russo noted part of northern California as an example. She says parts of the region are actually rising because the state is pumping out so much water — i.e. it's making the Earth's crust there lighter and more buoyant. "That crust material [is] floating ... and releasing parts of the pressure on the San Andreas [Fault]" and triggering earthquakes, she says.
The average Las Vegan uses twice as much water as a New Yorker — but it rains 10 times more in the Big Apple.
"Those sorts of asymmetries are just crazy," says Sullivan. And with climate change mixing up weather patterns we've grown accustomed to, Hammel says we can expect more of these disparities.
Nevada agriculture uses 90% of the state's water but only employs about 6,000 people. "The Mirage Hotel — singular— in [Las] Vegas employs more people than that," says Ellen Stofran, NASA's chief scientist and another of Tyson's panelists. She cited it as just another example of water use not jibing with reality. "We have to start valuing water as a precious, finite commodity," Sullivan added.
Right now, 35 US states are fighting legal battles over water. Take Des Moines, Iowa's municipal utility, for example, says Stofran. The city is in the process of suing three upstream counties for dumping too much nitrate into the Raccoon River, which feeds the city freshwater.
In the 1970s, a Saudi Arabian prince started an iceberg-towing company.
Mohammed al Faisal once established "Iceberg Transport International" (ITI) to tow Antarctic 'bergs to Mecca and melt them into freshwater, says panelist and retired U.S. Air Force General Charles Wald, who's seen water's importance in armed conflict.
ITI estimated it'd cost $100 million to tow 100 million tons of ice, and that the trip would take eight months, writes The Atlantic. But after debating the scheme in an international conference in Iowa and doing a test in the San Francisco Bay with a giant block of ice, the company determined the plan wouldn't work. That was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Even today, towing icebergs remains uneconomical.
85% of the water on the International Space Station is recycled.
If you're hip to space operations lingo, using what you've got wherever you're at is called "in situ resource utilization," or ISRU. Most ISRU water comes from condensed astronaut breath, sweat, and urine. Yes, NASA installed a fancy pee-recycling machine in 2008 to save launching 2,800 liters per year into low-Earth orbit. (And the water tastes great!)
This is important when we're talking about making feasible a human mission to Mars. Stofran said we'll need to boost water recycling capabilities to 95%, partly because water is a heavy thing to launch into space. "Mars is [also] a pretty harsh place. It's not a live-off-the-land kind of place," Stofran said.
1 kilometer: Suspected depth of Martian aquifers.
While Mars seems dry and dusty in images, it does seem to have water, deep below the surface. "It gets warmer as you go deeper," Hammel said. "There should be a water table on Mars." Trouble is, we don't have a drill that can go that deep into the Martian surface. (Yet.)
The US will never run out of water.
All of the experts agreed on this point, since there are replenishable supplies of freshwater available across the country (unlike some very dry, land-locked nations). But they noted this liquid abundance creates a huge problem: It means people living in the US, one of the wealthiest nations in the world — and perhaps the most capable of solving water crises — rarely feel the strain that others do on their water sources.
General Wald said in Ethiopia, for example, he's met people who walk 6 hours to fill up water containers and bring them back to their village. And during conflict in the Middle East, he adds, attackers often target armored convoys in part to steal their potable water.
This will likely get worse, since in about 2 years, the Gaza Strip in the Middle East could run dry. That's because water use there is outstripping the region's ability to supply freshwater, says General Wald. Gaza is about the size of Washington D.C. and borders the Mediterranean Sea, but it has no desalinization plants that would convert that salty seawater into something drinkable. And not to rag on soft drink manufacturers, but General Wald noted one company is building a plant in Gaza — even though making soft drinks consumes an incredible amount of water.
In fact, it might take between 168-309 liters of water to make a single 0.5 liter bottle of cola. One study from 2010 estimated the "grey water footprint" (i.e. the water dirtied during manufacturing) to be roughly 20 to 40 times as much water as there is in a half-liter bottle — that's not including the water required to grow the beverage's source of sugar — usually corn. Add that and other water use during manufacturing and transport, and the water used per bottle skyrockets.
Around 2030, there could be a "very serious" worldwide water crisis.
Naturally the military is worried about it, General Wald said. "Water wars are not new," he said. "If anything they're being exacerbated [by water]." He cited Egypt's constant threat of war with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam— a $5 billion hydroelectric plant on the Blue Nile, a major southern tributary of the Nile River (you'll recall the Nile flows North). Completing that project would mean holding back the tributary's waters for a year while the dam fills up, threatening Egypt's water supplies and the capacity of its hydroelectric dam on Lake Nasser.
"We're going to have to hit bottom," says Tyson, before we wake up and realize just how bad things are — and a full innovative engine to solve water shortages kicks into gear.
Until then, now is a good time to savor a closing era of cheap, reliable, and free-flowing freshwater.
Disclosure: The author is married to a communications employee at the American Museum of Natural History.