How to avoid a national water crisis?

Waves crash on the shore of Lake Superior. Tom Weber / MPR News file

Most Americans are spoiled when it comes to water, according to Robert Glennon. We open the tap and get as much water as we want and it costs us less per month than a cellphone.

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Glennon, a professor of law and public policy at Arizona State University and author of "Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It," argues the free and easy approach to water is unsustainable.

He thinks we should use less and pay more because that's the only way to avoid a national water crisis.

Glennon spoke to water management officials from the Dakotas, Minnesota and Manitoba at the annual Red River Basin Commission Conference on Tuesday in Fargo, calling attention to what he believes are examples of wasteful water use.

One example, according to Glennon, are ethanol plants. Glennon said while he doesn't "have a dog in the fight" with regard to ethanol,  the facts show that the industry uses a lot of water. In California, he said,  it takes 2,400 gallons of water to grow enough corn for one gallon of ethanol.

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"Energy policy in the United States has developed with total disregard of the water consequences of that policy," he said.

Water waste is everywhere Glennon points out, from green lawns in the desert southwest to Coca Cola making snow in Atlanta in the midst of a summer drought.

"We humans have an infinite ability to deny reality," Glennon said.

We know about the hydrological cycle where rain or snow falls, water evaporates and the cycle continues. But Glennon said, we live in a hydro-illogical cycle. "We start with drought and it makes you aware and concerned and then you panic , but then it rains and it's back to business as usual.”

Conservation and recycling of water helps to ease the water demand, but Glennon thinks more drastic reform is needed.

We need look no farther than the bathroom for one of the more egregious water wasters, he said. In the United States we flush six billion gallons of fresh water down the toilet each day; about one-third of indoor water use, according to Glennon.

The common flush toilet wastes water, Glennon said, in addition to money and energy. There are also new public health concerns with contaminants of emerging concern entering the water supply.

But would you pay more for water?

Glennon says we should all pay more for the water we use to support better management of water supplies. He thinks of our water supply as a giant milkshake glass. If someone wants to put a new straw in the glass, someone else needs to take a straw out.  So if a well is drilled in an aquifer, someone else has to reduce water use.

Glennon contends the tools and technology are available to reform how we use water, what's needed is the moral courage and political will.