The U.S. exports too many of its most precious resources


However, in the past decade, these oil wells have begun to dry up. Go past homesteads and family-run farms and you will understand why—thousands of acres of neatly arranged trees planted with pecans and pistachios, vast alfalfa and corn fields, huge herds of dairy cows, and rows of greenhouses covering tomatoes. The once barren desert. This huge industrialized agricultural carpet, where the food grown is exported to all over the world, needs deep wells to maintain. For every 100 acres or so, a corporate farmer digs a well as deep as 2,000 feet and draws water from the ancient aquifer at a rate of 2,000 gallons per second, usually 24 hours a day. Drilling rigs are generally similar to those used for petroleum.

Arizona has almost no regulations governing groundwater extraction. As long as the farm pays the permit fee, they can pump water as they wish.

In addition to excessive water extraction from aquifers, Arizona (and the entire southwestern United States) is now experiencing one of the worst droughts in hundreds of years, which may be caused by global warming. As the area gets hotter and drier, more water needs to be extracted from the aquifer, and the water that trickles from the monsoon or snowmelt to replenish it will decrease.

We don’t understand the water cycle

In school, we teach children about the water cycle. In this cycle, water flows from the ocean to the sky, to the land, to the freshwater basin, and finally back to the ocean. In this story, the water we use will never really disappear.

But these stories obscure some important things: the water cycle may take decades or hundreds of years to complete a cycle. Most of the fresh water we use every day comes from groundwater, which may take hundreds or thousands of years to accumulate. If we use water faster than it can be replenished, or pollute it and dump it into the ocean faster than the natural water cycle can clean it, resources will eventually be exhausted.

Conversely, if you view water as a finite material that is consumed in roughly the same way as oil or natural gas, you will soon begin to see it in every part of the economy. For example, more than 70% of the water we use is used for food production. But water is also used to make everything from T-shirts to cars to computer chips.

If they cannot find enough water within their boundaries, why not import it (embedded in food) from elsewhere?

Like its cousin’s carbon footprint, a water footprint can be a useful shortcut to understand the environmental impact of a product or yourself. For example, the water footprint of a cup of coffee is approximately 140 liters. It takes approximately 15,000 liters of water to grow one kilogram of beef. A few slices of bread can fill 100 liters. The footprint of a kilogram of cotton (such as a pair of jeans and a shirt) can range from 10,000 liters to more than 22,000 liters, depending on where it is grown.

This means that countries and companies, whenever they trade goods, are actually transporting large amounts of water across borders. But because the water footprint of food, clothing, or anything else has never been recognized in this industry, the flow of water itself cannot be properly regulated.

Partly for this reason, rich countries such as Saudi Arabia and China have begun to purchase land in other countries to make up for their own lack of fresh water. If they cannot find enough water within their boundaries, why not import it (embedded in food) from elsewhere? The problem is that the places where they shop are themselves short of water, including countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the sulfur spring valleys in southwestern Arizona.

Why is Arizona? Because the land is cheap, it is connected to the airport, and there are almost no water regulations.

According to Robert Glennon, a law professor at the University of Arizona and one of the leading experts on US water policy, the US is actually the largest water exporter on the planet. Glennon calculated that during the recent severe drought, farmers in the western United States used more than 100 billion gallons of water to grow alfalfa, and most of the water was shipped to China.


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