I have written several blogs suggesting “war over water” will be the next world war. We seem to have almost daily examples in our news of droughts causing economic deprivation, and starvation, closely followed by war and genocide.
It is easy to say that that sequence of events only happens in sub-Sahara Africa, but lesser-known reports indicate the same problem might be developing much closer to home. Also, these reports indicate that, in some places, we humans are the direct culprits. Not just by contributing to climate change through the emission of green-house gases, but directly causing problems through greed and economic self-interest. This story of “Water and French Fries” addresses that issue.
There are already reports of minor range wars fought over the water from the Colorado River in the western U.S. states and Mexico, but the problem is spreading. The summer of 2021 was one of the worst droughts on record in Minnesota, USA. Day after day a blazing sun shrivelled leaves, dried up waterfalls and turned ponds to puddles. In a state known for its 10,000 lakes, many people could do little except hope for rain. However, big farmers had another option.
These farmers cranked up their powerful irrigation wells, drenching their fields with so much water that they collectively pumped at least 6.1 billion gallons more groundwater from aquifers than allowed under state permits. Nearly a third of the overuse happened on land affiliated with one company, R.D. Offutt Farms. The water helped R.D. Offutt to achieve its objective……wait for it……. of creating long, smooth potatoes that effortlessly sail through the slicers at frozen food processors so Americans could have one of their favorite foods: McDonald’s French fries. It takes a lot of water to make a perfect fry, apparently.
In the depths of drought, R.D. Offutt and other farmers in the state — where thousands of wells irrigate potatoes and other water-intensive crops like corn, soybeans and sugar beets — blew through state-imposed limits designed to protect aquifers that supply drinking water to millions of people. For some Minnesotans, it significantly worsened the drought’s effects, and it exposed how dependent much of the state has become on aquifers that are fragile and often poorly understood. More importantly, it shows that government regulations have no teeth, and are not enforced. I have to ask how it is that these farmers could over-pump by that amount and not trigger a government cut-off. Indeed, there appears to have been very few consequences at all.
The increasing overuse of groundwater is a nationwide problem, with big cities and industrial farms alike draining aquifers at alarming rates. The practice threatens, not only drinking water supplies for millions of Americans, but also the nation’s status as a leading exporter of food. In Minnesota, watersheds started to dry as the heavy irrigation in 2021 lowered aquifer levels. Even fish populations were threatened as streams warmed when huge wells siphoned away the cooler underground water that normally fed trout streams. In parts of Minnesota, people reported backyard wells drying up, sometimes leaving kitchen faucets to cough and sputter as though they were gasping. Big farmers apparent immunity from retribution for overusing water is exacerbating the climate change situation and threatening to deplete the aquifers at a rate that future rainfall cannot possibly replenish. Short-term, short sighted economic gain threatens people’s lives now, and in the future…..and all for the sake of producing the perfect French fry!!!!
Officials in Warren, Minnesota, partly surrounded by sugar beet fields, had to physically lower the pump at the town’s well by 63 feet in order to keep providing drinking water to more than 1,500 residents, including those in a hospital and nursing home. One older woman outside Warren said the only way she could get water after her own well went dry was to drive her riding mower to a neighbour’s house to fill water bottles. State officials wound up suspending four irrigation permits in the area. Is that all they did? Apparently, french fries are more important.
In Backus, Minnesota, Mike Tauber, whose forested land abuts potato fields affiliated with R.D. Offutt, was shocked to find dried-up, exposed banks along a pond so big he had nicknamed it “Super Pond.” And in the north-western part of the state, members of the White Earth Nation worried that farmers’ irrigation wells were draining culturally significant bodies of water. “I understand farmers have got to make a living, too, but at the same time they’ve got to take other human beings into consideration,” said Trevor Milbrett, of Eagle Bend, Minnesota, who sometimes drove his pregnant wife and toddler to his parents’ house for showers and supper because nearby irrigation had left him with no water.
The practice of irrigating mainly with groundwater from aquifers, once concentrated in America’s arid West, is marching eastward across the country even as it declines in many Western states, where aquifers are drying up. Minnesota in the early 1960s had fewer than 50 permits for irrigation wells. By 2022, there were over 7,000 of them. And, like many other states, Minnesota uses an honor system for reporting water use from wells like these. Farmers self-report their usage annually. So much for “honor”.
“We have this really intensive groundwater use, expanding to aquifers we don’t yet understand very well, in places where domestic wells have never had to compete for groundwater,” said Ellen Considine, a hydrologist supervisor with the state’s Department of Natural Resources. As a result, she said, “we may not be leaving enough groundwater for future generations.”
Do we have to wait for “war over water” before the government steps in with enforced regulations, or is McDonalds more important than people’s drinking water and health?