Almost half a century ago, in 1975, a report from the American Army Corps of Engineers to Congress, warned that unless steps were taken to increase water supplies or reduce consumption, a new drought would cause shortages from the Virginia Tidewater to New England. Time, population growth, and climate destruction have made it essential to increase water supply and reduce consumption. In 1975, the water shortage in North-East America was primarily a consequence of drought but there were underlying drivers too. Consumption, like energy use, was extraordinarily high compared to other industrialised nations. Use for homes, agriculture, and industry was more than double that in, as it was then, the Soviet Union and more than 20 times more voracious than in Britain.
Today, America's water crisis plays out most dramatically on the west coast. A decades-long struggle between hundreds of water agencies and other stakeholders continues and is likely to intensify. Conflicts over California’s water supply are ever more proxy wars for land control. Water availability can be decisive as state laws require developers to prove they have enough water to service their proposals so spectacular farm use, essential for growing California's mega crops, is ever more challenged. This, in a state with a housing and homelessness crisis that makes ours almost seem benign, is a burning fuse - at least from the perspective of Joe Biden's America.
From an Irish perspective, this unsustainable mismatch between supply and demand, recognised so very long ago by America, offered invaluable lessons but we have not made the best use of that opportunity, that example suggesting we prepare for an inevitable conflict in interests.
This conflict played out in Clonakilty, Co Cork just last month when a meeting of Cork County Council's western division heard that plans to build around 600 houses in the seaside town are in question because local water supplies are already stretched to their limit. This dilemma plays out all across Ireland, especially in Dublin's commuter belt. It is behind the plan to pipe Shannon water to the Pale and fuels justified scepticism about water delivery systems - pipes - that lose more than half of the water they carry. It is hard not to think too, as is already the case in California, that the ever-increasing water consumption by the farm and food sector can avoid scrutiny or even constraints.
All of this, and our unwise decision on water charges, suggests we take the idea of almost limitless water for granted. It suggests that we imagine, just as we did in 1975, that the well is bottomless. This dangerous delusion is again highlighted by an Environmental Protection Agency report.
The EPA reported yesterday that 35 towns or villages still, in 2020, discharge raw sewage into waterways. The watchdog accused the water service of ignoring deadlines and of having “no clear plan” for 23 of the towns or villages listed as critical. The EPA identified 33 locations unlikely to receive treatment until at least after 2021. Meanwhile, treatment at 19 of the State’s 172 large towns or cities, including Dublin and Cork, did not meet European Union pollution standards, down from the 28 listed previously.
The report echoes what is probably a majority view when it was highly critical of Irish Water’s delivery of new treatment plants. Irish Water may buck at that as it was set up in far from ideal circumstances. Nevertheless, and despite any bureaucratic ducking and diving, water will be one of the defining issues for the coming years. America recognised this half a century ago, surely it's time we did the same.