The Mississippi River Is Drying Up

The water wars are coming

The Mississippi River Is Drying Up
Photo by Andrew Svk / Unsplash

I’m utterly shocked and frightened by what I read the other day. The mighty Mississippi River is drying up. One of the largest drainage sheds in the United States does not have enough stormwater runoff to keep flowing at a base flow rate to the Gulf of Mexico. Barges and ships are in danger of running aground.

This is happening ALL OVER the world as we grapple with a massive drought. The Rhine River is at its lowest levels and threatens to shut down supply chains throughout Europe.

China isn’t immune either, the Yangtze River is dropping and bringing energy production at the Three Gorges Dam to a halt.

I’m sure if I dug deeper into the news cycle I might find more stories of a global drought occurring.

If you ask me, these aren’t anomalies. These aren’t one-off rare events. This is climate change manifesting in a fast and harsh way.

We fucked around and now we’re finding out.

Water wars are coming

We’re so worried about what Kanye West is going to say or what Musky will tweet out that we don’t see the danger in front of our faces. As the world dries up we will have massive water shortages. Countries will start storing water for themselves first and tell the countries downstream to go fuck themselves.

What will happen if China decides to dam up the headwaters of several contributory rivers to the Ganges River? The flow rates will drop in India and Myanmar, and 1 billion people will be impacted. Starving is one thing but having no water means annihilation.

Not having access to water, never mind clean water, will force people to migrate and trigger wars. It will trigger more nationalism as we humans start trying to preserve our resources. The 1% better start hiding because societal unrest will start right after people can drink water.

Water storage strategy

We need to start thinking of building massive water storage systems because climate change is making one interesting thing happen. It’s giving us more violent storms with more heavy rainfall in a shorter time span. There’s more moisture in the air because warmer temperatures let the atmosphere store more water. Then when it rains it comes down in buckets. Forget the old adage of “it’s raining cats and dogs,” it’s more like raining elephants these days.

Our original stormwater systems in the United States were designed just to direct rainwater away from people and property and to streams and rivers. Over time the various State DEPs came up with strategies to attenuate (detain) the stormwater before letting it be discharged downstream. This was done to prevent flooding downstream after you paved an entire forest or cornfield for a shopping mall. The last few decades have seen a move toward detaining the water and letting it percolate back into the groundwater aquifers — a move I support.

There’s more to these strategies, especially when you take pollution into account, but the State DEPs have good processes in place to mitigate human development.

But.

Here’s the but. They’re grappling with climate change now. I just looked up my rainfall intensity tables for where I live and noticed that they got bumped up. Low-impact stormwater management system codes got an overhaul. They’re adjusting — thankfully — but I worry that we’ve missed the boat. I worry that the fat lady has sung and it’s Exit Stage Left for Humanity.

Right now the sins of the past, the minimum design standards that were built, are letting stormwater flow off into the streets, down our rivers in a violent way, and out to the ocean.

We need to start capturing it at the source, storing it, or letting it recharge back into the groundwater. We need to start putting more roof runoff into underground cisterns so we can water our gardens with them. We need to start reducing the size of our lawns and cut back on watering them so damn much.

Every house, municipality, county, and state should switch from only a detain mindset to a detain and store mindset. We must maintain historical flow patterns to our rivers and streams but also capture the excess rainfall into storage systems so we can use them for ourselves.

The rise of the rain garden

I’m a huge fan of Bioretention systems mainly because I designed and built a few when I was a civil engineer. These are systems that capture stormwater runoff, say from a roof or parking lot, and let the vegetation slow down the velocity of the water and provide for the reduction of total suspended solids and removal of pollutants.

If done right, they can provide a beautiful bit of landscaping that can help birds, insects, bees, and other pollinators thrive. One of these systems is a rain garden and they were first designed with the intent to provide a “first flush” way of cleaning water from your driveway or roof and directing them into a low-lying area of your yard with native plants.

Rain gardens are a great way to capture and temporarily store smaller rainfall events. They enhance your yard with something beautiful and provide a bit of habitat for local flowers and birds. Plus they have the added benefit of detaining, storing, and recharging the groundwater in your area.

Granted, they won’t work very well in large rain storms but every little thing helps. We have to make this mind shift before it’s too late.

Why?

Because the front line against Climate Change and Dystopia is everywhere.