Category Archives: Historical

Ten Largest Endorheic (Salty) Lakes of the World

I am always surprised when some piece of information I’m looking for is actually not on the Internet.  Such was the case this afternoon when I searched for a list of the largest endorheic waterbodies in the world.  An endorheic waterbody is a terminal lake (sometimes called a sea) that has no outlet other than evaporation.  In other words, rivers and streams flow in but nothing flows out.  Since the only way water escapes is via evaporation everything else – salt, nutrients, pollution – are continuously concentrated in the remaining water.  Some, like the Dead Sea, are so salty they cannot support life, but others support very unique ecosystems.

I’ve become interested in endorheic lakes because they are a microcosm for a number of water-related issues and act as a catchall for the pollution we put into our waterways.  Take, for example, Devils Lake in North Dakota.  Having no outlet means that the level of the lake can increase dramatically over a short period of time.  Since 1995, water levels have gone up nearly 25 feet destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and inundating thousands of acres of productive farmland.  State government constructed an outlet to release water into a nearby river but faced stern opposition from other states and Canada, who don’t want pollution and parasites from Devils Lake transferred into their waters.  As you can see, it can become quite the predicament.  Just wait until I get around to blogging about the Salton Sea!

Anyway, I was searching the Internet for a list of the largest endorheic lakes and I just couldn’t find one.  Sure, Wikipedia has a list of the largest lakes in the world, but this only includes a handful of endorheic lakes.  Wikipedia also has a page on endorheic basins, which mentions a lot of lakes but not in any structured way.  It also intermingles them with drainage basins, which may capture water without outlet but are clearly not lakes.  So, Internet, you’re welcome, because today I have constructed for you a list of the Top Ten Endorheic Lakes of the World (by surface area). Continue reading Ten Largest Endorheic (Salty) Lakes of the World

The Ogallala Aquifer and the Worst Hard Time

Over the Holidays I had the opportunity to read a great book recommended to me by a professor of urban planning economics.  Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl is a fascinating look at one of the country’s greatest environmental disasters.  The dust storms that ravaged the high plains throughout the 1930’s brought death and destructions to thousands of Americans who moved to the area over the previous 50 years to take advantage of cheap land and soaring wheat prices.

You may have heard of the American dust storms before but Egan’s tale brings these storms to light in new and horrifying ways.  Dust storms would black out the sun for days on end as people huddled in shelters.  At times the air was so full of dust that candles could not get enough air to stay lit.  Children walking home from school were literally suffocated to death by clouds of dust.  Men could not shake hands because static electricity built up in the clouds of dust to the point where touching another person could knock them off their feet and barbed wire fences hummed with an electric blue glow as storms approached.  Thousands died of dust pneumonia as the silica-laden dust particles scarred their lungs until they could not longer function.  This really was the worst hard time. Continue reading The Ogallala Aquifer and the Worst Hard Time

First Post!

Top Ten Worst Water Resource Disasters?

I’m starting this blog today because water is important to me.  It’s important to you too.  I’m sure you realize that, but you may not realize just how important it is.  I’m sure you know that you need water to live and that plants need rain to grow but so many of us take it all for granted.  Maybe because water easily and constantly flows through your tap, or because when drought destroys a crop in one part of the world another part of the world seems to effortlessly pick up the slack and your local grocery store hardly notices the difference.  I hope this blog helps people to better understand how essential water is to life and how reckless human beings can be when trying to manage it and how dire the consequences can be when it is poorly managed and water is taken for granted.

I thought a good way to start this blog would be by writing a Top Ten list of the worst water resource disasters in history.  A lofty goal since I’m still learning about the history of water myself, but certainly an eye-catching first post!  However, as I began to compile my list, I ran into some snags.  First, I needed to define “Water Resource disasters.”  A water resource disaster (WRD) is different from a water disaster.  Simply put, a WRD is not an act of God.  A tsunami, an iceberg, floods caused by torrential rainfall, these are acts of God.  They become WRDs when they are exacerbated or sometimes directly caused by human attempts to control water.  A flood, for example, may occur when a poorly constructed dam breaks.  A city may go without drinking water when a poorly maintained water line bursts.  A WRD results from the severe misuse or wasting of a water resource to the point that it negatively impacts ecology or the continued use of that resource.

The line between an act of God and a man-made disaster is growing ever thinner.  As scientists continue to better understand the effects of global warming, increases in extreme weather events may soon come to be seen as a result of governmental failures to reduce emissions and not as acts of God at all.  However, it’s doubtful that governments of the world will ever be held liable for bigger, stronger, more frequent hurricanes or heavier than expected monsoons.

The Titanic vs. the Exxon Valdez

Once I started considering WRDs I quickly came upon the question of oil spills.  Is an oil spill a water resource disaster?  If the answer is yes, then my top ten list quickly starts to resemble a list of the top ten worst oil spills in history because, let’s face it, we’ve had some really horrible oil spills.  Can an oil spill be considered an act of God or is allowing oil tankers to traverse through iceberg ridden waters near environmentally protected lands without functioning sonar, as was the case with the Exxon Valdez, a regulatory failure to properly assess the risks?  The Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg and resulted in the deaths of 1,517 people.  Was this an Act of God or a WRD because White Star Line failed to provide enough lifeboats for its passengers?

In either case, the ocean is clearly a water resource used for transporting passengers and freight.  However, I think we could all agree that Exxon Valdez feels more like a WRD than the sinking of the Titanic.  I think the difference hinges on the long term ecological impacts of each disaster.  While the Titanic was tragic, it did not result in a loss or reduction in the ability of others to utilize the resources of the ocean.  In contrast, the grounding of the Exxon Valdez resulted in an oil spill that blanketed the pristine Alaskan coast damaging arctic habitats that may take up to 30 years to fully recover.  The human cost of the Exxon Valdez may be more difficult to calculate because it occurred in such a remote location.  However, you only have to look to the Gulf of Mexico to find examples of oil spills that have a devastating effect on both the environment and the economic well-being of thousands of communities that rely on the waters of the gulf for recreation, tourism, and fishing.

Fresh vs. Salty

In the end I decided that, though salt water is an important water resource, this blog will mainly focus on the potable variety.  After all, as a civilization we spend a lot more time trying to control and manage our sources of potable water than we do trying to manage the ocean.  This is especially true when you consider just how little potable water we have compared to how much time and money we spend trying to manage it.  Below is a graph from Wikipedia.  It gets right to point.  It says the out of all the Earth’s water, only 3% is fresh.  Out of that 3%, 68% is frozen at the Earth’s poles.  30% of our fresh water is sequestered in the ground leaving only 0.3% as easily accessible surface water.  I don’t know about you, but when I consider how essential fresh water is to life on Earth and how little of it there is to go around and then think about the health of rivers and streams near my home, I get a bit concerned.

I think it’s a bit premature for me to make a top ten list of the worst water resource decisions but hopefully this blog will unveil a strong list of nominees for such a dubious honor.  I plan on posting about both current water resource issues as well as taking a look back at the history of water use and hopefully see what we’ve learned.