Avoiding Water Bankruptcy in the Drought-Troubled Southwest: What the US and Iran Can Learn from Each Other

Yves here. We’ve warned for many years that the natural resource that would come under pressure first was potable water. We’re seeing more and more evidence of water shortages, yet perilous little in the way of policies to restrict use and combat waste (one study found that leaks from municipal pipes typically account for 20% to 30% of total city use). Finally this issue is getting more attention.

By Mojtaba Sadegh, Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering, Boise State University; Ali Mirchi, Assistant Professor of Water Resources Engineering, Oklahoma State University’ Amir AghaKouchak, Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of California, Irvine’ and Kaveh Madani, Visiting Fellow, Yale University. Originally published at The Conversation

The 2021 water year ends on Sept. 30, and it was another hot, dry year in the western U.S., with almost the entire region in drought. Reservoirs vital for farms, communities and hydropower have fallen to dangerous lows.

The biggest blow came in August, when the U.S. government issued its first ever water shortage declaration for the Colorado River, triggering water use restrictions.

In response, farmers and cities across the Southwest are now finding new, often unsustainable ways to meet their future water needs. Las Vegas opened a lower-elevation tunnel to Lake Mead, a Colorado River reservoir where water levels reached unprecedented lows at 35% of capacity. Farmers are ratcheting up groundwater pumping. Officials in Arizona, which will lose nearly one-fifth of its river water allotment under the new restrictions, even floated the idea of piping water hundreds of miles from the Mississippi River.

These strategies conceal a more fundamental problem: the unchecked growth of water consumption. The Southwest is in an “anthropogenic drought” created by the combination of natural water variability, climate change and human activities that continuously widen the water supply-demand gap.

In the long run, this can lead to “water bankruptcy,” meaning water demand invariably exceeds the supply. Trying to manage this by cranking up water supply is destined to fail.

More than 7,000 miles away, Iran is grappling with water problems that are similar to the U.S. Southwest’s but more severe. One of the driest years in the past five decades, on the back of several decades of mismanaged water resources, brought warnings of water conflicts between Iranian provinces this year.

As environmental engineers and scientists – one of us is also a former deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment – we’ve closely studied the water challenges in both drought-prone regions. We believe past mistakes in the U.S. and Iran offer important lessons for future plans in the U.S. Southwest and other regions increasingly experiencing drought and water shortages.

Groundwater Pumping: A Temporary Fix with Consequences

As the supply of water from the Colorado River diminishes, Southwest farmers are putting more straws into already declining groundwater that accumulated over thousands to millions of years. But that is a short-term, unsustainable solution that has been tried across the U.S. and around the globe – with major consequences. The High Plains Aquifer and California’s Central Valley are just two examples.

Iran offers a case study in what can go wrong with that approach, as our research shows. The country nearly doubled its groundwater extraction points between 2002 and 2015 in an attempt to support a growing agricultural industry, which drained aquifers to depletion. As its water tables drastically declined, the groundwater’s salinity increased in aquifers to levels that may no longer be readily suitable for agriculture.

As water-filled pores in the soil are drained, the weight of the overlying ground compresses them, causing the aquifers to lose their water holding capacity and accelerating land subsidence. Iran’s capital, Tehran, with more than 13 million residents, subsided more than 12 feet between 2003 and 2017. Similarly, some areas of California are sinking at a rate of up to 1 foot each year.

Kaveh Madani discusses the drying of the Zayandeh Rud riverbed in Isfahan, Iran.

Interbasin Water Transfer: A Pandora’s Box

Another proposal in the Southwest has been to pipe in water from elsewhere. In May, the Arizona legislature urged Congress to initiate a feasibility study to bring Mississippi River water to replenish the Colorado River. But that, too, has been tried.

In Iran, multiple interbasin water transfer projects doubled the flow of the Zayandeh Rud, a river in the arid central part of the country. The inflow of water supported unsustainable growth, creating demand without enough water to support it. In dry years now, no one has enough water. Many people in Khuzestan – the region supplying water to central Iran – lost their livelihood as their farms dried out, wetlands vanished, and livestock died of thirst. People in central Iran also lost crops to the drought as incoming water was cut. Both regions saw protests turn violent this year.

California diverted water from the Eastern Sierra Nevada to support Los Angeles’ growth in the early 1900s, turning the once prosperous Owens Lake Valley into a dust bowl. Costs of mitigating dust storms there now exceed US$2 billion. Meanwhile, California needs more infrastructure and investment to meet its water demand.

Another project, the California Aqueduct, was constructed in the 1960s to transfer water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Northern California to the Central Valley and southern parts of the state to support agriculture and some urban demand. This also did not close the water demand-supply gap, and it pushed economically and culturally important native fish species and ecological systems in the delta to the point of collapse.

Looking Ahead in Light of Looming Water Bankruptcy

As the continued influx of population into the U.S. Southwest raises water demand in the face of shrinking water supply, we have to wonder whether the Southwest is heading toward water bankruptcy.

While there is no easy solution, a number of actions are possible.

First, recognize that water shortages cannot be mitigated only by increasing water supply – it’s also important to manage water demand.


There is great potential for water savings through efficient irrigation and precision agriculture systems, which could keep agriculture viable in the region.

Cities can save water by curbing outdoor water losses and excess water use, such as on ornamental lawns. Californians successfully reduced their water demand by more than 20% between 2015 and 2017 in response to severe drought conditions. Replanting urban landscapes with native drought-tolerant vegetation can help conserve water.

On the supply side, communities can consider nontraditional water sources, water recycling and reuse in all sectors of the economy, and routing runoff and floodwaters to recharge groundwater aquifers.

There are also emerging technological solutions that could boost water resources in some regions, including fog water collection, which uses sheets of mesh to capture moisture from fog, and desalination plants that turn seawater and saline groundwater into drinking water. One new desalination plant planned for Huntington Beach, California, is awaiting final approval. Environmental consequences of these measures, however, should be carefully considered.

The Southwest monsoon returned this summer after a record dry previous year and a half in the region, but it wasn’t enough to end the drought there. Forecasts now suggest a high chance that a La Niña pattern will develop over the winter, meaning Southwest is likely in for another drier-than-normal start to 2022.

Iran is already in water bankruptcy, with demand exceeding supply. It will take a lot more than a wet year to alleviate its water shortages.

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  1. ambrit

    This is curious, since the water ‘budgets’ of the regions of America are not all moving in tandem. The Southeast, where we live has had a fifty percent increase in precipitation this year. Our little region normally has 46 inches of rain by this time of the year, but now, is pushing 70 inches of rain.
    I have read that one major source of mismanagement of water supplies is the practice of selling water to agricultural entities by the acre foot, this figure being based on past usage. Here, the old “use it or lose it” effect comes into play. The overuse of water resources is almost “baked into” the system. Since agriculture is the biggest user of water, by far, there is where our attention should be focused. Public and private conservation methods in the urban sphere are well and good, being good propaganda exercises, but agriculture is where “the action is.”
    Another major source of dysfunction is in the Water Boards. These are often unapologetically political entities. Here, at least, is a place where technocrats have a legitimate function.
    Like almost everything else in our declining Empire, “things” will have to hit rock bottom before major changes can be made. Wait for the food riots….

    1. Tom Stone

      Here in California most of the water being used and wasted goes to agriculture, there are thousands of separate water boards and they are almost all captured by big ag.
      Water is life, and big biz/big ag has controlled the flow here for more than a Century often in violation of laws.
      The “Westlands water district” is one infamous example.

      “The King of California” and “Cadillac Desert” are two of the classics that discuss water issues here and how the politicsof water work in the Golden State.

    2. Carolinian

      All of the things in the article have been known and discussed for a long time. The problem though is political as much as meteorological since vested interests and particularly agriculture have stood in the way of changes and have political clout.

      Plus there’s the real estate industry of course. In the end the country may have to move the people to the water rather than vice versa with a much lower population in the Southwest. It’s not as if we weren’t warned by John Wesley Powell in the 19th century.

      1. juno mas

        Yes, the issues are political, but they are also technical. I was a planning/design architect for the City of Scottsdale, AZ and worked with the city Engineer (Iranian) on bringing Colorado River water to the city as part of the Central Arizona Project (CAP). (A water canal/pipe that extends from Laka Havasu in the north to Tuscon, AZ in the south.)

        Turns out the water from the Colorado River is substantially different in chemical character than the native ground/surface water of Tucson than the imported water delivered by the CAP. Buildings and residential plumbing were ruined by exaggerated rust and other issues. The City of Tuscon paid mullions in damages. (Sounds like Flint, MI, huh?!) Except this occurred in the 1990’s.

        As an aside: the CAP is the biggest user of electrical power in the state, as the river water is pumped to an elevation of over 2000′ (730 meters) along its 336 mile route.

        1. Carolinian

          Interesting. My friend in Mesa lives right behind the CAP. My understanding it that it was originally intended to take water to downstate farms more than the city of Tuscon. I’ve also crossed the canal way off in the desert where it evaporates itself across state.

          Long ago my friend lived downtownish where houses were backed by canals–perhaps remnants of the original native ones–and once a week she would be allowed to pull up a gate and flood her back yard.

          Dunno if that could be somehow computer operated but I doubt people do that now.

          1. juno mas

            Yes, the CAP was initially intended for agricultural purposes, since agri. is the big consumer. However, cities along the canal route anticipated residential expansion far beyond the capability of local sources and consequently made plans to tap into a portion of this “agriculture water”.

            Planning for the CAP began in the late ’60’s early 70’s. It went through convoluted political contortions before it was actually constructed, beginning in ~1991. Those folks opening gates for flood irrigation likely had some grandfathered “rights”; or it was a water surplus year. Water in the West is definitely full of intrigue.

  2. drumlin woodchuckles

    ” Another proposal in the Southwest has been to pipe in water from elsewhere. In May, the Arizona legislature urged Congress to initiate a feasibility study to bring Mississippi River water to replenish the Colorado River. But that, too, has been tried.”

    That was always the Southwest’s plan for water shortage. The plan was to create so much overdevelopment and water-project-subsidized tax base and population and so forth that the whole region could get itself declared “too big to fail” when the perma-drought came, and use its ” too big to fail” status to extort water from the Mississippi, from the Great Lakes, from NAWAPA, from anywhere outside the aqua-subsidy belt.

    It must not be allowed. And at least some parts of the country contain enough experts on blowing up things like pipelines that it will not be allowed. The Southwest will never recieve any water from the Great Lakes, for example.

    1. The Historian

      I am not sure why that must not be allowed. Are we not still the UNITED States of America? Should we not help other regions of the country? I don’t know about a plan to make the Southwest too big to fail – I’d need to see a link – but they are there now. Shouldn’t areas with excess water be willing to help those who have droughts?

      Granted, we all should start reducing our water usage now because potable and irrigation water is going to become scarcer and scarcer. Ornamental lawns, a big water user, have always seemed a waste to me – same with huge golf courses. And I am in favor of pipelines to move water – seems more rational to me than drawing down all of our aquifers.

      People in the past have moved water from one area to where it was needed – this isn’t new. Think about the Roman aqueducts and the amazing waterworks at Petra, for examples.

      1. TMoney

        Great Lakes is a shared resource with our Northern neighbour – Canada. They have a say over where their water goes – and the current rule is no where.

      2. Huck

        A far more rationale approach is to use demand management practices to reduce water demand. The fundamental challenge with that approach, however, is the costs (socioeconomic, political) associated with restructuring the ag sector. Building pipelines to carry water would translate into further subsidies supporting existing and unsustainable practices.

      3. TroyIA

        I can think of 2 obstacles that prevent diverting the Mississippi River to western states. The first being that the Mississippi River is used as a shipping route and to be usable the Army Corp of Engineers has to maintain a minimum channel depth. Even now when there is reduced rainfall this can be difficult to accomplish so there isn’t an abundance of water that can be diverted.

        The other issue is the environmental impact reducing the amount of discharge would have on the Gulf of Mexico. The Colorado River used to empty into the Pacific Ocean but now it ends in a desert. I couldn’t imagine the Mississippi not reaching the Gulf of Mexico but I suspect even cutting output by 25% would create all kinds of issues for the ecosystem or even the Gulf Stream.

      4. drumlin woodchuckles

        The Great Lakes is an open-air deposit of fossil water dating to the end of the Ice Age. The amount that flows in and then out through the Saint Lawrence River is tiny. Sending any water out of the basin is mining it and is not sustainable.

        No. the concept of “United” States does not mean that one area which has not destroyed its water resources by its own use should deplete and destroy those water resources to send them to a purely destructive parasite region which has destroyed its own water resources by reckless water mining in a desert.

        Pipelines to move water from the Great Lakes to outside the basin will destroy the aquifers within the Great Lakes basin by depriving them of the water that currently recharges them now. There is nothing any more rational about watermining by pipeline diversion than watermining by fossil aquifer depletion.

        But in the real world . . . . the Great Lakes States and the Great Lakes Provinces already have a Water Compact whereby they all agree that none of them will ship any water beyond the basin. I believe that has already been violated by a sneaky well-drilling plan for a Wisconsin ( I believe) town right “next” to the basin under some kind of special permission. And of course the mighty Nestle’ uses its power to pump water out of Michigan and sell it by the bottle beyond the basin. Still, the States and Provinces in question maintain the not-quite-fiction of a water-non-export compact.

        So the Great Lakes region does not care that you favor pipelines to rip off the water from the Great Lakes. I strongly suspect that if such pipelines are attempted, they will be bombed.

        1. ewmayer

          “The Great Lakes is an open-air deposit of fossil water dating to the end of the Ice Age” — Not so. The lakes drain a large watershed; around 1% of their total volume per year is “new” water. That 1% translates to around 50 cubic miles; by way of comparison, CA total water use is around 10 cubic miles per year.

          But agreed, any notions of large scale piping of water halfway across the country to feed unsustainable use practices out west are a fool’s errand.

    2. Carolinian

      Then there’s the icebergs from Alaska. All this wacky stuff was discussed in Cadillac Desert.

      In AZ it already appears that agriculture is on the way out although who knows if that will apply to giant Saudi alfalfa farms. The local PTB would rather grow houses.

      The person I know who lives in Mesa is planning to move back East when possible.

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      Way to go, Slim!

      I read the link, and thanks.

      Taking matters into your own hands, thinking local, finding root causes, changing yourself instead of waiting for others to do the changing for you…I think you’ve selected highly effective principles.

      Best wishes for continued success.

    2. Henry Moon Pie

      I’ll second everything Tom says. And your sources for information and wisdom are excellent too. I have a suggested addition: Gabe Brown’s Dirt to Soil. One of his major goals in semi-arid North Dakota was to increase his soil’s water infiltration rate. I’ve never been to Tuscon, but I used to live in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristos and am familiar with the Southwest mountain summer monsoons with their hard, sudden rains. Improving infiltration rates would be a big plus to your effort and lessen arroyo flooding, etc. I’d recommend the book just for the encouragement it offers to those hoping for restoration. Brown improved his water infiltration rate from one-half inch per hour in 1991 to one inch in nine seconds in 2015.

  3. Wukchumni

    In the video of the dried out river in Iran with not a drop of water in it, you can see sprinklers watering the lawn alongside it, which looks lush and well cared for…

    We have the same thing of sorts in the CVBB, everything not watered by the hand of man is haggard looking barely hanging on, but every last fruit and nut tree looks like a million bucks… green, vibrant and well cared for in perfect rows that seem to go to infinity.

  4. Marc D Andelman

    The rate limiting contaminants in water recyling are salts, also known as total dissolved solids, t.d.s.. Only one widely used method exists applicable to that. This is reverse osmosis ( RO). However, that technology depends upon forcing water through nano-holes in a membrane. Any particles in the water get stuck and foul the thing. To avoid that, the membrane needs to be kept flushed, which means high waste water. This means RO is nearly impossible for inland or recyling use, without heroic methods to “pretreat”. There are actually reasonable alternatives that work. The trouble is, technologies in water are not actively curated by any community to explain best available methods. Our industrial sector are mostly third generation conglomerates who pay all sales to some hedge fund, and no longer employ qualified scientific or R&D staff that would be required to improve present methods. However, they sure do like to sit on R&D boards, for what non-existent, and poorly managed R&D funding exists. That also comes with strings, requiring matching funds to small business, but not to universities. That is tantamount to asking a small business to undertake a profit looking contract. Since US companies do not do R&D, no one is going to pay for that, leaving this job of R&D to unqualified academics, often with no practical expertise, at best, and who plagarize patents at worst.

  5. Tom Pfotzer

    Every once in a while I trot out one of my favorite observations about the U.S. economy. It goes like this:

    Big components of our economy are currently obsolete. Materials (steel, concrete, aluminum), transport (motorway), energy, ag, education, health care.

    They are dead men walking. And yet…they are still walking. Why? Because there aren’t yet any real alternatives.


    What’s the problem with ag?

    Water. Soil erosion. Nutrient runoff. Massive transport and energy investment (fertilizer) to get heavy, bulky inputs into the field, then massive transport to get heavy, bulky outputs to destinations. Big portion of outputs goes thru inefficient transformation, for ex. animal feed, which suffers a 10-to-1 loss of calories as it becomes meat.

    The ag infrastructure is highly productive. It’s wonderful in that regard. But that big output only happens because the inputs are equally massive, and they’re very inefficient, and the model doesn’t fit reality any more. Reality can’t keep feeding that model of production.

    Alternatives? Local ag isn’t all that great either. Yes, somewhat fewer inputs, and also a lot fewer outputs. How much of total consumption is delivered via local ag? If local is so efficient and wonderful, how come the big guys aren’t doing it?

    They aren’t doing it because it’s not very efficient, either.

    Local ag labor costs per unit output are a lot higher, and local ag depends upon consumers being willing to pay more in order to achieve environmental goals.

    That’s great, except a lot of consumers aren’t willing to pay more. Nevermind what they say, watch what they _do_.

    So, there’s a lot of work to be done to make the local-ag sector operationally competitive with the centralized big-ship big-input model.

    To solve the big problems like water shortage and climate change, we’re going to need viable alternatives that get beyond the feel-good and into the work-good.

  6. Steven

    I remember years ago reading, probably on this site, that fracking was destroying (as in poisoning, rendering undrinkable, etc.) the nation’s aquifers at a prodigious rate. Anyone have any information about this?

    P.S. On the plus side it did buy us a few more years of cheap electricity and allow the nation to export ‘molecules of freedom’.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      There is little fracking in the areas around the main aquifers described in this article.

      Fracking does not directly impact on most of the most important US aquifers – shale with tight oil or gas are usually much deeper than aquifers and if the wells are correctly designed and drilled (a big ‘if’), then there should be no direct impact. The main water problem with fracking is that the process produces a lot of wastewater which has a range of contaminents that needs to be disposed of or treated. Sometimes its left in settlement ponds which have been known to leak into near surface aquifers. Wastewater is sometimes disposed of by injecting into very deep rocks. In theory, this should not impact on aquifers, but again, it depends on how well the operators are monitored and regulated.

      Fracking is bad news for freshwater, but its impact pales beside that of other uses and especially inappropriate agricultural use.

      1. R

        there are definitely cases where the oil industry has polluted drinking water in the central valley.

        it’s not fracking so much there but there are practices like injecting steam and waste water into wells, and general dumping of waste water from drilling that can contaminate water supplies

        deer creek had an incident where wells polluted an aquifer, and there is disposal of oil waste all over the valley in places leeching into groundwater, or risking run off into rivers in heavy rain

  7. Susan the other

    Replenishing depleted aquifers sounds promising. Especially because water underground doesn’t evaporate. And practicing water conservation on the local level, because rain is a local phenomenon. Last Spring here in Utah the new governor recommended, and even issued, rain barrels in some places. High-tech toilets anyone? Fabrics? Dry-cleaning? Small gardens? But thinking big can’t be avoided. Big Ag is high tech these days, including irrigation systems – which are big water users because the farm/orchard is so enormous – in order to make enough profit to stay in business… the Achilles’ hell of our economic system. A little downsizing might be a good thing. Already California’s cattle ranchers have up and moved to Texas. I remember almonds used to be a specialty item 30 years ago. Now the almonds are piled high on display counters all over the store and relatively cheaper than they used to be. It’s a little like competitive production in the extreme. Almond farms are notoriously thirsty. It would be good for us to establish detailed water use guidelines and regulations locally. Not just public service announcements. Because, remember the Anasazi. They toughed it out for at least a thousand years, but it just finally got too dry, even for them.

  8. Alex Cox

    Andalucia is also stricken by drought. But for several decades Almeria and Murcia have been growing Europe’s vegetables in massive, enclosed ‘invernaderos’ – plastic-covered tunnels in which water and nutrients are very efficiently recycled. An internet search for ‘costa plastica’ will show what they look like.

    They are not pretty and they are largely not producing organic fare. But they work. Perhaps Iran and the US southwest could learn from this.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      They are a blot on the landscape in the south of Spain, but they are generally a very water and energy efficient means of growing vegetables in arid lands. To a large extent, Andalucia is the California of Europe, at least with regard to fruit and vegetables. A very high percentage of the fruit and veg in my local supermarket comes directly from there.

      The wastage of water in irrigation around the world is staggering, mostly because for all sorts of political and historical reasons its too cheap and easy to use. The Israeli’s are probably the world leaders in squeezing the maximum from a limited amount of water.

  9. Sue inSoCal

    This is not just about water, but about climate, water and impending unsustainability of living in deserts and how we contribute to water loss even with good intentions. I hope I’m not far afield (no pun intended). My comment here is about xeriscaping. Living in the desert, or even in areas where we’re hitting high temperature extremes, the hardscape approach adds to urban island warming, even though watering huge lawns etc isn’t appropriate in areas where there will be inevitable loss of water. (Sacramento, formerly known for it’s gorgeous vegetation and 60 years ago the best water in the nation, adopted hard cement/surfaces everywhere for water conservation and thus has notorious urban island warming.)
    Unfortunately, especially in the low deserts, tricking your landscaping out in DG, cement and hardscape feels like living in a pizza oven, potentially requiring more cooling/water. It’s a paradox indeed.


    Here’s someone in CT:

  10. lordkoos

    Here in eastern WA we are in a condition of moderate drought. Locally, there is a hugely expensive plan being put forth to take more water from the Yakima river for agriculture. As it is now, the irrigation water runs in uncovered ditches and canals alongside farms, and a local retired geography professor has been advocating covering the ditches and/or piping that water as an alternative, which would be many millions of dollars cheaper than the more elaborate project. His idea could save a huge amount of water that is presently lost to evaporation, something like 25-30%. I’m not sure of the current status of the bigger project, but I know that the state is not listening to this professor.

  11. a fax machine

    This is 50% an agricultural problem and 50% a utilities problem. The moment wells go dry, it becomes a fight over water rights, water pipes, and water storage. Cities with enough cash will build their own desalination plants and (gas) power plants to fuel them with power. Farms will cease operating as ranching moves north and east. Optimistically, the Valley’s biggest cities – Sacramento, Stockton, Fresno and Bakersfield – have enough money/political patronage for this. Cynically, the state government opposes any coastal development and opposes nuclear power plants which previously contained CA’s largest desalination units.

    So what happens to the rest? The cities that can’t afford it become mexico tier with delivered water, shrink down to dense urban cores with centralized water distribution, or die. I do not think mass migration would necessarily occur, but if it does it will begin when the farms stop hiring people not when residential taps go dry.

  12. Wukchumni

    Groundwater Pumping: A Temporary Fix with Consequences

    As the supply of water from the Colorado River diminishes, Southwest farmers are putting more straws into already declining groundwater that accumulated over thousands to millions of years. But that is a short-term, unsustainable solution that has been tried across the U.S. and around the globe – with major consequences. The High Plains Aquifer and California’s Central Valley are just two examples.
    Hwy 99 is my go to route to get to SoCal and i’ve been driving it a long time, and there used to be some orchards and then vast empty land and so it went for over 50 miles, never varied all that much. And then like so many new subdivisions, the empty spaces got filled up to the point where fallow Ag land is rarely seen along Hwy 99 anymore, and it’s pretty much all tree crops (almonds predominate) with some grapes grown as well.

    Groundwater law was passed in 2014 in the state, but doesn’t grow teeth for a number of years to come, so you’re free to pump it up and nourish those 666 million trees as much as you’d like, so they do.

    Almost everything grown in the Cali Central Valley this summer tasted extra delicious to me, in that the water for those oh so sweet cherries probably had been hanging out 1,240 feet under the dirt for a million years, strictly non replaceable one-time use goods just in time to bear fruit.

    There was none of that always talked about 80% of the surface water goes to Ag and 20% goes to cities blather, as Ag is getting just about nothing, everything is being watered from one giant milkshake underfoot.

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