Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop To Spare

Water in California is running out, as the state hits its driest point in 500 years. This will cause repercussions through agricultural, industrial and other means.

Water in California is running out as the state hits its driest point in 500 years. This will cause repercussions through agricultural, industrial and other means.

Growing concerns that drives many to action are the problems with water. Water is a nonrenewable resource that is not considered by many to be running out, but may become scarce in the century to come. Many predict that the next wars won’t be fought over oil or land but water. Water is running out in its quantity as well as quality because of human activities. Much of the rhetoric spoken about water revolves around the Environmental Wisdom viewpoint-that we should heed the lessons of nature to preserve this valuable resource. There is also a threat that water is being privatized and bottled so that it physically virtually is not available to the public. These problems and more must be addressed to save the future from the overwhelmingly important need of water. Lack of clean water is a huge problem across the world because it is a huge problem for those in intense poverty as poor people are responsible for finding and carrying water, national and global security issues are started from the conflict over lack of water, and environmental problems stem from lack of water because water tables fall draining lakes, rivers and wetlands.

Deep down in the bedrock there are aquifers, or underground caverns and porous layers of sand, gravel, or rock through which groundwater flows. Many of these aquifers are replenished by recharge from lakes, rivers, wetlands or precipitation. There are unfortunately many times in which this is interfered with due to climate change, urbanization and more.

This diagram of an aquifer outlines the processes of aquifers

This diagram outlines the processes of how aquifers work

Surface runoff in particular is diverted when there is concrete or no soil allowing infiltration into the aquifers. This is a problem because we withdraw about 34% of the world’s reliable runoff. And since two-thirds of the annual surface runoff into rivers and streams is lost in seasonal floods is not available for human use. 70% of the water we withdraw from lakes, rivers and aquifers is used to irrigate cropland and raise livestock-rising to 90% in arid regions. In general, we find that people with more affluent lifestyles need larger amounts of water as well, so the impact of water withdrawal is greater. In general, however, one in every six people do not have access to clean water, and the situation is only predicted to get worse as times goes on.

One idea that cities have followed is extracting water from aquifers. Pumping from aquifers has enabled water-poor areas like the Great Plains to be turned into productive, irrigated agricultural regions. However, with this massive withdrawal of water the water tables drop and are accessible only by means of intense pumping. This, unfortunately, has widened the gap of people who can survive farming in these areas or not-since poor farmers cannot afford to pump as rigorously with as costly machinery as larger agricultural corporations.

Another solution to lack of water is to build a dam, or a structure built across a river to control its flow which creates a reservoir behind it. This enables a particular area to capture water runoff and release it to generate energy, supply water for irrigation

Hoover dam, one of the largest dams in the world, helps harness the power of the Colorado River.

Hoover dam, one of the largest dams in the world, helps harness the power of the Colorado River.

and more. These dams provide valuable, renewable energy to vast communities as well as more water for them as well. However, there are downsides to this solution as well. The dams causes flooding inhabited areas and also prevents the river from performing important functions for the ecosystem. Species of freshwater fishes and other organisms are threatened by the buildup of silt and sediments that occurs after the dam has been in use for several decades.

Climate change effects will be detrimental to the flow of rivers and replenishing of lakes as well. For example, if Himalayan snow melt begins at a faster rate and glaciers disappear, the lakes and rivers that are fed by them will dry up. Reservoirs can be created to collect the dwindling water supplies but the main concern of climate change should ultimately be addressed.

Desalination is another solution that many cite as the ultimate solution to water

The Huzaira Desalination Plant is one of many that allows Middle Eastern countries to thrive even without access to fresh water.

The Huzaira Desalination Plant is one of many that allows Middle Eastern countries to thrive even without access to fresh water.

resource problems: Our entire planet is covered in salt water, so why not desalinate the water we already have? The difficulty is that the energy to remove salt from seawater is expensive and will mainly involve the combustion of fossil fuels. And what happens when salts are removed and the briny seawater that is left kills many marine organisms. Salty waste-water is dumped into nearby coastal ocean waters increasing the salinity of the ocean water which threatens organisms nearby. Thus, desalination should really only be used in water-short, wealthy communities.

Probably the best solution to diminishing water supplies is reducing waste water to a much lower level than it is at now. Much of the waste-water is lost through evaporation, leaks and other losses. The main problem is that water prices are made artificially low by subsidies that allow for the irrigation of crops in dry areas. A way to rectify this is by pricing users of water by how much water they use.

Changing irrigation methods can also help reduce waste water that is used on crops. 60% of water sent to crops does not reach them, but with a method of irrigation called flood irrigation more water is delivered to crops because only 40% of water is

Drip irrigation will work well in water-poor areas, as less of it is used, and more of that is actually used by plants.

Drip irrigation will work well in water-poor areas, as less of it is used, and more of that is actually used by plants.

lost through evaporation, seepage and runoff. Center-pivot, low-pressure sprinklers uses pumps to spray water on a crop and only 20% of water is lost. Drip irrigation is the most efficient way to deliver small amounts of water precisely to crops consisting of plastic tubing installed at or below ground level. If we treat and reuse municipal sewage water for crop production, that will also reduce waste water. Rainwater and hand pumps can and are used for irrigation in third world countries.

Shifting away from coal-burning and nuclear power plants will help reduce water waste as well because it will limit the huge quantities used in the cooling systems. Toilet water is a huge waste accounting for one-fourth of home water use. Instead, a light mist like the low-flow showerheads can save large amounts of water by cutting the flow of the shower in half.  Xeros Ltd. in particular, is a company that has developed washing machines that use only one cup of water per load.

At home the use of native plants in yard plantings as well as the use of gray-water, or water that was used from bathtubs, showers and clothes washers can be reused.

Native Plants, such as these cacti, planted in yards will save homeowners a lot of water due to the adaption of the plants to the climate it is planted in.

Native Plants, such as these cacti, planted in yards will save homeowners a lot of water due to the adaption of the plants to the climate it is planted in.

Places like Las Vegas and Los Angeles that are water poor are reclaimed and reused to irrigate nonfood crops, which could save about 50-75% of waste water.

Sewage treatment plants which conventionally are used and instead dumped in the water where the nutrient-rich sludge deoxygenates water resources and not be able to apply to cropland soils. Instead we can convert the sludge into soil-like humus that can be turned into fertilizer.

Sometimes a problem opposite to that of droughts occurs when natural flooding by streams or heavy downpours occurs. A flood happens when water in a stream overflows into an area adjacent to the river called a floodplain. Floods can be beneficial as they bring nutrient-rich silt and a recharge of groundwater as well as refilling wetlands-supporting biodiversity and aquatic ecological services. Floods have the side-effects of causing massive destruction to human-made places and destroying places where vegetation has been stripped off of the land. Projected climate change will increase flooding in many lowland areas, and the draining of wetlands will also make the lowland areas more vulnerable.

Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, experiences flooding as residents are forced to evacuate.

Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, experiences flooding as residents are forced to evacuate.

Bangladesh, in particular, is susceptible to flooding as one-fifth of its area sits more than three feet below sea level. In the past, major floods happened once in every fifty years, but

because of climate change, they are occurring more and more. Coastal mangrove forests have been cleared for aquaculture and firewood harvesting and thus leave the lands even more susceptible to storm surges, cyclones and tsunamis.

To improve our control of flooding, it is more effective to use natural methods such as reviving wetlands and vegetation that retains soil in the watershed areas. Using dams and levees or channeling the river will eliminate aquatic habitats and increase downstream flooding and sediment deposition as well as increase water’s capacity for doing damage downstream. In general, existing wetlands must be protected and degraded wetlands must be restored.

In places where there is adequate water, at times pollution can be a problem-disrupting the health of humans and ecosystems. The main sources of water pollution are point and non-point source pollution. Point source pollution can be traced to an individual source or location, such as drainage pipes, ditches or sewer lines from factories and waste treatment plants. In contrast, nonpoint source pollution comes from broad and diffused points such as livestock feedlots, lawns and

Pipe discharge in the lower Colorado River is an example of point source pollution

Pipe discharge in the lower Colorado River is an example of point source pollution

golf courses.

Agricultural activities are the leading cause of water pollution, specifically non-point source pollution. Sediment from loose soils as well as fertilizers and pesticides are major agricultural pollutants. Industrial activities contribute to pollution as well because inorganic and organic chemicals are dumped into bodies of water and destroy the ecosystems therein. Finally, mining is one of the major sources of water pollution because it causes the runoff of toxic chemicals and sediments into the water. Finally, plastics also contribute to water pollution, though they may seem to be the most harmless of the pollutants they can be deceiving because they never truly degrade in the water. They take hundreds of years to disintegrate fully.

These water pollutants do not only cause trouble for the environments that they are dumped into, but they also affect human health if they are not removed from the

A sample of the kinds of infectious diseases that are found in unsafe drinking water across the globe

A sample of the kinds of infectious diseases that are found in unsafe drinking water across the globe

water. Unsafe drinking water (according to the World Health Organization) kills more people than all war and violence combined, each year.

Solutions to the water pollution problems arise when we look at the natural mechanisms surrounding them. For example, half of all rivers and streams worldwide are heavily polluted, however if they are not overloaded they can cleanse themselves of their pollutants. The streams and rivers won’t cleanse themselves though if they are overloaded or prevented from flowing, or simply run dry from lack of spring melt. And as an added note, streams do not easily remove industrial wastes, mainly inorganic materials. Fish kills and drinking water contamination happen because of this dumping of materials.

An example of a huge turnaround for a river was the Cuyahoga river in Ohio. At one point it would burn from the flammable chemicals being dumped into it.

A look at the state of the Cuyahoga River before and after cleanup.

A look at the state of the Cuyahoga River before and after cleanup.

Thankfully, with the prodding of citizens in a bottom-up campaign the river is now much cleaner and fishers and anglers can now fish safely in it.

Biomagnification of chemicals, as introduced earlier, is one effect of some chemicals which are dumped in bodies of water in “small doses” thought to not have much affect on the ecosystem but instead are magnified in concentration up the food chain. Eutrophication also happens when the natural enrichment of shallow lakes, estuaries or streams occurs from nitrates and phosphates in the surrounding lands. A more intense process called cultural eutrophication occurs from activities such as industrialized farming which lead to blooms of algae in periods of drought that choke out vital phytoplankton that support fish populations.

Drinking water comes into play in terms of water pollution when you consider the massive amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, gasolines and organic solvents that can seep into the groundwater from numerous sources. When we pump groundwater aquifers we run into the problem that people get sick or worse from the

This spring in Clark County, Kentucky was polluted with crude oil from a break in an oil pipeline

This spring in Clark County, Kentucky was polluted with crude oil from a break in an oil pipeline

contamination. Groundwater is different from streams and rivers in that is flows very slowly and thus contaminants cannot be dispersed as quickly. This is worrisome for a country like China, which draws around 70% of its drinking water from groundwater.

Finding the pollution source and stopping it is, again, much easier to do than the intense methods of removing the semi-permanent and permanent chemicals from water. As stated before, pollution is easier to prevent than it is to clean up and the focus that we choose to take should be on preventing pollution before it even comes in contact with the environment. If cleanup is needed though, microorganisms can be released into the water to clean up contamination.

For smaller quantities of drinking water there are products like the Lifestraw, a portable water filter that eliminates many viruses and parasites from water that is drawn into it. It is extremely useful for the poor of Africa and other third-world countries. PUR is another product that contains chlorine and iron sulfate. The powder is added to dirty water, stirred and then drained through a clean cloth. Once that happens the water is drinkable once again.

This turbid water in Kenya was treated with PUR, and is now safe to drink

Laws can protect our drinking water and keep it as clean as states such as New York’s-drinking water known for its purity. The U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 discusses the maximum contaminant levels for any pollutants that may have adverse effects on human health.

Some consumers may turn to bottled water as it appears to be better than tap water, however it is not a viable solution. Bottled water causes more problems than it solves, as energy to bottle and drink it is extremely high compared to tap water, and it also degrades the environment when the bottles are thrown into the environment. Also, when companies like Poland Spring attempt to privatize previously public water sources, they are disenfranchising the community that depends on it for their own use.

Ocean water is also at risk of pollutants, despite its size and vast depth. The natural filters of much of the ocean such as mangrove forests and wetlands have been depleted. Normally they stop toxins from entering the ocean from the land

What happens in the process of hypoxia, or the formation of dead zones,

What happens in the process of hypoxia, or the formation of dead zones.

but with the destruction of wetlands the filters are no longer in place. Out at sea, boats also pollute it and it is difficult to regulate many of this pollution because it is not technically part of any boundaries of a country. Pollutants such as oil are great threats, but runoff from industrial agriculture can cause dead zones where the oxygen levels are so low that nothing can live there.

The main solutions for water pollution include, but are not limited to reducing groundwater contamination, treating sewage, finding substitutes for toxins in many materials, and more. Working with nature is vital to stop water pollution as well as the depletion of water resources. Water’s value is immeasurable and we cannot truly quantify all of its jobs in the ecosystems, thus we should conserve and protect this vital resource before its too late.

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