The current world population is 7.008 billion people according to estimates from the United States Census Bureau. That population is expected to increase to between 7.5 billion and 10.5 billion by 2050, depending upon which set of projections you use. Every single one of those 7 billion souls share, among other common requirements, the need for potable water. It’s one of the great unifying concepts of mankind. We all need clean water. We need it for industry, we need it for agriculture, we need it to drink. Water is the most basic and essential element of life on our planet.
After considering the present and ever-growing global demand for clean drinking water, evaluate the supply. Freshwater comprises about 2.5% of the Earth’s water supply. Only 0.4% of that 2.5% is accessible as surface water or water being actively conveyed in the atmosphere. The remainder is found in glaciers (68.7%), groundwater (30.1%) and permafrost (0.8%). If all of the earth’s water was represented by a gallon bottle, the amount of water available for human consumption would be a little more than a tablespoon. As the population increases we put more demand on that tablespoon full of water. At the same time, human activity degrades the existing sources of potable water. The end result is like burning the candle at both ends; we increase our demand on the resource while simultaneously reducing the ability of that resource to meet those demands.
No wonder a recent report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI)warned of trouble brewing on a global scale due to a shortage of available potable water. Interestingly, the ODNI report, which evaluated the potential for water-related conflicts around the world, touted the ability of the United States to help alleviate international discord through our ability to manage water systems. The report stated:
Because US expertise in water management is widely recognized, the developing world will look to the United States to lead the global community toward the development and implementation of sound policies for managing water resources at the local, national, and regional levels.
The report went on to add potential opportunities for the United States to use its financial and economic power to influence global events:
US expertise on water resource management in both the public and private sectors is highly regarded and will be sought after worldwide.
So, considering the precarious nature of the world’s potable water supply and the acknowledged expertise of the U.S. in managing water, are we appropriately managing our own domestic water supplies? Well, maybe not, at least when it comes to groundwater supplies.
The amount of freshwater contained in underground aquifers dwarfs surface water supplies. 95% of rural communities in the United States rely on groundwater wells. The agriculture industry extracts billions of gallons from underground aquifers for irrigation needs. We place great demand on our groundwater resources. The result has been the draw down of our nation’s major aquifers, like the Ogallala in the Midwest or the Basin and Range in the Southwest, beyond their recharge capacities. The Coastal Plain aquifers stretching from New Jersey to Florida have been overdrawn to the point where saltwater intrusion has become a major issue. However, our inability to manage consumption is just the tip of the iceberg.
Widespread contamination of groundwater supplies combined with unsustainable levels of extraction may very well be a legacy, albeit a negative one, that we pass on to the next generation. Urban and suburban development, industrial activity and agricultural operations all have their effect on water supplies. Landfills and hazardous waste facilities, farming, mining, septic runoff, and of particular note recently, oil and gas injection wells, all contribute substances ranging from heavy metals to pesticides and volatile organic chemicals into the groundwater supplies of our country. Because groundwater is essentially out of sight and because supplies have been historically abundant, the issue of the quality and the quantity of our groundwater has largely been ignored.
As global climate change alters precipitation patterns, as development and growth continues and as surface water supplies are both overextended and degraded, our society will come to rely more and more on our underground water reserves. When future generations turn to the reserves, what will they find? When they find it, what will it say about our generation?
Our pursuit of new energy sources, manifested mainly by the increase in natural gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing or fracking, involves the injection of chemical laden water into deep wells. Although the industry claims there will be no effect because the wells go below the zone of saturation, can we be sure that injecting water-bearing an unknown mixture of chemical compounds into deep fractured rock will not enter drinking water aquifers? Additionally, escape of chemical tainted water from improperly drilled wells and the release of contaminated waste water onto the surface have already been proven to be issues. Contaminated domestic drinking water wells near fracking sites that contain chemicals, or more dramatically methane in quantities large enough to be ignited, are warning signs. We need new sources of energy, but how we go about extracting that energy should not threaten our water resources. It’s irresponsible to politicize the issue, but in our polarized world you’re either with us or against us. The security of drinking water resources for future generations becomes secondary to the decision over whether we will drill or not.
Likewise agricultural uses are a major draw on groundwater supplies. In our pursuit of more and more production in less time and on less land the bucolic farm of yesterday has become a relic. We have replaced traditional agriculture with industrial operations that rely heavily on the use of fertilizers and pesticides. As a result of our national agricultural policies we encourage and even subsidize the application of chemicals on our crops, much of which goes right into the water systems that provide irrigation water. Substances like the herbicide Bromacil and the insecticide Chlordane have become ubiquitous in our nation’s groundwater. Next week, the USDA will decide whether to allow Monsanto and Dow to introduce the chemical 2,4 D , one half of the chemical mixture Agent Orange, into our food supply and, inevitably, into our groundwater. This is a chemical linked to cancer, Parkinson’s and reproductive problems. Again, the politicization of these issues is irresponsible. Once again we risk the future of our water supplies for immediate returns. We need adequate affordable sources of food but at what price?
A common denominator in these issues is the power of money in politics. Whether the big money of energy companies clearing the way to fracking in the easiest and least restricted manner possible or the influence of the big agribusinesses like Monsanto or ADM in shaping our national farm bills, we’re making choices as a nation for the short-term. The power of corporate money in politics is corrosive. The effects always seem to be magnified when it comes to the exploitation of resources and the protection of our environment. The big money interests inevitably win out. It doesn’t need to be that way. We can provide for the needs of a modern society while protecting the environment. It’s just harder to do. We allow it to happen because we don’t view a healthy environment as a co-equal societal need.
The consequences may very well be the degradation of what will eventually prove to be our most precious natural resource, our underground freshwater reservoirs. They may turn out to be America’s 21st Century Superfund sites. When future generations look to (or are forced to) rely on the formerly abundant and formerly pure groundwater sources they will find them neither abundant nor clean. The costs to clean up polluted groundwater sources may be prohibitively expensive, if we can even create the technology to do so. Unlike the 20th Century’s legacy of Superfund sites, where the consequences of toxic waste disposal were not fully appreciated, the issue of protection of our water supplies is well understood. We know that the next 50 years are likely to be marked by global conflicts where access to water will play a central role. We need to take control of the politics that affect the protection of our water resources. Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, Progressives, Conservatives and Libertarians and any other political persuasion you can think of will become irrelevant if we don’t address this issue. After all, responsible management of water resources is one of our national strengths. Let’s see if we can put aside partisanship and corporate influence to fully realize our capabilities in protecting this vital resource.