The Gift of Water

“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”
Ben Franklin

Water is a gift. Without water there would be no life as we know it. It is the vital life blood and circulation system of ecosystem earth. It comprises over 60% our bodies, and sustains all of the earth’s flora and fauna.

Water unites us. It knows no national boundaries. It covers two thirds of the globe. It rides the winds of our atmosphere and permeates the ground we walk on and the air we breath. In a very physical way, it declares that we are one, and the water molecule perspired from the Chinese coal miner’s body this week travels the world to become part of the Wall Street hedge fund manager’s body the next. It is a world traveler following unpredictable and unknowable patterns. One day giving the gift of gentle rain, and the next day giving the pain of prolonged droughts or sudden floods.

Water also divides us, or rather the lack of water divides us. Water scarcity turns friends into enemies as fear drives us to compete for its essential essence.

When the majority of americans were farmers and ranchers, water was not an abstraction. It’s worth was part of everyday consciousness, water wars were common, and it was rarely taken for granted. However, for today’s urban and sub-urban population, water is a given, never further away nor more inconvenient than the nearest faucet.

For most of us water “problems” are seen as a third world issue. However, third world water issues are not much different than the issues we confront in the U.S. The specific story line may differ, but not the central theme, and both the developed world and third world face the same hard limits. The world’s water is fixed and only about 2.5% of the world’s water is considered “fresh”. Of the fresh water, nearly 70% is locked away in glaciers, 30% in groundwater and a mere 0.3% can be found in the world’s lakes and river systems.

The World’s Water
The shared story line worldwide is that glaciers are rapidly receding and giving up their water to the sea, groundwater is being polluted and/or being drawn down at alarming rates, and our lakes and rivers are increasingly being contaminated by industrial, urban, and agricultural wastes and airborne industrial pollutants.
Taken from a human perspective, global world water supply and quality statistics are grim:

  • Every 15 seconds, a child dies from a water-related disease
  • For children under age five, water-related diseases are the leading cause of death
  • At any given time, half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from a water-related disease
  • Close to half of all people in developing countries are suffering at any given time from a health problem caused by water and sanitation deficits
  • Major rivers like the Yangtze and the Ganges don’t reach the sea for much of the year because of upstream withdrawals
  • More than 50% of the world’s population gets its water from climate change threatened Himalayan snow melt.
  • Freshwater ecosystems have been severely degraded: it is estimated that about half the world’s wetlands have been lost, and more than 20 per cent of the world’s 10,000 known freshwater species have become extinct, threatened or endangered
  • Two out of three people in the world will face water shortages by the year 2025 and the CIA predicts that by 2015, drinking-water access could become a major source of world conflict

However, this is not just a third world story. The U.S. story line of crumbling infrastructure, groundwater depletion, and surface water pollution is equally disturbing.

  • Over 700,000 miles of pipe deliver water to U.S. homes and businesses. With a lifetime of 50 years and an average age of 43 years an investment of approximately $1 Trillion over the next twenty years will be required just to maintain our current water distribution system. That represents an increase of more than 150% over our current annual spending levels!
  • Water mains break 237,600 times a year in the United States
  • Over 50% all water breaks occur in pipes built to lower standards in the 20 years immediately after World War II.
  • Cities lose as much as 30% of their clean water supply to leaks alone. These same underground leaks cut both ways and draw arsenic, human waste particles, chlorine, and other pollutants into our drinking water.
  • Local and state governments issue as many as 900 “boil your water” alerts every year.
  • Of the 619 waterborne disease outbreaks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked between 1971 and 1998, 18% were due to pathogens in our water distribution system.
  • Our aging and overburdened sewers are pouring 860 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into our rivers and streams every year and we spend as much as $4 billion every year on medical costs from swimming in sewage-contaminated waters.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey has reported that streams nationwide are laced with prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
  • The nation’s largest underground aquifer, situated beneath South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas is being drawn down at up to one hundred times the natural replacement rate. Based on the current trend, the Ogallala aquifer could be depleted as early as 2020 putting thousands of farms and ranches out of business.
  • A recent report by the Scripps Institute predicts that the Lake Mead reservoir that sustains Phoenix and Las Vegas may become unusable as early as 2021 due to climate change in the Colorado river drainage.
In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “will the well run dry” for American homes? The answer is yes for homes that rely on rapidly depleting aquifers or surface water drainages impacted by global warming. For the rest of us, a crumbling water infrastructure and looming natural gas shortages resulting in blackouts and idled water pumps will cause persistent water quality and supply problems.
In the coming years, water costs will increase dramatically and we will no longer be able to afford the luxury of using clean potable water for flushing toilets and watering blue grass lawns. Residential rainwater harvesting, in-home gray water recycling, and dual plumbed systems will become common as municipal water utilities become strained beyond their limits.
We will come to “know the worth of water”.

“When I was taught economics, I was told that air and water were free goods.
It is intuitively obvious to me [now] that on a planet of 6 or 7 billion people, that [is] no longer the case.”

Richard Sandor, founder of the Chicago Climate Exchange

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