Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty
This editorial is part of our GREAT DEBATE feature ‘What Resource Do We Most Need For Our Future?‘A few days ago I took the subway downtown in search of Collect Pond Park, which marks what was once one of the most important fresh water sources for New York City’s early settlers.
The Dutch colonists stepped off their ships to find plenty of clear streams and bubbling springs to quench their thirst, but it will probably surprise no one that it took only a couple hundred years to completely spoil them.
By 1811, according to geologist and historian Sidney Horenstein, the Collect Pond was gone, filled with trash and dirt from flattened hills. Today the park that marks its location is, appropriately, paved over.
Despite the pond’s fate, New Yorkers again have some of the cleanest drinking water in the world—but only because the city has spent billions of dollars on a series of never-ending engineering projects to pump fresh, unpolluted water from the Catskill Mountains and Delaware River.
Those early settlers may have looked out on Manhattan’s abundant water resources and thought they were inexhaustible. They quickly found otherwise.
We should all learn from their mistake. The threats to fresh water—our most vital natural resource—have never been more abundant. With global population skyrocketing, our ability to feed ourselves taxed, and humankind’s thirst for cheap energy showing no sign of abating, the strains on our water supply are ever growing. And they’re only going to get worse as the world’s climate changes, causing weather patterns and ecosystems to shift.
But there may also be hope: concerns about drinking water tend to motivate people like few other environmental threats. Witness the current backlash against efforts to drill for natural gas in watersheds across America, or the populist protests that stopped (at least for now) a tar sands pipeline from crossing the Great Plains’ most important aquifer. At least here in the United States, some people are paying attention to where their water comes from and making sure it stays safe.
And they should. The world’s water consumption doubles every 20 years—considerably more than the rate of population growth, writes Alex Prud’homme in his must-read 2011 book The Ripple Effect. Record droughts and rampant pollution have decimated water supplies from Spain to Australia in recent years, and conflicts over who controls water have incited violence in Africa and Central America. By 2025, as many as 3.4 billion people will face water scarcity, according to the United Nations. Here in the United States, the federal government predicts that 36 states will be dealing with water shortages by 2013.
A little over a year ago, I sat through a presentation by several water experts at the Natural Resources defence Council, who made the challenges facing the U.S. water supply crystal clear. They showed charts and maps tracking where the demand for water was growing the fastest, where population is projected to climb at the highest rate, and which states are expected to see the most severe impacts from climate change. It should come as no surprise by now that those areas all overlapped, with Florida, the arid Southwest, and the agricultural heartland covered by virtual bullseyes.
Aside from the obvious drains on our water supply, such as agriculture, we also have to contend with our ever-growing demand for energy. Clean energy choices such as wind and solar require comparatively small amounts of water, but traditional sources such as coal, nuclear, diesel, and natural gas are water intensive. Prud’homme points out that Americans use as much water by lighting and heating their homes as they do by turning on the faucet.
Last year my colleague Barry Yeoman spent a week with scientists on Lake Erie, learning how a Great Lake declared near death decades before, which then became a symbol of environmental recovery, is once again sliding toward biological collapse. The culprits are many, but agricultural pollution is near the top of the list. The Clean Water Act and other environmental regulations helped clean up the rivers flowing into Lake Erie once before, but they do a much better job at regulating point sources of pollution, such as factories and power plants, than the chemical-laden pesticides we put on our fields and front lawns. And many of those same rules are under increasing attack from a political culture that characterises regulations as a threat to big business—even when they’re saving lives.
That’s why it’s heartening that the biggest environmental fight of the past year hinged on saving water. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would span 1,700 miles from northern Canada to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast, first drew the ire of conservationists because it would encourage further development of Alberta’s massive tar sands fields, spoiling the boreal forest and spelling “game over for the climate,” as NASA’s James Hansen put it. But when push came to shove, it was the potential impact of oil spills on the Ogallala aquifer, which underlies portions of eight states, that drew the ire of ranchers and small-town residents. Their opposition spoiled the project’s prospects and led the Obama administration to reject the pipeline permit (at least for now).
The fact that concern for our most important resource can transcend traditional political leanings and stop poor decision-making ought to inspire a modicum of hope. After all, there are solutions to our water crisis—personal conservation, increased efficiency, updated regulations, modern farming methods, technological innovation, smarter cities, greenhouse gas reductions, clean energy, intensive recycling—but they won’t come easy. Because unlike those early settlers who trashed the Collect Pond, the citizens of a hot, crowded, and parched globe can’t simply pipe in new water from somewhere upstate. The earth contains 332.5 million cubic miles of water. That’s all we get. It might seem like an awful lot, but those colonists probably thought the same thing when they saw the clear, abundant streams stretching out across their new island. We don’t have that luxury.
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