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Why is Clean Water Important Anyway?

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Current Water Events

There’s been so many “water” stories and in various forms in the news lately.  Here are three more recent current event articles about water flooding, water scarcity, and the importance of maintaining water quality…all across the world.

Water Scarcity due to Severe Drought:  https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/24/africa/cape-town-water-crisis-trnd/index.html

Water-logged Cities and attendant Water Contamination Issues:  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-42856634

Water Quality and The Necessary Regulation of:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/27/climate/epa-rescind-water-pollution-regulation.html

In response to the above recent articles, all in one way or another a consequence of Climate Change, it is useful to review some facts about fresh water and the state of our waters, here, in the U.S..

Water Everywhere.  But Relatively Scarce:   Freshwater.

Earth is made up mostly of water.  Seventy-one percent of the planet’s surface is covered by water.  Most of that water is not potable, or drinkable.  Potable water in the traditional sense, comes from fresh water sources (it can also come from recycling used water (i.e., greywater) and from desalination (i.e. taking salt out of saltwater: an expensive and effortful task).  Of all the water that is found on the planet (including both surface and ground water), less than three percent of it (2.5% to be exact) is fresh water.

Let’s make the water calculation a different way.

If we equate all the water on the planet to 100%.  And we know from above, that 2.5% of earth’s water is freshwater (a.k.a. life-supporting water).  What portion of the 2.5% comes from surface waters such as lakes, ponds and rivers – sources of most people’s drinking water?

If the sources of freshwater are broken down, we get:

68.7% of freshwater is locked up in glaciers and ice caps

30.1% is found below the surface in groundwater aquifers (think:  wells for tapping this freshwater source)

1.2% of freshwater is found on Earth’s surface.

The Main Sources of Fresh Water for Human Use

Now, if you take that 1.2% of surface water, how much of it is accessible to us for drinking, washing, and cleaning?  Let’s go through the same source breakdown.

69.0% of surface water is found in ground ice and permafrost

20.9% in lakes

3.8% in soil moisture

3.0% in the atmosphere (think:  rain, hail, sleet, snow)

2.6% in swamps and marshes

0.49% in rivers

0.26% is found in living organisms

Adding the above numbers together, nearly all (99.85%) of all freshwater sources are accounted for.  Of the above freshwater sources, really only water found in lakes and rivers are easily accessible to humans, which equals a fraction more than 21% of all of Earth’s surface water is easily and readily potable for human consumption and use.

The Importance (and Vulnerability) of Groundwater

We shouldn’t rule out groundwater though.  Groundwater is a great source of freshwater and increasingly, below surface aquifers are being tapped to fulfill the consumption needs of countries, industries, communities and individuals across the globe.  Groundwater takes some effort to get to versus the accessibility of surface water.  It also happens not to be as renewable in the way that we think of that term which, for some, may mean its replenishable, available for continuous use, or sustainable in the long-term.  Groundwater sources need time to replenish.  If we take out water from below surface aquifers faster than they can recharge themselves, groundwater systems become depleted.  Many groundwater aquifers replenish themselves over much longer periods than the demands and needs of humans – centuries or more.  Then there is fossil groundwater:  below surface water reserves that exist but when depleted, do not have the capacity to recharge themselves and are forever gone.  In fact, three-quarters of groundwater is non-renewable, unable to recharge in a sufficient timeframe to satisfy the ever growing human populations’ current water demands.

A Scarce Resource is a Valuable Resource

What does any of this have to do with the deregulation of America’s waterways – rivers, streams and creeks?  Freshwater is not in high abundance.  We need to be very careful about how we manage the freshwater sources currently at our “disposal” so to speak.  We need to understand that surface waters available for human consumption are not plentiful and the ones that are, namely rivers and lakes, are easily polluted because they are used for so many other human-endeavored activities: recreation (e.g., boating and swimming), commerce, effluent dumping by industry, and end-deposit centers for agricultural run-off (e.g., manure, pesticides and fertilizers).  Another way of thinking about this challenge is to think about freshwater as a finite or limited resource.

Water Pollution in the U.S. is a Growing Concern

In the United States alone, 45% of all rivers and streams have been reported as impaired according to the 2002 National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program run by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).  The U.S. EPA has categorized nearly 40% of all rivers and streams analyzed in the U.S. to be too polluted for fishing and swimming (let alone for ingestion).  In the U.S., groundwater supplies a large proportion of fresh water to public municipalities and the agricultural industry, between 30-40% by USGS estimates. There are 62 groundwater aquifers in the U.S.  The volume demand for below surface aquifer freshwater is increasing especially as urban communities grow and intensify, and as agricultural yields play an outsized role in feeding growing populations; a worrying trend.  The idea behind regulating the waters that feed our major rivers and lakes is that they are all connected.  Pollution runs downstream.  For lakes, pollution hits a dead stop and takes a long time (hundreds to thousands of years) to dissipate and resolve itself (even with a human hand helping along remediation).

Undervaluing and Abusing “Free” Resources

Most “water” is considered a public resource and free.  Federal regulation of freshwater sources and systems wards against Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons where our freshwater sources are over used to the point of exhaustion or so thoroughly polluted as to be poisonous to humans.  Now doesn’t that sound like a reasonable use of our taxpayer dollars?

Contact Kate Gaertner today to see what Triple Win Advisory can do to help your business and industry increase sustainability to result in a “triple win” for company profit and long-term competitive advantage, societal well-being, and successful environmental pollution mitigation.

References:

Hunt, Constance E.  (2004).  Thirsty Planet:  Strategies for Sustainable Water Management.  New York, New York, Zed Books.

Mullen, Kimberly.  (2012).  Distribution of the Earth’s water.  National Ground Water Association.

Perlman, Howard. (2016, December).  The World’s Water.  U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.

Sipes, James L. (2010).  Sustainable Solutions for Water Resources.  Hoboken, New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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