- Environmental Health -

Troubled Waters

Why water is the top health issue of our time — and what you can do about it.

Troubled Waters, June 2010

To read an updated version of the article below see, “Troubled Waters“.

Looking at a satellite photo of our mostly blue Earth, it’s hard to believe that dwellers on our planet could ever worry about water. And yet more than 2 billion people live in regions that are “water stressed,” where, according to the United Nations Environment Programme’s definition, “the demand for water exceeds the available amount during a certain period or when poor quality restricts its use.”

The U.S. Agency for International Development predicts that by 2025, one-third of all human beings will face serious and chronic water shortfalls. And according to the World Health Organization, contaminated water is implicated in an astounding 80 percent of all sickness and disease worldwide.

Because the most dramatic challenges have affected the global South, the water crisis can seem far away — another sad Third World dilemma. Yet there are plenty of Americans for whom the water crisis is very real.

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in early 2009 as his state entered a third year of crippling drought. Mandatory water conservation hit Los Angeles last June and the Austin, Texas, area in August. And the mushrooming population of Atlanta, a city that receives a generous 50 inches of rain a year, has stressed municipal water supplies to the point that some government officials are concerned that the city will go dry unless it gains full access to the water of Lake Lanier, about 50 miles to the northwest. (Georgia is currently embroiled in a bitter “water war” with Florida and Alabama over Lanier.) Meanwhile, depletion of underground aquifers in Florida has created thousands of sinkholes — spots where the earth has given way and half-swallowed cars and houses.

Even more troubling is the question of safe drinking water. A December 2009 New York Times report underscored the unsettling fact that regulatory agencies haven’t kept up with the increasing toxicity of America’s waters; current law regulates only 91 of the approximately 60,000 chemical substances found in our drinking water.

While there is no firm consensus on how much of a health threat pollution poses, many scientists point out that we have enough data to take action now, before remedial measures become more difficult and costly — as they did with asbestos and dangerous food additives.

Americans also have to contend with a trend toward privatizing water — for-profit companies controlling all or part of municipal water supplies. Takeovers of water systems by private firms — which has happened in Bolivia and the Philippines as well as in Kentucky and California — have led to increased water rates, reduction of service and other problems.

Even if the water crisis doesn’t yet seem to have hit home where you live, it’s almost certain that it eventually will. So here’s what you should know about the top four threats to Earth’s water, and how you can protect yourself and your loved ones.

1. Freshwater Supplies

It’s true that we can never actually run out of water. All of our planet’s water circulates in the hydrological cycle as evaporation, clouds, rain and water. But only 2.5 percent of Earth’s water is fresh rather than salty, and only 1 percent of that is available to us in rivers, lakes and underground aquifers. And all of those sources are under grave stress worldwide.

Too many people, too much irrigation, galloping urbanization — they’re all depleting water reserves and shifting water away from many places on Earth where it’s needed, even as global warming melts glaciers, an important source of river renewal, and makes weather patterns more unpredictable.

As Ken Midkiff reports in Not a Drop to Drink: America’s Water Crisis (and What You Can Do) (New World Library, 2007), burgeoning Sun Belt cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Diego are fighting with heavily subsidized corporate farmers in San Diego County and in California’s Imperial Valley over access to water from the Colorado River. In fact, the once-mighty river has been so thoroughly dammed and diverted that it no longer reaches the sea — it trickles away into mud in the deserts of Sonora, Mexico. And climate researchers at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography reported in April 2009 that if even the most conservative global-warming scenarios prove true, the river could fail to meet the demands placed upon it 60 to 90 percent of the time by midcentury.

Our subterranean freshwater is comparably stressed. The great Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies the High Plains and produces most of the water for irrigated agriculture from New Mexico to western Kansas, is being so heavily tapped that its shallower western end may go dry this year, while the middle area (underlying the heaviest irrigation zones) has 40 years left at best. And it may be economically prohibitive to draw water from the aquifer well before that date.

Midkiff notes that food prices are likely to soar if this “breadbasket” region, which produces 35 percent of our food, goes dry. And if significant areas of the desert Southwest go too dry to support their current level of urban life, other parts of the country could see an influx of “water refugees” crowding into less water-stressed urban areas.

What to Do
The first step is to become more informed on the issues, because, as noted, even if vanishing water isn’t directly affecting you now, it’s likely to in the near future. Our next-best recourse is “good law,” says Canadian eco-activist Maude Barlow, author of Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water (New Press, 2007). Midkiff agrees. He suggests urging our representatives in Washington to end or curtail the massive subsidies that pay the West’s mostly corporate farmers for overproducing on irrigated land. (He also suggests that High Plains and western farmers curtail irrigation as much as possible by using water-saving methods and planting crops that need less water.)

As consumers, we can also help by limiting our own water use, embracing thoughtful conservation methods and teaching our children to do the same. (For more on what you can do to conserve water, see “Every Drop Counts,” below.) For more good information on water-scarcity issues, visit www.foodandwaterwatch.org.

2. Pollution

In Blue Covenant, Barlow presents an alarming battery of statistics about American water: Forty percent of our rivers and 46 percent of our lakes are unfit for fishing, swimming or drinking. The main culprit: toxic runoff from large-scale farming operations, livestock feedlots and industrial herbicides (of which we use about 1 billion pounds annually).

Two-thirds of our river mouths and bays are moderately or severely degraded by pollution. One-and-a-half million metric tons of nitrogen pollution, chiefly from fertilizers, are carried by the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico every year. And each year, one in four American beaches is closed or placed under advisories because
of pollution.

A December 2009 New York Times story notes the shortcomings of U.S. clean-water laws. The report points out that, although many of the thousands of chemicals in our drinking water are probably harmless, and many others are harmful only if consumed over many years, some chemicals not currently regulated under clean-water laws do “pose serious risks at low concentrations.” These include perchlorate, an ingredient in matches, flares, rocket fuel and other explosives, and perchloroethylene, used in dry cleaning. And some substances that are regulated, such as arsenic and uranium, have been discovered to be harmful at lower concentrations than those deemed illegal under the statutes, which haven’t been updated since 2000.

Increasingly, pharmaceuticals are showing up in our water, too. In 2008, an Associated Press (AP) report noted that American drinking water has been found to contain trace amounts of antibiotics, anticonvulsants, mood stabilizers, sex hormones and a wide range of other pharmaceuticals. All told, these substances have been detected in the drinking water of at least 51 million Americans.

An estimated 271 million pounds of pharmaceutical substances are released into our water directly by manufacturers every year. (These include substances such as lithium and nitroglycerin that have both pharmaceutical and industrial uses, and are released by non-pharma manufacturers as well as by drug companies.) Pharmaceutical companies deny that wastes produced by their manufacturing processes pose a health threat, but, the AP notes, very few of them test their wastewater for toxicity.

The majority of pharmaceutical pollution, however, doesn’t come from manufacturing; it arrives in the water via human beings who take drugs and excrete what their bodies can’t process, or who flush unused drugs down the toilet.

While there is no conclusive evidence yet of any harmful effects of pharma-pollution on humans, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group pointed out in 2008 that, of the top 200 drugs in the United States, 13 percent list serious side effects at levels less than 100 parts per billion in human blood, with some causing possible health risks in the parts-per-trillion range. And scientists note that the long-term effect of individual drugs and drug combinations in our water are hard to predict, especially given the fact that the national population is aging and using — as well as flushing away — more and more drugs each year.

Joel A. Tickner, PhD, a University of Massachusetts, Lowell, environmental scientist, told the New York Times that “the nation’s experience with lead additives, asbestos and other substances shows it can be costly — in lives, health and dollars — to defer action until evidence of harm is overwhelming.”

What to Do
Know where your water comes from and what’s in it. (Check the public reports of your local water authority and have your home water tested at least twice a year.) Recycle and dispose of waste — particularly pharmaceuticals — according to the guidelines on your state’s environmental Web site. Use natural fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides on your lawn and garden (visit www.goorganicgardening.com for tips), and use natural products like vinegar and baking soda for household cleaning.

Eating a diet that helps detoxify the body — emphasizing fresh, organic fruits, vegetables and legumes — is another good defensive measure.

Water filters can be an effective ally against pollution. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recommends that before selecting a filter, you have your water tested to find out what major contaminants it contains. A countertop filter of activated carbon should handle most common tap-water contaminants such as copper, lead and mercury, but other conditions may require different filter types and strengths. Get more details at www.nrdc.org.

3. Privatization

As Maude Barlow points out, public control of water in the 19th and early 20th centuries was crucial in promoting public health in the global North and ensuring that nascent industries had abundant and inexpensive water power.

Times have changed. Private, for-profit water companies now provide water services and maintain water-service infrastructure in many municipalities. They also bottle and sell drinking water; own and operate many dams, desalination plants, water purification systems and pipelines; control vast amounts of water used in industry and agriculture; buy up rights to groundwater; and trade in water-related stocks.

The goal of establishing private water systems in much of the Third World has been aggressively pursued by the two largest water companies (French-based multinationals Suez and Veolia), along with other water companies, allied NGOs and the World Bank. This process, says Barlow, has produced “a legacy of corruption, sky-high water rates, cutoffs of water to millions, reduced water quality, nepotism, pollution, worker layoffs and broken promises.”

The developed world has its share of troubles as well. British water privatization in the early 1990s led to an average 67 percent increase in water and sewage bills in six years and a 177 percent rise in cutoffs of water services to individual households. In 1998, Sydney, Australia’s, water was contaminated by giardia and Cryptosporidium shortly after Suez took control of the system.

E. coli bacteria killed seven people in Walkerton, Ontario, in 2000 after the provincial government contracted with a private firm to conduct water testing. The company alerted public-utility officials when it discovered the contamination, but did not notify environmental authorities, citing contract provisions and confidentiality issues. The general manager of the public utility, however, waited five days before notifying health and environmental agencies. He was subsequently charged with breach of trust and eventually served four months in jail as part of a negotiated plea bargain.

In the United States, Atlanta hired Suez subsidiary United Water to manage its water system in 1999. United began by cutting the water-system workforce by more than half; soon routine maintenance and work orders for repair were delayed, the city and United squabbled over billing, and infrastructure repairs produced pollution and water cutoffs. The city and United Water dissolved their contract in 2003.

Milwaukee floated an ambitious privatization-by-lease plan in the fall of 2008, geared more to producing badly needed revenue via the lease than to reforming its water system. But public resistance was strong enough to force the city to table the plan indefinitely. In the words of one protester interviewed by local ABC affiliate WISN-TV, “Water is too much of a valuable asset to Milwaukee to let it become privatized.”

This objection is at the philosophical core of anti-privatization: Given that water is essential for human life (as, for example, petroleum is not), it ought not be converted into a commodity that can be manipulated for profit.

What to Do
Citizens can apply pressure on their elected representatives to make certain that safe, affordable and easily accessible water — rather than just cost savings — remain a priority. Be aware that private water companies often offer enticing revenue scenarios to city governments, and it is tempting for public officials to let the long-term interests of their constituents take a back seat. The Washington, D.C.–based consumer group Public Citizen (www.citizen.org) offers numerous resources for learning about and working against abusive privatization schemes. Maude Barlow’s Blue Planet Project site (www.blueplanetproject.net) is another comprehensive “water justice” resource.

4. Ocean Stress

The saltwater on our planet is under as much pressure as our freshwater supplies. One major culprit is carbon dioxide emission — the same process that is driving global warming. The ocean is absorbing CO2 and creating carbonic acid. Ocean acidification weakens the ability of shell- and skeleton-building marine life to build their shells and grow and reproduce. The smallest shellfish, like krill and plankton, are important sources of nutrition for fish and other animals further up the food chain, so an entire ecosystem is being disrupted.

Some scientists worry that disruption of the food chain may lead to mass extinctions and thus a profoundly altered global ecosystem. The impact on the global fishing industry, which depends on coral reefs, could be catastrophic. (For more on ocean conservation and sustainably harvested seafood, see “Conscious Catch.”)

Fertilizer runoff at the mouths of rivers has also created coastal “dead zones” around the world. Nitrogen and phosphorus, major fertilizer components, are important “foods” for phytoplankton, one-celled marine plants. As phytoplankton thrive in these artificially enhanced environments, they steal oxygen from the water, and marine animals perish. The south and east coasts of the United States are liberally dotted with dead zones, and among the 400 or so zones globally, the most alarming is probably the Baltic Sea, whose lowest depths are completely oxygen depleted.

Whatever trouble acidification and fertilizer runoff may bring to fish stocks, right now they are overmatched by the gargantuan appetite of the fishing industry itself. As marine biologist Daniel Pauly, PhD, notes in a 2009 New Republic article, “In the past 50 years, we have reduced the populations of large commercial fish, such as bluefin tuna, cod and other favorites, by a staggering 90 percent.”

What Pauly calls the “fishing industrial complex” has taken no care to conserve aquatic stocks, but simply takes fish until depleting a given species, then goes deeper for stranger varieties, which have been renamed to sound more appetizing. The popular orange roughy, for example, was called the slimehead before it became a gourmet item — and it, too, has been heavily overfished and is now close
to extinction.

The massive disruption of the ocean ecosystem means more than a loss of a favorite food for health-conscious consumers. It threatens to leave millions of people around the world without a livelihood and without a vital food source.

What to Do
Understand that ocean acidification is being driven by the same forces that are fouling the air with CO2, and that dead zones are mostly produced by agricultural pollution. There are good hints for reducing your own carbon footprint at www.cleanair-coolplanet.org, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (www.whoi.edu) is an excellent source of information on agricultural pollution. Overfishing, says Pauly, will be reduced or eliminated only by stringent government action to regulate fishing, reduce the subsidies that keep the industry artificially “afloat,” and continue large-scale research on ocean ecosystems. But we can help matters by buying only sustainably harvested fish; the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Web site (www.montereybayaquarium.org) has suggestions and recommendations for responsible seafood consumerism. (For more on how to eat fish responsibly, see “Good Fishing.”)

Glimmers of Hope

There are some hopeful signs on the H20 horizon. New conservation and irrigation techniques are helping reduce water waste. (Even with existing technologies, says Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Mass., farmers could cut their water consumption by as much as 25 percent; and industrial facilities, by recycling their water, could save as much as 90 percent.) Dam removals have been carried out in many regions of the country, restoring the free flow of rivers.

Thanks to concerted action by activists — and the ongoing process of de-industrialization — America’s rivers are actually cleaner than they were 30 or 40 years ago (although the cleanup trend has reversed somewhat since 1998). Massachusetts’s Nashua River, which ran bright red with sewage and industrial waste in the 1960s, has been rendered relatively pristine by the Nashua River Watershed Association. Groups like Adopt-a-Stream and Save Our Streams have been leaders in monitoring water quality and fighting pollution.

But great water-related challenges remain. That’s why it’s wise to deepen our own awareness of water issues. Web sites like www.foodandwaterwatch.org, www.mcbi.org (Marine Conservation Biology Institute) and www.alexandracousteau.org (the site for Philippe Cousteau’s sister Alexandra’s Blue Legacy project) are great places to start. The more we learn, the more we’ll be able to appreciate just how precious — and how vulnerable — that simple, life-bestowing combination of hydrogen and oxygen has become.

Jon Spayde is a writer, editor and performer based in St. Paul, Minn.

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