The Science of Sustainability

Do We Have Enough Fresh Water?

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By using water as a commodity, we are using up the fresh water the planet provides faster than it can replenish it.

Back in 2007, Dr. Farrington, the Executive Director at the California Academy of Sciences took a step toward sustainability by banning water bottles at meetings and functions, noting that bottled water is expensive, wastes plastic, and is harmful to the environment.  Since then, bottled water has been banned at private functions and in the Academy café – glass bottles are available but not plastic ones.  At NightLife, water is dispensed in compostable cups.  I am in further support of this decision after recently watching the documentary Blue Gold: World Water Wars.

Blue Gold is a documentary that focuses on the controversy that has arisen by the marketing and privatization of water.  The planet provides a cycle to provide fresh water. To begin, water in the oceans and in caches of ice and snow are heated by the sun and evaporate.  This water vapor is then carried into the atmosphere and condenses into clouds.  Clouds migrate through the sky, collide and grow.  Some of these cloud particles then fall as precipitations in as rain snow or ice.

This water then either falls back into the ocean or onto land.  Some of it accumulates into snow packs or glaciers.  A fraction of it enters streams or rivers and flows back to the ocean.   Some water seeps into the ground and becomes ground water.  Part of groundwater stays close to the surface and nourishes and replenishes topsoil.  Ground water can also seep deep into the ground and create a water cache in saturated subsurface rock; these catches are known as aquifers.  This water cycle is constantly replenishing and provides the freshwater for all life on the planet. A great chart and break down of this cycle is provided by USGS.

Blue Gold touches on how this cycle is getting interrupted.  For example, in cities ground water cannot seep into the ground through the concrete to create aquifers.  So most of the run off goes directly back to the ocean.  Thus most cities must cart fresh water from far away; water is most often pulled out of aquifers, which creates a desertification of once fertile land.  Without the ground water, soils dry out and cannot sustain the fertility of the plants and trees creating a dessert environment.  Streams and rivers in a natural cycle will push sediment and nourishment into the land surrounding them.  Much like blood is a super highway in our bodies, streams and rivers act like the vein and arteries of the Earth.  Huge dams used to harness power and provide drinking water have dried up these rivers and the subsequent land around them.

With the interruption of this cycle scarcity has emerged.  One of the biggest culprits of this scarcity is treating water like a commodity rather than a natural resource. Today, this has been seen prominently in third world countries where agricultural goods and water are being exported.  In Bolivia, a civil war broke out because a private company owned the water, including rainwater.  People could not pay for the water needed to survive and fought back.  More about the conflict is outlined in the following article.  By using water as a commodity, we are using up the fresh water the planet provides faster than it can replenish it.

So what can people do to help combat this scarcity?

-       Do not buy or drink bottled water.  The water is being sapped from aquifers, lakes and streams.  By doing so, that water cannot be replenished back into the natural water cycle.

-       Buy locally.  When you buy produce from far away, water is often being exported to grow that produce.  By buying locally, less water is being used for the products used.

-       Use a low flow showerhead or toilet at home.

-       Turn off the water when you are brushing your teeth.

-       Look into charities that provide water for those in third world countries.  (Many people are being charged prices they cannot afford for metered water). Two great programs are Ryan’s Well Foundation, which is noted in this documentary and Play pumps that harness the energy of kids playing on a merry-go-round to pump water.

-       Watch Blue Gold for more background and options

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Category: Environment, Partners, Water

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Cat

About the Author ()

Cathleen (Cat) is the former Special Projects Manager at California Academy of Sciences and worked in the public programs division. Before working at the Academy, Cat got her start as an intern at Lindsay Wildlife Museum for four years and worked with animals ranging from snakes and hawks to foxes and bobcats. She has a deep curiosity about the natural world and native California wildlife.
  • Scott Kruse

    There is enough potable water for the current population (ca. 38 million). We need climate-appropriate landscaping & crops, double water meters (new & used), conservation & efficiency in everything. This means no "single use" anything (use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without), pre-cycling (eliminate refuse before recycling), compost all organic refuse. Invest in light & high speed rail (not individual vehicles).