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Why Care?

by Doug Pushard

I must admit I get a lot of blank stares when I start talking about water conservation and rainwater harvesting. Not among the folks who already do it, but from those who don’t. The typical response is “Why should I care? Water is cheap, and all I have to do is turn on the tap and it flows.” While it’s true that water does flow easily, it is even truer that we have not yet had to pay the true cost for this precious resource.

Plentiful, good-quality and easy-to-access (i.e., cheap) water is becoming a thing of the past. Quality is no longer a given when you turn on the tap. Water-quality problems — storm-runoff contamination, upstream pollution and city drinking water supplies not passing current Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standards — are now being reported on a monthly basis around North America and are a daily occurrence around the world.

I remember when gas cost 25 cents a gallon. My sister would pull into the gas station and hand the attendant a couple of quarters for a couple of gallons or, on a rare occasion, a couple of dollars to fill up the tank. It’s hard to believe, but this was just a few decades ago. Just as demand and the need for additional processing has driven up the price of gas, demand from population growth and the requirement to add newer filtration systems to create safe drinking water are driving up the price of water. And just as there have been shortages of gasoline, so will there be with water.

Water is not a God-given right. It is a resource, and one that should be cautiously and respectfully treated. If you doubt this, look at recent headlines, such as “India running out of water,” “Thirsty China turns to the sea,” “Water poses the biggest limit on growth in California,” “Arizona towns urged to balance growth,” and “Growth stirs a battle to draw more water from the Great Lakes.” (See Related Links)

Water from the tap used to taste good and be good for you. No one had water filters, and the whole concept of buying bottled water in a store would have been a joke. No more — water filtration is a $2.6 billion industry, with already one in four homes in the United States now having a unit. Bottled water is now over a $50 billion industry worldwide and growing rapidly.

Currently, about 20 percent of Earth’s 6 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. By 2020, over 60 percent of the world’s population is expected to lack access to clean water if current population growth trends continue without a significant increase in spending to address the problem. According to U.N. statistics, more than 200 million people every year suffer from water-related diseases and about 2.2 million of them — mostly the poor — die.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a problem just for poor Third World countries. Water quality is also an increasing problem in the United States.

Since the 1970s, most rivers have experienced water-quality problems. Despite the successes of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, river waters in the United States continue to deteriorate. The National Water Quality Inventory: 2000 Report stated that half of the streams, lakes and estuaries assessed were not clean enough to support fishing and swimming. So forget about drinking it!

Municipal water, including ours here in the Santa Fe area, is usually sourced from such rivers, as well as from wells and water reservoirs. Levels of contaminants in most wells and rivers are steadily increasing as pollutants are regularly dumped and pumped into them by upstream communities. Older wastewater plants are not equipped to take out the new, complex chemicals or pharmaceutical drugs that make it into the water. These new creations are mostly passed through the existing filtration systems, diluted and consumed downstream.

As the quality of safe drinking water decreases, the price increases. Water utility companies are raising their prices at an increasing rate. Here are few headlines from around the country in the past 12 months: “Denmark City to increase water and sewer rates by 25%,” “CA water rates up 20% since 2003,” “Detroit water rates increase,” and “Rates up 9% and 26% respectively in Pennsylvania area.” (See Related Links)

This level of price increases is a very recent, but likely to be continuing, trend. They are being driven in part by population growth, but also by new infrastructure needs (i.e., newer filtration equipment). A majority of today’s water infrastructure was bought and paid for by previous generations, according to the American Water Works Association. Most living Americans did not pay for the system that is in use today. It has always been there and just worked. But pipes leak, pumps wear out and break, and yesterday’s filtration equipment cannot handle current needs.

In order for all of us to have clean water, prices will likely continue to climb. We may be surprised at what we will resort to and how much we will pay in the future to guarantee access to clean, plentiful water. There are legal battles already ongoing in both the western and southern United States for access to water supplies.

As former president Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “A nation that fails to plan intelligently for the development and protection of its precious waters will be condemned to wither because of its shortsightedness.” The quantity, quality and cost of water are crucial issues to which to pay attention. Below are a few simple and easy things you can do to help make a difference:

1. Start by being aware of your water. Do you really know anything about this precious resource and where it comes from to get to your tap? Call your local water company and get a copy of your local Water Quality Report. (See Related Links)

2. Conserve. It is not too late to start conserving this life-giving resource. Find out 100 different ways to conserve.

3. Harvest and use rainwater wisely. Get a rain barrel and start today. Alot of communities offer rebates. See if your city does.

4. Lastly, get involved. Join a local water conservation groups. Call your water utility department or local botanical gardens to find out what groups are in your area.

Please help conserve our most precious resource. The solution starts with each of us doing what we can.

This is an excerpted from an Guest Editorial that was printed in the Eldorado Monthly Sun.

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