Water Fight

When the great naturalist Aldo Leopold first set eyes on the Colorado River delta in 1922, he saw what he called “a milk and honey wilderness” full of “a hundred green lagoons.” Leopold would find that landscape utterly changed today. The mighty Colorado no longer flows this far south; as Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project (and our interview subject this issue), writes in Last Oasis, “Virtually the entire Colorado’s flow is captured and siphoned off upstream to fill swimming pools in Los Angeles, generate electricity for Las Vegas, and irrigate crops in the deserts of Arizona, California and the Mexicali Valley.”

Illustration: Jerry Russell

As E details in its first installment of a three-part series, world population is nudging upward toward six billion, and the demand for water is increasing beyond our capacity to manage water systems. Less than one percent of the world’s water is fresh, and a shrinking percentage of that finite resource is available for human consumption. Across the globe, countries are now openly competing for access to water supplies. Within national boundaries, cities fight for precious water resources with farmers. Like oil, access to water has become an international flashpoint, a source of tension in the Middle East and other water-scarce regions.

According to Geoffrey Saign in his book Green Essentials, more than a third of people in developing countries lack access to clean water, a factor in a majority of illnesses in those countries. Even in industrialized nations like the U.S., a fifth of the population drinks untreated and untested water.

More and more Americans are seeking safety in packaged water, but the message in the bottle isn’t quite clear. Six months ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council completed a study of 38 brands of bottled water on California shelves, and found they contained such decidedly unclean additives as arsenic, soil bacteria, toluene and chlorination byproducts. In spring water? “I wouldn’t want to make a habit of drinking water with arsenic in it every day for years,” says Dr. Richard Maas of the Environmental Quality Institute, which conducted the study.

Like population control, water quality is an international issue. As the wayward flow of the Colorado demonstrates, rivers, estuaries and aquifers cross state and national boundaries, and upstream actions have downstream repercussions. Some countries have finally gotten the message that large-scale dams are environmentally disastrous, but others, like China, continue to proceed with enormous projects. Our water supply needs to be treated as a precious commodity, not as a free resource “too cheap to meter.”

Industry, by far the largest user of water, is beginning to respond to the conservation call. It’s also behind a rather disingenuous campaign to put the onus on the consumer. In parched New Mexico, computer chip maker Intel uses several million gallons of water a day, but also urges homeowners to remember to turn off their kitchen taps.

Of course, people shouldn’t waste water, but a true water conservation program has to go beyond the “retail” user and encompass “wholesale” buyers like farmers, manufacturers and government. There’s more than enough fresh water on the planet, even for six billion people, but we need to equitably distribute it, stop contaminating it and, wherever possible, conserve it.

Jim Motavalli