October 13, 2003

Shallow Water

By Dennis Keeney

On October 16, the United Nations will celebrate Freshwater Day in order to highlight the important role water plays in our lives. From the faucet, the shower, through the dishwasher, the clothes washer, and all the other daily uses that are so important. It catches our eye on the way to work as a babbling brook or the ocean waves. We cannot exist without it, but we treat water as an abundant, replaceable, resilient resource. While the globe is "awash" in water, only 1 percent or so is fresh water useable by humans, animals and plants. The rest is in the oceans (97 percent) or locked away in the great ice shelves of the polar caps (2 percent). And much of this 1 percent is in danger of becoming unusable by pollution and mismanagement.

Americaís concern with water quality can be traced to the spectacular burning river in Cleveland in 1969. The debris and spilled fuel in the Cuyahoga River caught fire shocking the country into passing the Clean Water Act in 1972. This started a crackdown on industrial and untreated sewage pollution that sparked the cleanup of the worst of the nationís water ills. But our attention to water quality and quantity is slipping. The Bush administration is working to remove large areas of wetlands and waterways from Clean Water Act protection and in the last decade the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken action on only 15 percent of cases involving industrial polluters.

And little has been done, in spite of decades of rhetoric, research and position papers, to control the greatest beast of all. That is non-point sources of pollution, the nutrients soil particles and toxins associated with runoff and leaching from cities, suburbs and farms. In several Midwest agricultural states such as Minnesota and Iowa, nonpoint source pollution, especially from the vast lands in corn and soybeans, our most widely produced commodities, has impaired many of the surface waters. Meanwhile, nitrate and pesticides leach into ground water from these same fields. This ground water, a prime source of drinking water, replenishes so slowly that often it can be polluted for generations.

The quantity of fresh, clean water is as threatening to the sustainable future of the country and the world as its quality and indeed they are often related. Water polluted with sewage, industrial toxins or salts from irrigation are not useable. Americans have an almost insatiable appetite for water. We use on average 153 gallons per person per day compared to 88 gallons for the United Kingdom, 23 gallons for Asians and 12 gallons for Africans.

Competing demands for water by household, industry and agriculture has lead to water wars in the American West where water is scarce. Agricultural uses have long been subsidized and thus irrigation tends to be inefficient. Irrigation waters often accumulate salt as they leach through the saline soils of the west, and become unusable. Even in the water-rich Midwest, water is becoming scarce as ground water tables drop due to over use, and streams and lakes decline. Since 1998 the western half of the country has been in a prolonged drought, which only exacerbates the water shortages.

Our waterways have become conduits for the wastes of agriculture and industry. Eventually the great rivers of the world reach the oceans, where they make their presence felt by upsetting delicate ecological balances. A prime example is the hypoxia (low oxygen in the bottom waters) that is affecting fish and shellfish life the estuarine zone of the Gulf of Mexico. Caused by the nitrogen leakage from the agricultural fields of Iowa, Illinois and other Corn Belt states, the hypoxia zone has more than doubled in size over the last two decades. Attempts to lower nitrogen leakage have so far failed because of the tension between crop production and ecological protection.

Indeed, the tension between development and conservation forces, which has been with us since the beginning of the industrial age, has become so great that environmental considerations seem to be getting less attention all the time. It is paradoxical that the needs of development, which are so dependent on a vibrant environment, seem to often work against environmental protection.

But there are many in America and the world that care deeply for their environment, especially its water resources. These people strive to protect and improve their local water sources. Watershed associations of local urban citizens work with farmers to reduce erosion and nitrogen use in their watershed. Cities vote to protect wetlands and their drinking water sources. People mark their local storm drains to stop them from being used for waste disposal. It is these people who will make the future better for their children and grandchildren.

Dennis Keeney is an IATP Senior Fellow, Professor Emeritus of Agronomy and Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering from Iowa State University, and former director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.