Paupers in the Midst of Plenty: Water Pollution and Water Shortages

his first chapter excerpt from "Nor A Drop To Drink" outlines how careless, wasteful use of North American's once abundant water resources has resulted in wide-scale water pollution and water shortages.

| January/February 1983

  • water pollution, water shortages - river rapids cascading down rocks
    We have exchanged our legacy of abundant clean water for water pollution, and are confronted with water shortages as a result.
    Photo by MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff

  • water pollution, water shortages - river rapids cascading down rocks

We feel certain that most MOTHER EARTH NEWS-readers are vitally aware of the threats to drinking-water supplies in the United States. After all, no single substance is as crucial to humankind's well-being as is plain old H2O. In his latest book, Nor Any Drop to Drink — from which we here bring you Chapter I, "Paupers in the Midst of Plenty" — environmentalist and author William Ashworth has stated the situation with shocking clarity. His analysis throws light on the core problem of water pollution and the water shortages that result ... thereby helping us all to work toward their solution.

Life on earth is bound inextricably to the presence of water. It is the one unvarying necessity for all living things. There are life forms — the anaerobic bacteria — which can do very well without oxygen, and in fact are destroyed by exposure to it. There are creatures deep in caverns which can live without light; there are plants that can survive indefinitely without any food but sunlight and air. There is nothing that can live without water. Water is the basic material of protoplasm, the life stuff of the living cell. Stained red with iron and other necessary impurities, it becomes blood, to transport the body's nutrients and wash away its wastes. Sticky with sugar in the stem of plants, it becomes sap. We drink it; we grow our crops with it; we use it for a multitude of industrial purposes, for transport and for cooling, as a solvent and as a raw material, for food, for furniture, for books, for automobiles, for jewelry, for gasoline, and for everything else under the sun. "Noblest of the elements," sang the poet Pindar some twenty-five centuries ago, and for all the generations from that time down to this that truth has been constantly reaffirmed.

We Americans are the inheritors of a continent once richly endowed with this most precious of all natural resources. Early settlers found this land an Eden, laced with great rivers, bubbling with springs, bathed by sweet rains, and cupping some of the world's most magnificent freshwater lakes. William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony wrote of enjoying "the best water that ever we drank" out of the stream the Pilgrims had named, with marvelous creativity, Town Brook; settlers on the Connecticut were so enamored of its waters that they first named it the Fresh River, and the Dutch on Manhattan wrote home ecstatically of brooks "pleasant and proper for man and beast to drink, as well as agreeable to behold, affording cool and pleasant resting places." The Mohawk was "as clear as crystal and as fresh as milk." Farther west there was the Sangamon, with its "pure and transparent waters," and the Mississippi, "Father of Waters," and the Ohio, that "clear majestic tide" which the French knew as La Belle Riviere and whose "limpid waters" inspired the early traveler and historian Charles Fenno Hoffman to write effusively that the stream and its lush valley made "a moral picture whose colours are laid in the heart, never to be effaced."

Such was the wealth the colonists found — and proceeded to squander like spendthrift schoolboys. Today the Eden has vanished; the "limpid waters" and the "cool and pleasant resting places" are virtually gone. Large cities, farming regions, and even whole states report water shortages. Throughout the length and breadth of the continent, wells are running dry, pollutants are pouring into streams and seeping into aquifers, and once-sweet waters are turning saltier than the sea. Great cities, their own waters long since overcommitted or fouled beyond human use, reach hollow tentacles hundreds of miles into the surrounding countryside, sucking up whole rivers and diverting them across mountains and deserts and sprawling farmlands to the taps and toilets of their citizens. Farmers too move water about on a massive scale, bleeding rivers into tens of thousands of miles of irrigation ditches which finger out across the nation's croplands like the circulatory system of a gargantuan and bloated starfish. Increasingly, these water-transfer systems interlock, the intake pipes of one region creeping like furtive fingers into the water supply of another. New York City, Trenton, and Philadelphia jockey over the Delaware River; the state of Nebraska sues upstream interests in Wyoming for diverting too much water from the North Platte; west Texas casts covetous eyes on Louisiana's section of the Mississippi; and Denver, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, separated from each other by distances approaching a thousand miles, battle with escalating rancor over the limited resources of a single stream, the increasingly saline Colorado.

Even with these massive transfusion systems in place, there is seldom enough. New York City water — imports and all — is being used at a rate sixteen percent higher than engineers say the water system can safely supply, a water shortfall of some 200 million gallons per day. For Tucson, the figures are sixty-two percent and 37 million gallons. New Jersey's water demand outstrips its supply by 90 million gallons a day; California's daily deficit is 2.6 billion gallons. Long Island's three million residents draw their water from an underground reservoir that has become, in the words of one report, a "severely contaminated industrial sewer"; the water in the island's wells has turned into a witch's cauldron of toxic chemicals, and many of them have had to be closed. On the Great Plains, the nation's breadbasket, groundwater supplies are expected to be exhausted in many areas by the year 2000, leaving farmers without enough water to grow crops.

Civil engineers and other professionals who work with water supply have a useful concept known as "safe yield," which may be described in simple terms as the amount of water a given supply system can dependably produce year after year, no matter what the weather does. A water system is said to be operating "within safe yield" if the demands for water deliveries from the system are less than the amount it will always be able to deliver even in the driest of years. This is, of course, the situation that all water systems would prefer to be in. Fewer and fewer are. All across the country, demand is growing while supply is shrinking, and in an alarming number of places the rising demand curve has crossed the falling supply curve and now runs above it. We are, in fact, perilously close to overtaxing our water supplies on a nationwide basis — to exceeding safe yield for the continent itself.

We thought the resource was limitless, but we were wrong. There are limits, and those limits have arrived. Our land still seems a land of plenty, but we have become paupers in the midst of it.

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