Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Running Out of Water

By George Harvey

This spring, NPR aired a story about Lintao, a city in China that had run out of water and residents of luxury high-rise apartment buildings had to fill buckets and lug them up to their apartments, because the taps were always dry. China is hoping to install an aqueduct from southern China to supply Lintao, Beijing, and other cities that also struggle with problems of insufficient water supplies.

China’s problem is not unique. A drought in India caused a lengthy shutdown at a 2.6-megawatt power plant because it had no cooling water. A drought that nearly emptied the hydro-electric dams in Tasmania left the island largely dependent on a submarine cable that supplied 40% of its power from mainland Australia, but the cable broke. And California still has a crisis with its drought, the driest in the state’s history, which began five years ago and is just beginning to moderate.

The effects go far beyond a loss of our ability to wash our cars or water our lawns. While industries and agriculture have to reduce use, we also lose such things as our ability to make electric power in conventional power plants. Hydro-electric dams obviously cannot operate at full power with insufficient water, but the same is true of thermal power plants, such as coal, nuclear, and certain natural gas plants. In a severe drought, these plants must reduce their output because they do not have the water they need for cooling. Solar and wind power have a clear advantage here.

The causes of loss of water can be many. The first thing that comes to mind is drought, such as California’s. But elsewhere, aquifers must be replenished, and many that are currently in use are being depleted rapidly for agriculture. The Ogallala Aquifer, which sits below eight states in the Midwest, is being severely strained.

Loss of water, however, is only one problem that can threaten an aquifer. Another is intrusions of salt water, which happens commonly along the coasts, threatening many coastal cities’ water supplies.

Yet another problem is pollution, which can come from a variety of sources. Not only can agricultural waste and chemical spills foul surface water, it can pollute ground water and wells. Anything that gets onto the ground can get into the ground, where it will stay until it resurfaces.

Fracking is particularly insidious, because chemicals are being intentionally put underground. Ordinary citizens do not have access to information about what they are, and are prevented from having knowledge about how to protect themselves from them. Scientific knowledge of conditions far underground is often very poor, and it is becoming evident that aquifers may be permanently poisoned for the sake of short-term profits from natural gas.

People commonly think that current water problems are limited to California and other western states, but cities with increasingly limited ability to supply water include Miami, Atlanta, Cleveland, Lincoln, Nebraska, and Washington, DC. In the Northeast, lakes are being poisoned with waste, which supports toxic blooms of algae, leaving communities near them without the resources they would provide.

In a time when climate change reduces our ability to rely on rain, we are poisoning wells along with the surface water. We need to find a better way.

Start at home and be more aware of your own usage and waste. Please use green eco-friendly products to wash your vehicles, dishes, yourself, your dog, and keep those chemicals off your lawn and garden. Water is nature’s most prized possession. This precious commodity is being wasted and polluted more each day. It is a big problem. We need clean water! It is often not given the high priority, but it is absolutely vital.

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