Blog Action Day 2010: Aqua Shock #BAD10

This post is a review I first published last year which is pertinent to this year’s Blog Action Day topic.

Aqua ShockAqua Shock: The Water Crisis in America by Susan J. Marks provides an analysis of the emerging water crisis in America by looking at its causes, governing structures, and potential solutions.

The United States uses approximately 408 billion gallons of water every day, 345 billion gallons of that usage being freshwater. The largest usage of water in the United States by far — 195.5 billion gallons — is for energy production. When most people think about water they tend to focus solely on drinking water and household usage, yet domestic use ranks a distant third behind agriculture with 46.9 billion gallons per day. Water is used in every aspect of our civilization and is a critical component of every supply chain. Droughts have an enormous economic impact on the country, costing between $6-8 billion annually in losses.

Dr. Peter Gleick sums up the global water crisis:

The easiest way to describe the world water problem is that a billion people don’t have access to safe drinking, and 2.5 billion don’t have access to adequate sanitation services, which leads to 2 million or so preventable deaths every year from water-related diseases.

Most people know that the amount of water on Earth does not change. However, water’s movement, form, purity, and pollution sources are all dynamic. One of the major causes of the change of these qualities is climate change. Increased global temperatures have reduced snowfall in many mountain areas of the United States, with melting snowpack being the main resource for summer water. Climate change also affects storm frequency, intensity, and drought.

According to Joseph Dellapenna of Villanova University “the root of the water crisis historically is not so much population growth but change in the way we use water, change in per-capita water demand.” The Clean Water Act was able to actually decrease the gallons of water used per person per day from 1980-2000 by limiting water discharge for industries and power plants, causing these industries to research and implement new ways to reuse water. The success of the Clean Water Act shows that good legislation and smart planning can go a long way in improving America’s water situation.

Unfortunately, our water infrastructure and urban planning have been contributing to the problem instead of improving our efficiency. Most of the water infrastructure in the United States is antiquated: storm sewers and drainage systems leak large amounts of freshwater, paving large areas in cities and suburbs prevents water from soaking back into the ground to replenish aquifers, and leaky pipes waste 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water every day. Poor planning has caused even areas with high precipitation to have water shortages because of these factors.

Water infrastructure development and maintenance has been at a stand-still since the 1980s. The country has not built a major water storage system since Reagan was President, and our dams, aqueducts, and storage systems were designed for a different climate than we currently experience. Old pipes can allow contaminants into the water supply, and while water treatment facilities are normally able to kill bacteria and parasites, these antiquated systems are not well-enough equipped to deal with modern pollutants: pesticides, industrial chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. The NRDC estimates that more than 7 million Americans get sick from contaminated water annually.

People tend to turn to bottled water as an alternative to tap, believing that it makes them safer. Unfortunately this is both not the case and leads to the usage of even more water. Bottled water isn’t safety tested as often as tap water, and most bottled water is from taps and public reservoirs anyway. The real problem is that the amount of water used to make the plastic bottles and in the gasoline fuel to transport those bottles. Instead of demanding we improve our water infrastructure, people purchase bottled water which actually causes greater depletion of our water reserves.

Improving our water infrastructure and urban design would go a long way into securing our water supplies through the 21st century. Porous pavement, water-friendly landscaping, rain gardens, and vegetated swales would help rain water soak into the ground to replenish aquifers. Reducing nonpoint source pollution, which is recognized as the primary threat to American water quality, would prevent fresh water from being ruined. Fixing those leaky pipes and leaching storage systems would prevent the waste of billions of gallons of water.

This has become a problem that we as a country have put off until tomorrow, and today we are faced with expensive repairs that scare politicians. Cost estimates for the replacement of drinking and wastewater infrastructure range from $485 billion to $1.2 trillion over the next 20 years. So far the United States has only allocated $945 million for such projects, which was included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act earlier this year. From any estimate that only covers a sliver of the necessary repair.

According to Marks, “the biggest obstacle to solving the nation’s water problems is refusing to admit they exist.”

Aqua Shock also includes some informative chapters about water laws, the people who control water, the cost of water, and whether our water can be saved. The book definitely does its job in informing the reader about our water problems and water policy, and would be valuable to anyone that is interested in conserving resources and developing our country’s infrastructure for the 21st century.