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GEORGE: Is it time to be worried about water?

August 28, 2018 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


Water is a seemingly inexhaustible natural resource. It is the basis of life. We rely on it to grow our food. It is also the basis for a number of industrial processes. And like oil, we treat it as if it will still be providing us with everything we need endlessly on into the future.

We're wrong.

Our global society seems determined to reduce the quantity of available water by diminishing the quality to the point where it becomes unusable for humans or any other animal. The ways in which we do this are many and varied.

We have turned the oceans, which may not contain fresh water, into a garbage dump. It is also where we have shuffled off massive amounts of CO2 pollution, raising the acidity of the water which has caused the base of the global food chain to struggle. We dump nuclear waste into it, sometimes accidentally. Sometimes we do it on purpose as there is really no good way to dispose of this material and out of sight is out of mind.

On land, we treat water like dirt. We build roads that change drainage patterns. Vehicular traffic adds pollutants from exhaust, brake dust, and hydrocarbons that leak from our conveyances. The roadbeds themselves add silt to waterways during construction and operation, making it difficult for fish to spawn.

Roads also open up riparian areas to humans. We explore, we hike and have picnics, and we look for shiny things. When we find them we dig them out of the ground and the waste products of our efforts end up in the water. Sometimes accidentally, sometimes by design.

Our species' largest impacts on water come from how we use the land. We drain wetlands. We trap and kill beavers. We cut trees out of mature forests and replace them with monocrop plantations that are more susceptible to insects and wildfire. Both lead to soils that cannot hold the same quantities of water.

The filter of a wetland cannot be matched by any of our industrial processes. The water that flows through these industrial sacrifice zones flows quicker and moves those formerly rich soils to the oceans.

Agriculture is our number one land use that not only destroys natural processes but toxifies water as it flows through our farms and fields. Biocides and fertilizers end up creating large dead zones in estuaries and oceans that once teemed with life. Our animals roam the hills and their manure pollutes once pristine environments where water would run pure and clean, totally safe to drink from surface streams.

Many do not know it but our food system is mining fossil water which is a resource that is not renewable on human timescales. Aquifers are being pumped out, turned into grains that are then shipped around the world.

Food is the number one way in which we move water from place to place. One of the most important aquifers in North America lies under the great plains. It is estimated that it will be pretty much empty by 2030. This will have profound effects on the breadbasket of the United States and thus global food markets.

Not satisfied with all of these different ways that we abuse water, we devised a newish industrial process called "fracking". Someone thought it would be smart to take millions of litres of cleanish water and infuse it with toxic chemicals that are then pumped deep into the earth to liberate hydrocarbons.

The process is one way though as the amount of energy required to purify the water exceeds the energy liberated by the process. The "solution" to disposing of this toxic water is to leave it either in a pond on the surface or to pump it into the spaces where the oil and gas was and leave it there.

I compared water to oil in my opening paragraph. Economists have told us not to worry about oil because as it depletes the market will provide new sources of energy. The same process will not work for water. There is no magic substance that can replace it. To purify water takes energy. The source of that energy can be natural or artificial.

Given our disdain for wetlands and intact ecosystems, purification on the scale we need isn't likely to come from natural sources. And I don't see anyone lining up to spend money purifying water on the scale needed to support any but those who can pay.

Fresh clean water is the basis of life. Having it in the quantity and quality we need may seem like a problem we don't need to think about here in the interior of British Columbia.

We'd be wrong.

— Chris George believes one measure of a just society is found in how well it balances fiscally conservative economics with social responsibility and environmental soundness in all of its living arrangements.


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