Thursday, March 8, 2012

Water, Water Everywhere, but for Some, Not a Drop to Drink

     In the classic science fiction novel Dune, water is so scarce that the inhabitants of the planet Arrakis have adopted techniques to save every possible drop.  Shedding a tear for someone is considered an ultimate gift.  On today’s Earth, some are shedding a tear for the condition of water sources in many parts of the world.  Access to clean water is not only a topic for symposiums and research papers, it is a matter of life and death for those in critically affected areas.
     From the Iowa Water Conference in Ames to international symposiums at the United Nations, experts are tackling this issue, and if the U.N. statistics are true, effective programs are needed immediately.  Check this website for some basic information from the United Nations regarding the use of water around the world.
     On a national level, the U.S. Congress is apparently considering legislation in a farm bill that might include regulations about water use and agricultural management. The issues can be thorny as different interest groups consider water rights, food production, environmental impact, and the needs of a growing population. Experts also argue about the influence of climate change, and this new research is one opinion about the strain climate change could put on the quality and availability of groundwater.
      At the regional level, the recent Iowa Water Conference addressed many of these concerns, and CAST was directly involved with the presentation of its latest publication, Assessing the Health of Streams in Agricultural Landscapes: The Impacts of Land Management Change on Water Quality.  The paper will also be featured at three rollout events (EPA, the Senate, and the House) in Washington, D.C., on March 26.
      Many of us were lucky enough to grow up not worrying about fresh drinking water. As a matter of fact, my family members thought the bored well on our central Iowa farm in the 1960s made the absolute best coffee and tea in the pre-Starbuck’s era. And the creeks that flowed through our pastures were not just pastoral backdrops for the grazing cattle; they were playgrounds where youngsters went swimming, fishing, and dam building. If agricultural run-off or poorly engineered feedlots pumped toxins into the streams, it didn’t register with us. We may have noticed if cattle crossed the creek just above where we were wading for minnows, but the poison ivy on the bank and bumble bees in the clover concerned us much more.
     Before we were old enough for skating and hockey, the winter creek seemed like an icy highway ready for exploration.  On one below-freezing afternoon, a few of us decided our parents had become unreasonable. They had probably given us an early curfew or told us we weren’t old enough to watch Gunsmoke.  Whatever the reason, we decided to run away, and the creek was our escape route.  After thirty minutes or so of walking upstream, we reached the tile culvert that fed the tributary of our farm’s stream.  We had gone the wrong way and run out of creek.  Huck Finn would not be impressed.
     Now we realize that the little capillary streams on our farm are part of the arteries that form the lifeblood of our state. Water that flows under the bridge on the lane eventually joins the Mississippi River and flows on to the Gulf of Mexico. We’re all part of the world’s circulatory system.
     Farmers, agri-business employees, government officials, and scientists are a big part of the efforts to secure safe, plentiful water for the world. I was heartened this week to see representatives from all those sectors at the Iowa Water Conference, where experts could discuss problems and solutions. Let’s hope they and others can commit to having a world where everyone can access clean drinking water—and where maybe youngsters can continue to wade into rural streams on a hot summer day to build sod dams and race homemade stick boats. by dan gogerty (photo acquired from Shutterstock)

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