Water, Water Everywhere but Not a Drop to Drink

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As we here at the homestead move through the summer being very careful to ration our water usage due to the cracked cistern, it’s not hard to see how it’s not just our bad farming practices that waste and pollute the earth’s water supplies, it’s also ourselves. Why doesn’t everyone have low-flow toilets and showers by now? Why doesn’t everyone use a flow meter to track how much water they are consuming? Why do we still fill big bathtubs high for lengthy soaks when a few inches of water would do the job of washing away the grime just fine? Why do we insist on those ridiculous manicured lawns that serve no purpose at all, when a nice veggie or flower garden would be much more inviting, and local, well-acclimated wild plants would make for a much more interesting landscape?

Serious shortages of fresh potable water across entire regions of the Middle East, Africa, central and south Asia have long been in the news as conditions grow worse with the advent of global warming. Extended droughts have caused increasingly destructive wildfires in Australia, Russia and here in the United States, where fires so far this year in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas have charred millions of acres of land.

To get a picture of how bad the situation is getting – and how agricultural policies, municipal waste and unsustainable consumption levels affect the clean water we Americans tend to take for granted, consider the fact that the mighty Colorado River no longer flows to the sea because every drop is diverted along the way. Running 1,450 miles through seven U.S. states and two Mexican states, the river and its tributaries have been impounded by 20 dams along its length to provide water to cities in the parched southwest and water for irrigation, golf courses, desert green-spaces and such. Some researchers are saying that Lake Mead, the source of water for 22 million people, may be dry by 2012.

Watercrisis

With the human population growing at an increasingly unsustainable rate, irrigation for growing crops around the world has also increased by millions of hectares, more than doubling from less than 150 million to 300+ million hectares since 1960. As the climate changes more rain will fall in some places while other places turn to desert, and no one seems to be paying enough attention to our bad agricultural practices and lousy dietary choices that pretend clean water is something we can all take for granted forever. It’s not just the fabled Colorado that is running dry – China’s Yellow River, which used to flood so severely every year that my childhood never saw a year when hundreds of thousands of people weren’t drowned, no longer reaches the sea and has been known to go completely dry. One of the two rivers that feed the Aral Sea is now completely dry for part of every year, even as the Aral itself shrinks alarmingly.

Lake Chad in central Africa has shrunk by 95% in the last 40 years, and the Punjab region of India is facing a vastly diminished water table, as is our own Great Plains breadbasket region as the vast Ogallala Aquifer is drained steadily to irrigate genetically engineered crops used to feed livestock raised in unhealthy CAFOs for meat rather than human beings.

As we here at the homestead move through the summer being very careful to ration our water usage due to the cracked cistern, it’s not hard to see how it’s not just our bad farming practices that waste and pollute the earth’s water supplies, it’s also ourselves. Why doesn’t everyone have low-flow toilets and showers by now? Why do we still fill big bathtubs high for lengthy soaks when a few inches of water would do the job of washing away the grime just fine? Why do we insist on those ridiculous manicured lawns that serve no purpose at all, when a nice veggie or flower garden would be much more inviting, and local, well-acclimated wild plants would make for a much more interesting landscape?

UK’s Independent published an article citing details of the World Water Development Report released this week, and the outlook isn’t good. Right now 1.1 billion people lack access to clean water, and nearly 2 and a half billion lack proper sanitation. Inertia among the world’s political leaders means that necessary efforts for conservation aren’t even starting despite the ever worsening situation. The projection is that by the middle of this century at least 7 billion people in 60 countries will face water scarcity. This adds up to hunger, disease and death.

What little fresh water the planet does have is being polluted unmercifully. Much pollution comes from chemically dependent agriculture, but in our haste to exploit energy sources the practice of fracking for natural gas is shocking in its gross disregard for environmental preservation. In some places water coming out of taps actually burns, and the chemical stews used in the process don’t even have to be reported for toxicity. The pollution is so shocking that the state of New Jersey this month passed a statewide ban on franking in order to protect their water supplies. Pennsylvania is considering its own ban, and more states are sure to follow.

At present more than 1,100 U.S. counties face water scarcity issues. That’s a third of all counties in the contiguous 48 – this is a very, very serious situation we should all be paying attention to. For homesteaders out here working hard to become as self-sufficient as possible, we might well begin to consider our own water supplies to be the most valuable natural resource of all in our efforts to protect and defend the land and our chosen way of life.

I know that our current water troubles here on my own homestead have certainly made me more aware of just how precious this resource really is, even though I do not irrigate my crops at all because there is no shortage of rainfall in these Great Smoky Mountains. I have been following the various models for projecting what is to occur as the climate changes, and have been somewhat gratified to see that while we can expect up to 4 degrees overall rise in annual temperature means, we are slated to also get about 4 inches more rain every year. I can always plant peaches, figs and pecans in the orchard if it gets too warm for good apples and pears, grow more watermelons and pumpkins for market. But ensuring the purity and continued flow of water through my land must become a passion that I’m as willing to pursue as my lobbying against GMOs to neighboring farmers in order to protect the value of my organic crops.

They attempted a couple of years ago to carve out sections of the National Forest we abut, so developers could create fancy log McMansion gated communities for wealthy people’s vacation comfort. These developments had carte blanche to divert the natural mountain streams that drain the eastern side of the divide for their own lakes and golf courses and such, which would discharge chemicals along with their sewage back into the streams uphill of us that then flow through my property. Every conservation group in the region got together, and with help from us landowners lobbied hard to the federal agencies who thought they could sell portions of our collective natural heritage to rich people just because there was lots of money involved. The very best thing to come out of the nationwide financial collapse – and real estate bust – was that this plan got shelved when nobody was buying. Though we are watchful, because once things pick up again they’ll be right back to buying up tracts of National Forest for their own amusement and dumping their waste on us.

This can happen anywhere there are state and federal lands, way too close to our beloved little plots of land we cherish so much. Even during times of economic distress like the current Great Recession bureaucrats may be moved to sell the water and mineral rights to irresponsible corporate interests for exploitation, and our water woes will get steadily worse. Look around closely at what’s happening in your state and area, and get involved with the conservation groups that are fighting this rape of the land and water. Don’t feel safe just because you no longer live in a city, or because your land abuts set-aside tracts of wilderness. We homesteaders must get active to protect it all, or one of these days we’ll wake up and it will all be gone.

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