Responding to the Water Crisis

Is there a solution for tap water to be both healthy and sustainable?

A Water Warning

Humans have a natural affinity for water. From jumping off waterfalls to building homes on lakeshores, there's no denying the gravitational pull water has on people all over the world. We use it for recreation, seek its refuge in the heat, and rely on it to sustain life on Earth. 70% of the planet is covered by water, and yet only 3% of it is freshwater. Of that small percentage, two-thirds of it is frozen or otherwise inaccessible. With an estimated 326 million trillion gallons of water on the planet, water is an essential item that is steadily transforming into a luxury good in the wake of the climate crisis. Along with the looming threat of rising sea levels, access to drinking water remains a significant issue plaguing various parts of the world. The truth is that we are using freshwater faster than it can be replenished. The high demands for water come from a growing population and the industrialized agriculture sector while in the midst of global warming. With all this to consider, how do we create a system for tap water that is both healthy and sustainable?

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Water Scarcity

Although a majority of the planet is covered in water and the average human body is made up of 55-60% water, Earth is experiencing a freshwater shortage. Water scarcity is not a one-cause problem either. In fact, there are many components that contribute to the lack of water. Natural water sources are drying up or becoming too polluted to rely on. On top of the already limited amount of available water, much of what is available often goes to waste. According to World Wildlife Fund, agriculture alone uses 70% of the world's accessible freshwater, and about 60% of it ends up wasted due to poor irrigation systems. There is also the issue of inadequate sanitation in many parts of the world, which leads to illness and, in some cases, death. Cholera and typhoid fever are common diseases that are found in unclean water. Out of the 2 million people who die from these illnesses, most are children.

Running Dry

Water scarcity is not exclusive to any one country and has become prevalent throughout the United States. Natural bodies of water in several states have steadily lost a significant amount of water. Just short of being 1900 miles long, the Rio Grande River begins in Colorado, travels through New Mexico and Texas, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It's estimated that the river began forming about 35 million years ago after a rift was created in the land. Small streams formed in the rift and eventually grew into the Rio Grande River.

For thousands of years, people have relied on the Rio Grande, starting with native tribes like the Coahuiltecans, Jumanos, and Apache. After the Spanish arrival, the newcomers colonized the land in Texas and divided the area for cattle ranching. Over the years, dams were built to collect water for agriculture and to support the large population of people. Today, there is hardly enough water for the surrounding ecosystems. The state of Texas has passed a handful of bills to address the issue of water availability. According to Carlos Rubinstein, a former chairman of the Texas Water Development Board, none of the bills made a significant impact. His assessment would seem to be accurate after the most recent news of the Rio Grande drying up for the first time in forty years in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The severe river conditions have led authorities to do what they can to conserve water along a specific 100-mile section of the river. Water has to be rationed for 66,000 acres of agricultural land. Several minnows, a freshwater fish species, are being rescued from the dried-up river.

"The severe river conditions have led authorities to do what they can to conserve water along a specific 100-mile section of the river."

Further west in Utah, the Great Salt Lake has reached a record low for its water levels as well. Unfortunately, the lake levels are expected to drop even more in the upcoming seasons. The lake's condition threatens several species that rely on its water source, including migrating birds. Utah's economy depends on the lake for mineral extraction, brine shrimp, and recreational activities. Because the state has taken water from the lake for homes and agriculture, rectifying the damage is not an easy pursuit.

Lastly, it would be remiss of us not to mention the continual droughts in California. The Golden State's water supply faces similar issues, with two of its largest reservoirs facing extremely low levels. California is no stranger to rainfall shortages, and Lake Oroville currently sits a 55% capacity, while Shasta Lake sits at 40% capacity. Lake Oroville is crucial to the State Water Project system, which provides water to about 27 million California residents and 750,000 acres of farmland. Likewise, Shasta Lake's water serves areas from Redding all the way to Bakersfield. The severe conditions cause the state to enact restrictions on water use. However, restrictions only serve as a temporary bandaid to a problem that needs to be tackled from several different angles. Leaders throughout the United States and the world must make a plan to create sustainable systems and conservation efforts that are both practical and effective.

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Water is Life

Some may recall the phrase "Water is Life" from the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. A majority of protesters were made up of the indigenous communities in the area who were determined to stop the pipeline's construction that would inevitably pollute and damage the surrounding fresh waters and land. Because the pipeline's route was planned to cross over the Missouri River, any oil spill from the pipeline would have contaminated it. The pipeline would have also been right by the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, a community whose only water supply is the river. Those who fought to protect the water led the resistance not just against the pipeline but the fossil fuel industry as a whole. After months of protest by native tribes and environmentalists, the construction halted.

WaterisLife is also the name of a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing clean, running water to communities without access. Founded by Ken Surritte, the organization was created after his realization that water is often taken for granted. During a visit with the Turkana people, located in northwestern Kenya, Surritte saw the effects of the water crisis through a different lens. Water was not guaranteed to be safe and free from disease. Today, WaterisLife uses several avenues to carry out its mission of securing clean water for communities like the Turkana people. The organization employs solutions like the SunSpring, a filtration unit that is self-contained with an automated self-cleaning maintenance system. It is also the only solar-powered filtration system that is "WQA Gold Seal Certified to the US EPA Standard for microbiological water purifiers," as stated on the WaterisLife website. The SunSpring removes 99% of pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, and cysts. The organization also raises money for bucket filters, pumps, and other clean water solutions.

It's clear that the fight for sustainable freshwater is one that exists all over the globe. In every corner of the world, people are battling droughts, pollution, lack of sanitation, and a lack of accessibility. The efforts of those like the WaterisLife organization and the protesters against the Dakota Access Pipeline are needed to create ripple effects for change and preserve what little water we have. However, larger governing bodies also have a responsibility to prioritize drinking water.

Solutions to the Water Crisis

Experts at Stanford University lent their opinions on the water crisis in the United States, with the consensus being that the problem should be treated as a top priority. One person, in particular, Newsha Ajami, Ph.D., insisted that our infrastructures were mistakenly created around the belief of abundant resources. Such a belief ignores the realities of the environment. An assumption of abundance leaves ecosystems and people at risk of irreversible consequences.

But exactly what kind of steps should we be taking to create sustainable water systems? Felicia Marcus, Visiting Fellow at Standford University, suggested that the presidential administration should provide funding for communities to create "technology development and dispersion for lower-cost sensor and treatment systems for drinking water." The contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, is a prime example of how current infrastructures have failed the people. The system needs an update, and new regulations must be put in place.

"The system needs an update, and new regulations must be put in place."

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Getting Green Infrastructure

If our current infrastructure is outdated, how do we bring our systems into the future? Green infrastructure offers a possible solution and revolves around the concept of both protecting and mimicking the natural water cycle. This includes things like rooftops with vegetation and filtering stormwater. Increasing vegetation on roadsides and rooftops allows for rainfall to be put to good use without picking up pollutants or flooding and going to waste. The way the American infrastructure exists today with pipes and concrete is known as gray infrastructure. This system does not provide the same amount of benefits that green infrastructure offers.  

As reported by the Environmental Protection Agency, water runoff is the fastest growing source of pollution. This is because runoff collects contaminants like fertilizer, oil, pesticides, and bacteria during its journey through our drains and waterways. In places like California, where rain is already hard to come by, the transformation of fresh water into something dirty and undrinkable is an unconscionable occurrence. On the other end of the spectrum, some parts of the country have experienced an increase in heavy rain due to climate change. Without green infrastructure, it leads to more contaminated runoff and flooding.

In fact, in the U.S., about 10 trillion gallons of city runoff mix into our waters untreated each year. When rain falls onto hard surfaces like our concrete, it comes into contact with the trash, chemicals, and dangerous pathogens that have been also been resting on those hard surfaces. The water immediately flows into waterways without any treatment. In comparison, when rainfall hits an absorbent surface like soil, it's less likely to pick up harmful substances and does not immediately flood. Absorbing into natural landscapes lets the water have a slower release into the groundwater.

Green infrastructure could significantly reduce contaminated runoff if adopted on a national scale. It could also save the government way more in funds. In the city of Philadelphia, officials made an agreement with the EPA to combat its sewer water dilemma. The heavy rain in the city causes continual overflow problems, and officials decided to make a change by leaning into green infrastructure to alleviate the overflows. Green roofs, rain gardens, and bioretention swales were implemented to create a landscape that would replicate the natural water cycle. In the next ten years, Philadelphia is determined to have "the largest stormwater infrastructure" in the country.

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Steps You Can Take

Because the water crisis is a global issue, it can be difficult to know how to help on an individual level. One larger task to take on can be done out on your lawns. If your home has a yard full of grass, consider transforming it into a space that is functional and efficient for the planet. Grass lawns lack biodiversity, are terrible for the environment, and require frequent watering. Instead, invest in plants that are native to the area you live in. This will allow them to thrive without much effort on your part and reduce water usage.

Other than the usual advice to turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth, take shorter showers, and water lawns less, how do we make an impactful difference? Alleviating the water crisis can also look like doing research and donating to organizations dedicated to finding solutions. Organizations like WaterisLife accept donations to continue providing filtration systems to communities all over the world.

In the professional world, business leaders can invest in research and technology for better water management. Companies can also work with their suppliers to reduce energy use and find ways to incorporate or switch to renewable resources. The fashion industry, for example, uses an exorbitant amount of water during the manufacturing process and during cultivation. It takes an estimated 10,000-20,000 liters of water just to grow one kilogram of cotton. Consumers may also do their part by shopping with companies that are transparent and actively working to reduce their water footprint.

Lastly, to truly change the water crisis, governments worldwide need to take action and prioritize conservation efforts. Green infrastructure needs further implementation, and water regulations must be put in place for corporations to follow. It is essential for constituents to support the leaders and initiatives that take the water shortage seriously.

Business Takeaways
  • Only 3% of Earth's water is drinkable. Of that small percentage, two-thirds of it is frozen or otherwise inaccessible.
  • Natural bodies of water across the country are experiencing record low levels.
  • Federal governments have a responsibility to the people to prioritize the conservation and accessibility of fresh water.
  • Gray infrastructure is outdated, more expensive, and creates more contaminated water than green infrastructure.