Water is our most important natural resource and it can no longer be taken for granted. There are two little-publicized but critical problems. First, we are running out of it; second, what is left is becoming increasingly contaminated.
From coast to coast, the water supply, once thought to be unlimited, is disappearing. In early 1981, New York’s reservoirs, usually at 80% of capacity at that time, were only 34% full. In mid-April, the rural Illinois town of Eldorado had 12 days of water left. The water level in Tucson’s 250 wells are declining by two feet a year. The water table at Grant County, Kansas, has dropped more than 100 feet since 1940. Southern California hopes to solve its water problems with the Peripheral Canal, a costly engineering project which will divert up to four-fifths of the total Sacramento River flow. Serious environmental damage to the Sacramento Delta and San Francisco Bay is widely forecast.
Water levels are falling drastically in the Ogallala aquifer which may be the largest underground reserve of fresh water in the world. This water, which is not literally “fresh,” is fossil water which has accumulated over thousands of years. The Ogallala, which covers 160,000 square miles from west Texas to northern Nebraska, is being so rapidly consumed by agriculture that some areas may approach the end of their water by the year 2000 and most others by 2020.
Meanwhile, the nation’s remaining water supply is increasingly threatened by chemical contamination. The major villains are dangerous solvents and other compounds, many of them poisonous, discharged by industry. At certain concentrations, they can damage the central nervous system; at high concentrations, they can cause nausea, dizziness, tremors, and blindness; and many researchers say some organic contaminants found in drinking water present a potential risk of cancer. At the same time, the very item which prevents millions of cases of disease, chlorine, has been found to react with decayed matter occurring naturally in water and with organic pollutants to form a family or organic chemicals called trihalomethans (THMs), with chloroform being one of them.
The problems of poisoned and disappearing water can be solved, according to researchers, but only if the issue is placed on the national agenda. The failure of the mass media to address this critical issue qualifies this story for nomination as one of the “best censored” stories of 1981.
The Progressive, 7/81, “Wringing America Dry” by John Opie and “Making Deserts Bloom” by Robert L. Reid; National Wildlife Federation, 4/81, “How Safe is the Water We Drink?” by Marvin A. Zeldin.