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Water, water everywhere; innovation and cooperation are helping quench the world's growing thirst.

"There it is. Take it," city water superintendent William Mulholland told thousands of Los Angeles who stood by in 1913 with tin cups in hand, waiting to taste the first water sluicing through the 223-mile aqueduct from the Owens Valley. In a water grab made famous by Roman Polanski's movie Chinatown, a powerful group of L.A. businessmen stole water from the fruit growers and cattle ranchers of the Owens Valley and made a fortune building subdivisions and the most productive croplands in the world on the newly irrigated land.

Mulholland's bounteous gesture pretty much sums up how we've felt about water from the start. Like the wealthy L.A. syndicate, we've taken it almost for free. We've used the gift of fresh water to irrigate our fields, producing a windfall harvest on thousands of acres of land where it would never been possible on rainwater alone. In the northern hemisphere, we've harnessed and tamed three-quarters of the flow from the world's major rivers to quench our thirst and generate power for our cities.

It's no wonder we behave like our cup runneth over: The planet has been blessed with more fresh water than we could ever possibly need. But because this abundant resource is distributed unevenly on the planet, we're starting to run up against the limits of available fresh water in many parts of the globe. According to a recent United Nations report, one-sixth of the world's population--one billion people--lack access to clean water, and that number is expected to double in the next 30 years.

"A number of areas could enter a period of chronic shortages during this decade, including much of Africa, northern China, pockets of India, Mexico, the Middle East and parts of western North America," according to Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Massachusetts. Some 26 countries are now considered to be "water scarce"--with fewer than 1,000 cubic meters of water available to each person per year. The number of water-scarce countries is expected to rise to 35 by the year 2020.

Signs of water scarcity are showing up in many parts of the world. According to the Worldwatch Institute, groundwater over-pumping and aquifer depletion are now a serious problem in the world's most intensive agricultural areas, including the western United States, India and northern China. And in heavily populated cities like Mexico City, Bangkok and Jakarta, land is sinking as more groundwater is withdrawn to serve the water needs of growing populations than can't be replenished by rainfall. "The Nile in Egypt, the Ganges in South Asia, the Yellow River in China and the Colorado River in America are among the major rivers that are so dammed, diverted or overtapped that little or no fresh water reaches its final destination for significant stretches of time," writes Postel.

In the century that's now drawing to a close, demand for fresh water has grown twice as fast as population growth--due in large part to the Green Revolution in agriculture and a rising standard of living for many of the world's people. Growing demand-coupled with centuries of poor water management and water pollution, which renders available resources unusable--has created local shortages of this renewable but finite resource. Ideas like towing icebergs to the Middle East and piping Alaska river water under the ocean to thirsty California aside, most cost-effective sources of new water "development" have already been tapped. Competition is heating up between countries, between different users within an area, and between man and nature. Will we pursue available solutions through conservation and equitable reallocation? Or will Mark Twain be proved right when he said, "Whiskey's for drinking. Water's for fighting"?

Sharing the Wealth

A drive through Israel and the West Bank reveals two very different scenarios of our relationship with water in the coming half century. In Israel, you can see evidence of man's ingenuity with living in a brutally parched landscape. Rows of orange trees and vegetable plants are irrigated with recycled wastewater from the cities. Seawater irrigates varieties of cotton and tomato plants that thrive on salty water. Most impressive, Israeli officials, while proud of their country's success at realizing the Zionist dream of making the desert bloom, recognize that it's unsustainable in the long run. They reportedly plan to transfer more than a third of agriculture's fresh water to cities, using income from the growing industrial sector to import more of the nation's food.

But 50 miles away in the West Bank, a different picture emerges. Many Palestinians lack running water, so they have to buy their water from trucks or capture in cisterns the little rainwater that falls. Although they are sitting on top of the West Bank aquifer, which supplies 25 percent of Israel's water, they are forbidden by Israeli authorities to drill wells to tap the aquifer. Policymakers are starting to talk about water replacing oil as a major cause of war in the coming decades, and the Middle East, where such water-sharing tensions abound, is considered a hot spot for such conflicts.

Competition between countries is becoming a common scenario in water-scarce regions all over the world. Egypt, nearly totally dependent on the Nile River, watches warily as Ethiopia builds hundreds of small dams on the river's upper reaches and may soon proceed with plans to construct a major dam. Syria and Iraq fear their future water supplies will be threatened by Turkey's construction of the massive Southwest Anatolia Project upstream on the Euphrates. Last year, Botswana raised a public outcry when Namibia, Africa's driest nation, announced emergency plans to divert water from Okavango, River to relieve drought conditions. Botswana was concerned that the diversion could hurt its number-one tourist attraction, the Okavango Delta. which draws top-dollar travelers to seer some of the best wildlife viewing in Africa. The potential for conflict in many regions is so serious that the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development dedicated its annual meeting this year to discussions of how to avoid a freshwater crisis.

However, there are signs that nations are willing to cooperate with neighbors for their own well-being and stability. Namibia, Botswana and Angola are participating in UN-brokered talks on planning for future water needs in the Okavango Basin--and the Berkeley-based International Rivers Network is trying to come up with alternative water solutions for Namibia. In 1996, India agreed to increase flow of the Ganges to its downstream neighbor, Bangladesh. Last year, Israel and Jordan signed a water-sharing agreement, although implementation has seriously lagged. And the eight countries that depend on Africa's Zambezi River are working with the United Nations Environment Programme on a plan for equitable sharing of its waters.

Down Off the Farm

Despite Chinatown's big-city-crushes-little-farmers moral, agriculture has typically won more than its fair share of the world's freshwater resources. (Even the Owens Valley water grab didn't actually benefit Los Angeles at all, but the immensely profitable corporate farms that sprung up in the San Fernando Valley.) Today, agriculture claims a whopping 69 percent of freshwater use worldwide.

But that will soon change. Demand is exploding in the world's fastest-growing cities, and water earns a far greater return in the industrial than the agricultural sector. As Wade Graham pointed out in a June 1998 Harper's Magazine article, "All urban needs well into the future could be satisfied by shifting just 10 percent of agriculture's water to the cities--an increment easily absorbed by adopting standard conservation practices on the farm."

In some countries, more than 50 percent of irrigation water is lost to runoff and evaporation, but conservation technology exists that could eliminate much of that waste. Drip irrigation systems, pioneered by Israeli farmers, deliver water directly to the plants' roots on an as-needed basis. Farmers have adopted water-efficient irrigation methods in the Ogallala aquifer, which extends from South Dakota to the Texas Panhandle and sustains one of the biggest breadbaskets and beef-producing regions in the U.S. Nevertheless, this ancient underground water supply, which is replenished at such a slow rate that it's considered a fossil aquifer, may be depleted within 50 or 60 years.

In the American West and in countries where farmers own water rights, the creation of new water markets will allow farmers to conserve water and sell their surplus to nearby cities. Many people agree this is a positive trend: It satisfies cities' water needs while providing an incentive for both buyers and sellers to use water more efficiently. Markets could also help preserve open space by providing additional income to farmers who might otherwise be forced to sell out to developers.

Back to Nature

If agriculture has gotten the lion's share of water when water allocations decisions have been made, nature has been shortchanged. And in nearly every place where people have exploited water for human needs, natural ecosystems have suffered. In California, overlaid with a labyrinthine network of dams, reservoirs, pumps and aqueducts, and poisoned by fertilizer and pesticide runoff, 40 out of 49 native fish species are extinct or at risk of extinction.

"Watersheds with the highest biological value--measured by the number of fish species and endemic fish species, as well as the number of areas with endemic birds--are also generally the most degraded," says Carmen Revenga, one of the authors of the World Resources Institute's recently released report on international watersheds. "Many biologically rich watersheds--particularly in Southeast Asia and China--also have high population densities, high levels of modified and irrigated land, and high rates of deforestation, especially in tropical areas."

The United States is another hot spot of freshwater species decline. "The U.S. is the epicenter of freshwater biodiversity in the world," says Larry Masters, chief zoologist at The Nature Conservancy. "That means we have a very significant responsibility in terms of the world of freshwater biodiversity." A recent Nature Conservancy report, Rivers of Life, presented a proposal to protect just 15 percent of U.S. watersheds to conserve all freshwater fish and mussel species at risk. In the U.S., 37 percent of freshwater fish are at risk of extinction, 51 percent of crayfish and 40 percent of amphibians are imperiled or vulnerable, and 67 percent of freshwater mussels are extinct or vulnerable to extinction.

While water pollution laws in developed countries have spurred improvements in water quality in the past few decades, drinking water in which untreated waste is discharged is still a leading cause of illness in many developing nations. According to a recent UN report, some 90 percent of wastewater is still discharged untreated into local rivers and streams. "The most pressing water problem is the utter failure to meet basic human needs for water," says Peter Gleick, director of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization that specializes in global water issues.

According to a report from the World Resources Institute, many developing countries undergoing rapid industrialization are being hit by a double whammy: They're "now faced with the full range of modern toxic pollution problems--eutrophication, heavy metals, acidification, persistent organic pollutants--while still struggling to deal with traditional problems of poor water supply and lack of sanitation services"

But in the U.S. and many other parts of the world, a strong conservation ethic means that nature may be starting to gain a stronger voice in water quality and allocation decisions. Hundreds of grassroots groups are defending rivers and lakes in every corner of the globe--and they've been winning significant victories. Thanks to years of effort by the Mono Lake Committee, water is being returned to California's Mono Lake, sucked dry by Los Angeles' diversions. International Rivers Network and many other groups have been fighting to stop the Sardar Sarovar dam in India, South Africa's Lesotho Highlands water project, and other expensive dam and diversion projects. Dams on the Colorado and its tributaries are being reoperated to reflect a more natural seasonal flow to help endangered species recover, and dams are being decommissioned in Washington, Vermont, North Carolina, Maine and other states.

Tourism, one of the world's fastest-growing industries, will increasingly provide an incentive to protect important natural areas. "South Africa has a very aggressive program to identify minimum ecosystem needs," says Gleick. "They're trying to do it in the rivers that flow through Kruger National Park," a stunning wildlife reserve where tourists flock to South Africa to see lions, elephants, and other big-game animals. "These rivers have been very badly depleted in past years, so they're trying to fix that."

Even in the American West, a region where water allocations have long been dominated by politically powerful ranchers and farmers, conservation and fishing groups are struggling to give nature a place at the table. "We're not going to issue permits that will kill fish anymore," says Gary Powell, head of the environmental section of the Texas Water Development Board, showing the first glimmers of a change in attitude among water developers in the West. "The name of the game is for everyone to get out alive."

Tapping a Water Policy That Works

Human civilization emerged by the river, and perhaps that's where we'll evolve to the next level of civilization. In The Origins of Power, sociologist Michael Mann observes that the first civilization emerged only after people figured out how to move large amounts of water. Around 5,000 B.C., inhabitants of Mesopotamia noticed that periodic river flooding was good: It fertilized the soil with nutrient-rich mud and silt, and yielded better crops on the lands adjacent to the river. The Mesopotamians discovered that they could build canals and spread the river alluvium to outlying farms. Thus, the practice of artificial irrigation was born. For the first time, communities had a significant agricultural surplus. This freed many people from working the land, allowing them to thrive in villages as artisans and traders.

Will World Bank support and private capital start to flow away from dams and other big supply-side projects and toward conservation projects? Many hope so. The World Bank has begun pipe-fixing projects in cities in the developing world, where as much as 50 percent of municipal water is wasted through leakage. Other cost-effective and worthwhile investment projects include bringing drip irrigation systems to the 99 percent of irrigated lands that don't yet have them. Experts say that other small-scale projects, such as community projects to dig wells or teaching communities how to separate human waste from their drinking water supply, may also be effective.

Besides technological advances, the other signpost that will mark our evolution as a civilization is an emerging ethic of cooperation and fairness. As water prices increase to reflect true value, will the world's poorest people still receive their fair share? In 1994, when Indonesia was hit with a major drought, residents' wells ran dry, but Jakarta's golf courses, which cater to wealthy tourists, continued to receive 1,000 cubic meters per course per day. Will the free market consider the needs of rural communities or of the orangenacre mucket and dozens of other freshwater mussels--critically imperiled by logging and agriculture in the Southeast? And will international rules emerge for countries to share water in their downstream or less powerful neighbors?

Says Federico Mayor, director-general of UNESCO, "Throughout history, human have responded to the need to pool their efforts and share resources in the interests of larger security. Water, in particular, has been one of humanity's historic learn grounds for community building. We should see it as a potential source, not of conflict, but of agreements...for the transition from a culture of war to a culture of peace."

"There it is. Take it" said Mulholland. Perhaps his 21st-century counterpart will say, "There it is. Let's share it." CONTACT: International Rivers Network, 1847 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94703/(510)848-1155; The Nature Conservancy, 1815 North Lynn Street, Arlington, VA 22209/(703)841-5300; World Resources Institute, 1709 New York Avenue NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20006/(202)638-6300.

RELATED ARTICLE: Hitting the Bottle

Water isn't necessarily the only thing coming out of our faucets--harmful levels of lead, mercury and chlorine have also found their way into drinking water supplies. For many people, the solution to the question mark over their taps has been bottled water.

To our ancestors, the concept of marketing and selling a fashionably packaged bottle of otherwise-free water would have been laughable. Today, however, the bottled water industry is attaining new heights, as the health-conscious reach for spring water instead of their favorite carbonated beverage.

"There are really three factors that explain its popularity," says Gary Hemphill, vice president of the Beverage Marketing Corporation, "potability, affordability and general consumer lifestyle. Pricing has come down, and with no calories and nothing artificial added, it's a healthier alternative to other beverages you'll find at the store."

But bottled waters may not be as clean as their fanciful labels suggest. "There's a perception among the public that bottled water is of higher quality than tap water, and that's not necessarily true in all cases," says Dan Pedersen, a regulating engineer at the American Water Works Association. "In reality, there are nine tests for contaminants that tap water has to pass that bottled water doesn't," he adds. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported in 1993 that such testing "would pose an undue economic burden on bottlers."

The Natural Resources Defense Council did some testing of its own last year when it commissioned a health study on 38 brands of drinking water in California. According to Dr. Richard Maas, director of the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina (which actually conducted the study), the water was tested for hundreds of chemicals. Among the findings were two samples with arsenic contamination; six with chemical byproducts indicating the water had been chlorinated; and six with measurable levels of the toxic chemical toluene. "The results indicated to us that bottled water isn't much better than good tap water," says Dr. Maas. "Several samples were in clear violation of California's bottled water standards."

Because bottled water is considered a food product, it's regulated by the FDA, rather than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The water is then regulated by a state agency, and lastly through standards set by a trade association such as the International Bottled Water Association.

"Our approach has been, in most cases, to adopt the same standards that the EPA sets for drinking water contamination levels. We want bottled water to have a comparable quality to that of tap water," says Henry Kim, consumer safety officer for the FDA, But if bottled water is aspiring merely to be as safe as tap water, why are so many of us beginning to trust and prefer it over tap water?

Pedersen also points out that for the same price as one bottle of Evian or Poland Springs, you could have 1,000 gallons of tap water' delivered to your home. Moreover, many people who are purchasing bottled water--either to accompany them into the health club or the workplace--refill their bottles with tap water, suggesting that their reason for buying bottled water may have a lot to do with the bottle itself. CONTACT: American Water Works Association, 1401 New York Avenue NW, Suite 640, Washington, DC 20005/(202)628-8303; International Bottled Water" Association, 1700 Diagonal Road, Suite 650, Alexandria, VA 22314/(800)928-3711.


Conservation and Competition In the New West's Water War

In 1991, a catfish farmer named Ronnie Pucek, Jr. hit a gusher on his land just south of San Antonio, Texas. The 30-inch column shot 35 feet in the air with a force that blew the rig clear out of the hole. He drilled two more bore wells and hit again. Pucek had struck water, not oil, but no matter. Because of the arcane but fiercely defended Texas constitutional law known as the right of free capture, Pucek knew he was a rich man. He started running 35,000 gallons a minute through his catfish farm--a third of the amount of water used by the whole city of San Antonio--causing a five-foot dip in parts of the Edwards Aquifer water table. As savvy observers figured out right away, Pucek had more than fish on his mind: He was establishing a water right that would enable him to later sell his own private river back to users like the city of San Antonio.

Although Pucek never got a permit granting the amount of water rights he sought, this frontier-style water grab set off a warning signal in drought-prone Texas. Despite Texas wariness of government interference, the state legislature realized the system needed better managing. The Edwards Aquifer Authority was set up to grant water permits, and last year the legislature passed a law that requires all regions of the state to develop 50-year water strategies.

By the time these regional groups turn in their plans in the year 2000, Texans will see a trend that will soon be familiar in the rest of the West: Fast-growing cities will be buying some of their water from farmers. Houston, for example, has made a deal to get water from the San Jacinto River that formerly irrigated water-intensive rice farms. In California's Imperial Valley, the irrigation district that supports a $1 billion fruit- and vegetable-growing industry has agreed to sell up to 200,000 acre-feet of water to San Diego for 45 years. In return, San Diego wilt pay for installing conservation equipment in the Valley that will free up surplus water.

But these deals are minor compared to the regional superstore soon opening in the West. Last year, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announced plans to open a major water market among users of the Colorado River--a move that some observers have described as the largest deregulation of a national resource since the Homestead Act of 1862. The rule will allow interstate sales among the southern users of the Colorado River--Arizona, Nevada and California. That means Arizona will soon be able to sell surplus Colorado water, which it's been storing in underground aquifers, to booming Las Vegas.

One of the hoped-for effects of the plan is that rising water prices will force California to start living within its 4.4 million acre-foot allotment of Colorado water. "The potential for conserving water in California is enormous, in every sector," says Peter Gleick, director of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based nonprofit specializing in international and Western water issues. indeed, municipalities across the West are finding that the expense of developing new water resources is already making conservation the most cost-effective option. Ashland, Oregon, faced with a $11 million bill for building a new dam on Ashland Creek, decided to look into other options instead. The city discovered that conservation could give it the 500,000 gallons a day the dam would provide--at one-twelfth the price. Phoenix, Seattle, San Antonio and El Paso are among the many other cities offering incentives to commercial customers who save water.

"Conservation is the single greatest source of new water in the western United States," says Gleick. "But I don't think that ethic has penetrated very far in the water management community. California's water planning and policy is still mired in the ethic of the 1950s and 1960s. The rest of the country's about to start a new millennium, but they're still doing things the old way, which is to focus on new supply and subsidized, inefficient use."

Along with shortages of supply, the West faces threatened aquatic ecosystems in rivers, lakes and wetlands. "We have crashing ecosystems in every river basin in the West," says Steve Glazer, chair of the Sierra Club's Colorado River Task Force. "We have declining species where we don't already have endangered and threatened listed species." Runoff from farm pesticides and fertilizers--along with manmade river diversions like dams--now pose an increasing problem to aquatic species that depend on freshwater ecosystems.

In the San Joaquin Valley, which supports a $6.82 billion agriculture industry, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study found 49 pesticides in the rivers and tributaries, groundwater contamination, and elevated levels of DDT. The Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, once the largest wetland or the west coast, has shrunk enormously, its waters diverted to Southern California. The Colorado River is so oversubscribed on its journey through seven U.S. states that there's virtually nothing left to go out to sea. The lack of freshwater flow has endangered the delta in Mexico--an important marine ecosystem and stopover for waterfowl on the Pacific flyway--where the river flowed into the ocean in the upper Gulf of Mexico.

But everywhere are signs that Americans want to stop subsidizing ecosystem destruction in the West. Some are calling for water subsidies to farmers to be replaced with pricing that more accurately reflects this resource's value, in the Pacific Northwest, efforts are underway to restore declining salmon runs. The Sierra Club would also like to see more laws that allow states to appropriate water to protect the environment, as currently exists in Colorado and Oregon, as well as for rational parks in Utah. Other states are reforming water laws whose "use it or lose it" principle discourages conservation.

As humans and nature compete for precious water in the West, the Endangered Species Act has emerged as a powerful weapon. "There are 50 or 60 endangered fish species identified in the West, and many are in areas important to irrigated agriculture," says Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Massachusetts. "And it's very dear that if there's an identified endangered species in a river, steps have to be taken to protect the habitat of that river. And that tends to affect water rights, which in the West are considered firm property rights." CONTACT: American Rivers, 1025 Vermont Avenue NW, Suite 720, Washington, DC 20005/(202)347-7550; Clean Water Network, 1200 New York Avenue NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20005/(202)289-2395.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Earth Action Network, Inc.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on bottled water purity, 20 most endangered rivers in America, water-rights permits, water markets
Author:Robbins, Elaine
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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