Confluence of Goose Creek and Nameless
Confluence of Goose Creek and Nameless

Will there be enough to go around in tomorrow’s world? How to have adequate water for all who need it on the global scale has become as urgent and compelling an environmental issue as how to avoid too much atmospheric carbon dioxide.

But unlike the invisible, tasteless, odorless greenhouse gas whose levels are near or past the tipping point, water touches us tangibly every day. Thirst tells when we there’s not enough of it in our bodies and drought shows us the same dependence for our crops and livestock and forests. In a matter of hours or days without it, our absolute reliance on the liquid is not in question.

Even so, it’s hard to fully comprehend the pending water crisis beyond the boundaries of our Floyd County kitchen sinks, wells and watersheds. If we’re not thirsty, if our gardens and woods are green and the creeks are full now, where’s the problem?

It lies in the fact that soon there will likely be nine billion cups held under the spigot, even as the global water use per person in the developed world continues to rise.

Add to this the fact that the volume of existing potable water for those who need it is reduced by contamination with heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, pesticides and pathogens, though there are far too many who must drink whatever they can get in whatever state it’s in. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.7 billion people still lack access to clean water and 2.3 billion people suffer from water-borne diseases each year.

Fresh water melts from the snowpack of warming mountain glaciers in Nepal to rush past thirsty millions on its way to the salt seas. It becomes unreachable by excessive draw-down of sources underground to water lawns, fill swimming pools or grow biocrops to fuel our cars.

The supply diminishes, the demand increases, and waters above and under ground cross all kinds of high-tension state and national borders. The term “water wars” is more thinkable than ever.

When it comes to this essential “right” regarded over our short human history as an “all you can eat” entitlement from the commons like air, it is not easy for us to see it any other way into the future. And yet, we must.

Here are just a few issues that demand a new attitude about and relationship with water:

Bottling the Tap ~ Who owns the water under in our bedrock? Water is becoming increasingly “owned” by companies like Nestle who just lost an attempt in Michigan to mine without restrictions a community’s groundwater at 400 gallons per minute, paying less than local residents do, then selling it bottled all over the world at thousands of times the water’s value. They’re restricted now to 200 gallons. Per minute. Twenty-four/seven. For years. Search Food and Water Watch for more.

Public versus Private ~ The World Bank and other international financial institutions and governments have been promoting private control and ownership of developing countries’ water services. Costs for the thirsty poor rise, and a small group of shareholders prosper even as water-borne diseases remain a chief cause of illness and death worldwide. Consider that those who own the water, own the food; those who own the water and the food, own the people. Market forces alone can’t be the guiding principle in allocating water equitably.

Virtual Water and water footprint ~ The water I’ve required for my morning routine didn’t all come from our well. The cup of coffee I just enjoyed took 37 gallons of water from some distant place to grow, process, package and ship. The typical hamburger requires more than 500 gallons of water. In the same way there are invisible, externalized costs in fossil fuel for eating foods imported from a great distance, there is a water cost as well. Somebody somewhere pays with their water.

And When it Falls ~ Philadelphia’s 1.6 billion dollar project may serve as a national model. Instead of sending storm water and municipal waste down the same often-overwhelmed pipes, they’ll store rainfall on green rooftops, and send it to recharge aquifers beneath the city through pervious pavers and in rain gardens.

Scarcity, pollution and misallocation are problems with solutions. The time to talk our way through them is now.

Join the conversation about Floyd County’s unique water situation on December 10 at the Floyd Country Store at 3:00 and again at 6:00. The Virginia Rural Water Association will offer a brief presentation on source-water protection plans and will explain our county’s unique geology, groundwater structure and water resource storage and quality issues. More about that meeting here

This essay appeared in the Floyd Press on December 3, 2009. I strongly recommend seeing Blue Gold: World Water Wars available by disk or Instant Play on Netflix. More here.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Very interesting post, Floyd. Water is the most precious resource in the world. It does not belong in any way, sense, of form to human beings, although we do have the responsiblity of managing it in a way that not only provides for us but to the natural world.

    In general the eastern US is water wealthy, whereas much of the world is water poor. We have only begun to experience the difficulties that others have faced for generations.

    Very thought prooking, thank you very much.


  2. Yes, thank you for giving us so much info that has not received much coverage yet, compared to other environmental issues. Philadelphia’s project sure is exciting. How forward thinking can a government entity get!! And especially when you consider that it is located in a “water rich” region.

  3. The same amount of water exists on the planet today as when time began. The water never leaves, it is only recycled. Last month someone flushed the water that you drink today.

    While it is true that some areas have shortages due to overuse or climate conditions, we still have the same amount of water that we always have. If water is not in short supply in your area then it does no good to worry about conservation unless you plan to bottle and ship it.

    Now pollution is another issue. Once the water is polluted it will eventually evaporate to become rain somewhere else but that pollution remains in the waterways and oceans. We are quite likely polluting the planet at a rate that it may not be able to recover from.

  4. Sam, I’m encouraging those in our county who have some influence on natural resource policy to watch Blue Gold. We have a major initiative underway on well source protection and a strong pressure for retirement community development, the chief limiting factor will the water volume and quality in our fractured rock storage.

    We have very good water, all flows OUT of our county situated on a plateau along the Blue Ridge of Virginia, but not the volumes that Big Water would be interested in, so don’t expect Nestle to come knocking.

    But Blue Gold puts the issue of water-as-commodity in an understandable format and on-the-ground point of view, so many thanks.

    We may be looking to obtain a DVD of Blue Gold for a community presentation at some point this spring.


    Fred First