Missing the Water — Now

The ink is dry on history’s page. When it comes to our relationship to the planet, it is by and large a sad legacy of deferred responsibility, nurtured ignorance, haughty indifference and willful inaction that we leave in the environmental record of our race.

But maybe it is not too late for us to change. Maybe we are beginning to know our limits and consider how we might live within them in a sustainable future. And one of those limits that we will be thinking more about is the planet’s fresh water.

Though we live on what Jacques Cousteau called “the Water Planet”, less than 1% of the world’s fresh water is accessible for direct human use. With the exception of local droughts over modern history, there has generally been enough water. There will not likely be enough any more.

There are far more of us now. Too much good water has gone bad. Worldwide rain distribution patterns are likely to change on a massive scale in our lifetimes. Australia is in the midst of an unprecedented drought even now.

So what does this have to do with us in southwest Virginia? To me this looming crisis suggests that now is a good time to miss the water.

At a recent “Green Infrastructure” meeting at the Floyd Country Store, someone asked an expert panelist: “what is the storage capacity for water in Floyd County’s geological structure?” and “how will that supply hold up to future demands as the county population grows?” The expert’s answer: nobody knows the answer to that.

We just don’t have the studies to tell us. He did say that, because of our hard-rock geology, we lack the limestone caves and rivers that sustain towns along the I-81 corridor to our north. He noted too that in a recent sample of 101 wells, 37 were contaminated by fecal coliform bacteria.

The take-home message is that we need to better at treating water as a multiple reuse resource. And in Floyd County, we should keep in mind that we get no water from outside our plateau-situated home ground. We could begin to think of harvesting water in barrels and cisterns and by creating “rain gardens” to keep more of what we get and then use it wisely.

The world may soon see inadequate water for drinking and agriculture leading to starvation and dislocation on an unprecedented scale. This threat is already looming in places like India and Pakistan where ground water is falling as much as twenty feet per year. In parts of our grain-producing states, the water table has dropped more than 100 feet.

The century-long gold rush for cheap groundwater is almost past, the vein played out. And for all the schemes of empires and regimes, all the machinations and treacheries of cartels and armies of the world for control of oil, in the end it will be water that we come to see as the most valuable and necessary liquid of all.

Suggested Reading:
Water Worries
Emerging Water Shortages

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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. Water conservation is right up there with global warming and it has to be addressed. We do need to be careful with how we handle our water but spouting numbers can be a bit missleading, I know we humans have to be a bit more careful but I wonder how many of those wells that were tested were on farms. Some of that fecal matter could be cattle waste. I know it doesn’t matter in the big picture where the waste comes from but the causes need to be better understood so the proper changes can be made.