Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Watershed stress

Yellow Sea, Shandong, China, as seen from Qingdao
Photograph by the author

Today I thought I'd say a little bit about habitat preservation in terms of watershed stress, a subject we'll come back to over and over again as we examine the overall impact of human activity on the planet.

The latest study on this subject reveals some alarming news about how we're managing water habitats, and water quality, all over America. Readers interested in the condensed version of this report can refer to the Huffington Post article.

Water supplies are dwindling all over not America, but the planet. And in areas where there is less and less water, one single unexamined fact stands out. The less water there is in any given area, the more polluted the water base becomes.

This is because pollution is measured in parts per million, or fractions of pollutant per gallon, to put it in simpler terms. Given the fact that in most areas, the amount of pollutants being input into the water system is either static or rising, the less water there is to dilute it into, the more concentrated the pollutants are. Natural "water-cleaning" ecosystems consisting of plants, filtering aquifers and microbial degraders of polluting runoff are more and more taxed, and less and less able to filter or purify the contaminants they receive. The same is true of manmade treatment systems. In both cases, the processing of human pollutants—chemical waste, human waste, medically hazardous microbial contaminants, and so on—is less and less effective over time. Both nature and man, in other words, rely on a steady and predictable relatively high level of clean water in order to handle the pollutants we produce.

Anywhere that water supplies are stressed and dwindling, this problem becomes greater and greater over time. The net result is that the plants, animals, and microbes dwelling in the water ecosystems are subject to greater and greater stress from contaminants with every passing year.

This situation is directly analogous to the air pollution in Beijing. Anyone who believes than man can tolerate an unlimited amount of pollution in an environment needs to think again, because Beijing proves that it isn't actually all that hard to pass tolerable levels and move into dangerous territory.  The exact same thing is happening to our waterways, only it's less visible and immediate. This is doubly dangerous, because it is hidden from both public consciousness and direct experience. Not only do we not appear to directly suffer from it; we don't even think about it. Problems of this nature tend to grow so large that by the time anyone does anything about it, it is far too late. It's the equivalent of an undiagnosed cancer which is steadily metastasizing.

While it's true that global warming, with the consequent addition of dramatically larger amounts of circulating (and therefore fresh) water to the world ecosystem, will deliver far more water to some portions of the planet, there are also heavily populated regions where it will deliver far less, as we are already seeing. Excess amounts of water produce equally devastating pollution problems by overwhelming and flooding out treatment systems and sewers, thus contaminating the area with biohazards and chemical contaminants that under ordinary conditions will remain isolated from the resident populations.

There is no absolutely substitute for excellent water treatment system management. It may not seem as important as preventing the operation of nuclear power plants in your area, but statistically speaking you're far more likely, over the course of your lifetime, to be exposed to waterborne hazards in the form of disease and chemical contaminants than you are radiation.

Yet no one mounts protests against bad water management.

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