We’ve all heard the saying, “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” With droughts, floods and water pollution consistently making headlines, this line from English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is something that many around the country and even the world are probably thinking lately.
Did you know that about 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is water covered? However, the oceans hold about 96.5 percent of that water as salt water and not potable water (water safe enough for drinking and preparing food). That leaves 3.5 percent of water as fresh, potable water. And of that, about 69 percent is frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps. So that leaves about 1.6 percent of all the water on earth as fresh, potable water. That’s not much.
The average person needs at least 3/4 gallon of fresh water to drink each day. Add to that the amount needed for cooking, bathing and cleaning and what is needed by plants and animals. That adds up to a lot of potable water. Is it any wonder that water is the most important natural resource?
Some people, in states like Texas and California, have been living under drought conditions for years. They have billions of gallons, literally in their backyards, in the oceans, but it’s not potable water usable for people, animals or agriculture. Soon, people may have to move from some communities because there is just no potable water left.
And sometimes the potable water is contaminated and can’t be used for human or animal use. Here are some of the most notable recent stories.
In August 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accidentally released about 1 million gallons of contaminated water into Colorado’s Animas River from the Gold King Mine near Silverton. The EPA immediately warned people and communities to shut off water intakes and not to swim or fish in the river or use the water for drinking, bathing, animals or agriculture. Shocked and saddened people gathered along the river to watch the blue water turn to thick orange and yellow sludge water loaded with heavy metals. Many people lost their water supply from this accident.
In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon (BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico released about 210 million gallons of oil into the gulf waters. It is considered the largest accidental marine oil spill in history. BP paid $18.7 billion in fines, but that money will never bring back the billions of fish, dolphins, birds, and other marine life and wildlife that were killed. It won’t reimburse the thousands of people who lost their jobs, their livelihoods, due to closures of fishing and tourism, etc. That accident was almost six years ago and oil sludge yet continues to wash up on beaches from Florida to Louisiana.
Even recently, the world learned about the people in Flint, Mich., who have elevated lead levels in their bodies. Lead poisoning causes irreversible and untreatable harm, especially in children who are most affected. Where did the lead come from? Awhile back, the city of Flint made a decision to save money by getting their water from the Flint River instead of the Detroit water system which draws from Lake Huron. However, Flint River water is much more corrosive, and this water (which was not treated to reduce the corrosiveness) ended up corroding the city’s lead pipes in their water distribution system. This lead-contaminated water was then used by innocent residents for drinking, cooking and bathing, and now Flint’s children will forever pay the price.
Almost every week brings reports of contaminated water from oil and gas drilling, from hardrock mining, from sewage overflows, from accidents releasing toxic contaminants. In fact, the EPA estimates there are about 3,500 chemical spills each year alone. And these all, in one way or another, affect the nation’s water resources.
On top of these new pollution stories, there are 1,322 Superfund sites in the U.S., “polluted locations requiring a long-term response to clean up hazardous material contaminations,” according to the EPA. Every state in the U.S. has at least one Superfund site with most having 10 or more. Minnesota is about in the middle with more than 20 sites, including the old Stryker Bay and U.S. Steel mill sites on the St. Louis River in Duluth. Until they are totally cleaned, each of these Superfund sites continue to release contaminants into the surface and/or groundwater.
Residents of the Northland are blessed to have good, safe water, but it is only one accident away from being unsafe for use. And that accident doesn’t even need to be in the immediate area as contaminants in a river or lake or groundwater system can affect people hundreds of miles away.
It is so much easier to take offensive measures to protect water quality and prevent accidents and pollution than it is to spend millions of dollars and hours to clean up contaminated water.
BACK TO THE BEGINNING
So, let’s go back to the beginning a little and discover … where does water come from? And what can people do to protect water quality?
Everyone knows that water comes from the rain, the snow and the water faucet. But, seriously, water comes from somewhere and goes somewhere … and that is part of the hydrologic cycle.
From the formation of the Earth to the present day, water has been endlessly circulating through the hydrologic cycle. Water evaporates, forms clouds, and returns to earth as precipitation (rain, sleet, snow, hail, fog, etc.), and then it moves on or through the Earth and cycles again. Water is constantly moving, but it doesn’t always move in the same channels or the same locations. Water evaporating from a pond may fall as rain hundreds of miles away. The amount of water in one location may change (as in periods of drought or flooding), but the amount of water across the whole earth doesn’t change.
Typically, precipitation falls on earth, then runs downhill to low areas of rivers, lakes, ponds or ditches. These are considered surface water and some will keep water moving along (like rivers) while others will keep it in the same location for awhile (like ponds).
But some water seeps into the ground and is stored as groundwater or in an aquifer (an area of water-saturated rock). A groundwater system or aquifer can be deep or shallow, small in size or incredibly large and widespread, a confined system or interconnected to other groundwater systems.
If people live in a city or residential area, they most likely are drinking treated water from a river, a lake or an aquifer. If they live in the country and have their own water well, they are probably drinking groundwater or from an aquifer, which usually don’t need to be treated. There are even people and communities that have rainwater catchments to catch rainwater and store it in large tanks for household or agricultural use.
Any water, whether it is surface water or groundwater, is susceptible to accidents, large and small. There are stories about the large accidents and the millions of dollars in clean-up costs, like the previously mentioned cases. But what about old junkyards or “back 40s” with old vehicles dripping battery acid and oil into the ground? Or the winter-needed road salt and chemicals that run into the ditches and then down into the groundwater or rivers? Or the hundreds of homes and cabins along lakes and rivers that leak untreated waste from failing septic tanks? Or the thousands of people who apply fertilizers on their gardens, yards and fields with some of that fertilizer being washed away by the rain?
Any one of these instances may not be dangerous because the earth and the hydrologic cycle have built in “filters.” Contaminants are filtered out when water seeps through the sand and rocks, and when bacteria and plants and marine life (like microbes, mussels, clams, oysters, and some fish, etc.) “clean” the water.
But too much contaminants at one time WILL have a negative impact on the quality of surface and/or groundwater for awhile in that area, and possibly for miles around!
WHAT WE CAN DO
The key to protecting our water quality lies in not only learning where water comes from, but also how to conserve and protect our clean water, as well as our forests, grasslands and wetlands which are nature’s water filters.
“Carlton County is a headwaters county,” said Kelly Smith, Carlton SWCD. “We are at the top of the watersheds. This gives us a great deal of control over the quality of water in our county. In many Minnesota counties, lakes aren’t safe to swim in and wells aren’t safe to drink from. Our area is especially blessed with clean water and most of our waters are in very good condition. Protecting that good quality is important for our health, environment and economy.”
If everyone does his or her part, we can keep it that way for everyone and everything.
Here are some things you can do to protect the local water supply:
Never flush unwanted or out-of-date medicines down the toilets or drain. (Contact your local hazardous waste sites to find out where to dispose of them. Both the Cloquet Police Department and the Carlton County Sheriff’s Office have disposal boxes.)
Don’t put the following items down the household drains or storm drains on purpose or by accident: paints, oil, detergents, fertilizers, pesticides, hazardous products, etc.
Fix that car drip and/or put down a liner to collect and dispose of the chemicals safely.
Avoid using pesticides and chemical fertilizers whenever possible.
Recycle batteries, paint, oil, plastics and tires, etc., to keep them from polluting.
Use non-toxic household products when possible, including cleaning products and toiletries.
Pick up pet waste and dispose of correctly.
Don’t throw litter onto the ground or into water bodies. In fact, clean up any “safe” litter and dispose of it properly. (But don’t clean up unsafe or questionable materials! Call your city or county to do so.)
Get involved in local clean up projects for roadsides, rivers, etc. If there are no local clean up projects, start one and get your community involved!
Don’t pave your driveway. Allowing water to soak into the ground can prevent flooding, dilute and filter contaminants, and recharge groundwater.
Don’t leave large, bare-land areas. Heavy rainwater will wash off bare land, carrying pollutants to ditches and rivers. Instead, put in plants to catch and slow water so it can be filtered through the ground.
Don’t use antibacterial soaps and cleaning products. Many of these contain trichlosan, a registered pesticide that harms aquatic life and can lead to “superbugs” that are antibiotic resistant. Regular soap and water kills germs just as effectively.
Spread the word to your family, neighbors and friends and get them involved in conserving and protecting our water resources.
Encourage your local, state and federal government and agencies to support policies that conserve water and stop pollution.
And one more important thing: make sure that future generations learn about water, too. Teach your kids, grandkids, and others where water comes from, how it cycles through nature, how “accidents” impact our water, and what everyone can do to protect water quality.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT WATER
Come and learn about water, the natural water system, watersheds, and how nature works together at the upcoming Water Fest from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 12, at South Terrace Elementary, 405 School Ave., Carlton. Organizations and businesses with bring information, displays and presentations about a wide variety of water and natural resource subjects. Children will enjoy the nature games and activities as well as the special treats. Everyone can see the SWCD Water Table in action and help “create” a stream and watershed. And you can sign up for one of the several door prizes for adults and children. It’s a free, family-oriented, and fun event … a great way to spend a day during the “cabin fever” time of winter!