Water is life

“A society’s fate lies in its own hands and depends substantially on its own choices.” —Jared Diamond, in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

“We have a responsibility to develop sustainable environmental policies that ensure our precious natural resources will be around for future generations. Businesses, homeowners, and municipalities all rely on groundwater resources to thrive in daily life.” —Wisconsin Representative Cory Mason

Water is life. This is not a radical, liberal, or whacko environmentalist notion. It is not a partisan issue. It is a simple fact.

So why do Republicans in Wisconsin oppose efforts to protect, or clean up, our water resources? Why are they cutting funding for lead pipe removal? Why are they blocking efforts to regulate “forever” PFAS chemicals? Why do they cut DNR scientist positions, support toxic mining, oppose regulation of factory farms, or control of high capacity wells?

Water is absolutely essential to life on this planet. This is no great revelation. We all know there is no substitute for clean, drinkable, usable fresh water. This is not a debatable issue. There is no scientific or economic controversy. It should be obvious to everyone that depleting and poisoning our water will only harm us, our economy, and our future.

Even in Wisconsin, the land of abundant water, we have many problems. Nitrates (primarily from manure) contaminate 94,000 household wells. Statewide, 18% of private wells have disease causing bacteria.

In Kewaunee County, one third of the private water wells are too polluted for people to safely drink the water. The porous “karst” rock structure in that area guarantees manure spread on fields will end up in the ground water (the county has more cows than people). Arsenic is a problem in Outagamie and Winnebago Counties. In Jefferson County 10% of homes tested higher than safe levels for lead. Lead pipes exist all over the state. The corn pesticide Atrazine is found in high levels in agricultural areas, especially Dane County. Waukesha is tapping Lake Michigan water because of radon contamination in their deep wells.

As water tables dropped in southeast Wisconsin, communities drilled deeper wells into rock formations containing radon (Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that causes cancer). In 2006, 42 communities in eastern Wisconsin had levels of radon above EPA standards. In the central sand counties water levels in lakes and small streams have been dropping for years. In 2005, the Little Plover River, a popular trout stream, went dry. This is an area of high agricultural water use with many high capacity wells.

Problems like these develop when we fail to recognize that our actions have consequences. Wisconsin has 15,000 lakes and more than a quadrillion gallons of groundwater. It is hard to believe that water could ever be in short supply. But modern agriculture, industry, cities, and personal lifestyles consume huge amounts of water. When we remove more water from a local area, aquifer, or river than the natural processes can put back, then we “mine” the water. Polluting and mining of water can do long lasting damage that is impossible, or very costly, to reverse.

There are some fundamental principles of hydrology that need to be understood by everyone. One is that water on this planet is a closed system. All the water we have, or will ever have, is here. New water is not being created nor can it be created by us. For practical purposes, neither can it be destroyed although it can be rendered useless by pollution, depletion, or local disruptions to the hydrologic cycle.

Second, most of the earth’s water is not usable by humans. About 97% of the water is in the oceans and has too much salt for use. This leaves 3% as “fresh” water, but with 2% of fresh water locked up in ice, only 1% of the earth’s water is available for non-oceanic life on the planet. Groundwater makes up 0.5% of all water. It behooves us to protect and use our fresh water wisely.

Water is endlessly recycled in a process scientists call the hydrologic cycle. Water evaporates from surface waters (primarily the oceans), becomes precipitation that waters the life on land, feeds fresh water lakes, streams and groundwater, and eventually returns to the oceans via runoff. This cycle is worldwide. Local water cycles can be depleted, polluted, or altered in detrimental ways. On a worldwide basis, water is technically a “renewable” resource, but from a local, practical perspective, water is a finite resource. Use it up, or pollute it, and the consequences can be catastrophic and very costly.

Third, all water is connected. It is connected by the hydrologic cycle but also through geologic structures. Water from groundwater aquifers feeds lakes and streams. Lakes and streams contribute to aquifers. Depleting or polluting ground or surface waters at any point impacts the whole system, which will have long term negative consequences.

One would think everyone would support protecting our water resources. Clean water should not be a political issue, yet astonishingly it is. There is a clear pattern of Republicans putting short term profit first. They have consistently opposed sensible environmental regulations to prevent mining, agribusiness, and industrial overuse and pollution of water. They have cut DNR budgets and staff, weakening effective enforcement actions. Democrats are not blameless, but generally they support regulation, inspection, and enforcement actions to protect the environment.

The fate of our water, as Jared Diamond suggests, rests with the decisions we humans make. As his book chronicles, humans have often made poor decisions that led to the collapse of their societies. Often these poor decisions involved water use and the degradation of natural resources. It is dangerously arrogant to think we are immune from the consequences of our current choices.

If we continue to pollute and mine our water, we will pay a price. Wisconsin citizens need to support sensible legislation that protects our water.