ENVIRO NOTES: Water, water everywhere

B.C. residents may have enough to drink, but issues loom worldwide, writes environment columnist Dr. Roy Strang.

Water supply is coming to the forefront of environmental issues again, or perhaps it’s never really gone away.

It may not be a major concern here on B.C.’s wet, west coast – though some of the Gulf Islands are in trouble, and it is a bit of a problem in the Okanagan as well as further east in the country.

There may be enough water here in the Lower Mainland, but some wells are bringing up water contaminated with arsenic or other pollutants, we lack reliable data on our aquifers and major delivery pipes are aging.

Globally, a crisis looms.

Droughts, with reduction in crop yields, occur all around the world – Australia, northern China, southern Spain and the southern U.S. have all suffered harvest-reducing droughts in the recent past. World population growth continues and these people need food.

The global daily average intake of water per person is two litres each day, but this average consumption rises to 3,000 litres when food production is factored in.

Today, farming accounts for 70 per cent of human water use. Meat production requires much more water than grain growing, and as people in developing countries, such as Brazil, China and China become more affluent, they seek more meat in their diets.

What’s to be done?

For one thing, whether it’s to win votes or to protect the poorest segments of their communities, governments commonly price water below market value for farmers, who have little incentive to use water carefully.  As much as three-quarters of water drawn for farming is lost through leakage from pipes. More efficient use is becoming a necessity.

Here in B.C., one commercial company draws, bottles and sells underground water without charge and without being required to report what volume it extracts.

Oil from tar sands and the burgeoning fracking industry require huge volumes of water, much of which is contaminated beyond recovery.

As Israel demonstrates convincingly, drip irrigation is much more efficient than flooding. Pumping water into aquifers during the rainy season for later use in dry weather is cheaper than building dams, does not pre-empt valley bottom lands and minimizes evaporation loss.

Treating urban waste water to fit it for agricultural or industrial use is cheaper than desalination, which requires huge amounts of energy.

Locally, we know what should be done – don’t leave taps running and repair leaking faucets; clean driveways with a stiff broom instead of a jet of water; prefer showers to baths; water gardens in early morning, if at all, and set irrigation systems to spread water only on plots and lawns, not pathways and pavements; surface sports fields with artificial turf instead of water-requiring grass, and accept browns rather than greens for golf courses, ensure pipes don’t leak.

Ways and means are available. The advice has been well-publicized over the years.

How well are we heeding and applying it?

Look around, and it’s apparent that we could do better – individually and collectively.