In 1913, Philadelphia became the first major city in the U.S. to use chlorine to sanitize its public water supply. At the time, for more than a century, the City of Brotherly Love had been ahead of the curve in North America with its first sewage and drinking water systems dating all the way back to 1801.
Within months after the introduction of chlorine and modern filtration of water drawn from the Delaware and Schuykill rivers, the city’s incidents of infection from waterborne diseases — dysentery, typhoid, typhus and others — dropped more than 90 percent.
Within a few years, a majority of municipalities followed suit and the modern era of reliable potable water at the tap began. The development of these systems stands as an investment in infrastructure that is equaled only by the creation of our electrical power grids and interstate highway system.
That’s all a big part of why few of us in this country have ever had to think much about the availability of fresh water. At worst, we’ve been confronted by rising utility costs in some areas and the occasional annoyance of restrictions due to drought conditions, which often amount to little more than refraining from rinsing down driveways, watering lawns, having to request water in restaurants and very occasionally restricting water used to fill swimming pools.
Overall, we’ve enjoyed more than a century of abundant fresh water, the most crucial resource needed to sustain human life. And until very recently, we’ve used it as though it was available in endless supply. Unfortunately, that era of ignorant bliss is very likely coming to an end.
A crisis is looming caused by dwindling water supplies are increasing demand for the stuff — for farming, urban use, recreation and to sustain natural eco-systems. Here in the southwest, for example, reservoir levels are disturbingly low and years of below-normal rainfall are becoming the norm. You don’t have to do much digging to see direct evidence of the coming era of aquatic austerity. In California, a day’s drive through the San Joaquin Valley’s vast farm regions reveals huge tracks of barren land where water restrictions have caused what some call the “Congress-Created Dust Bowl.” Or, if you visit Lake Meade, the country’s largest man-made body of water (courtesy of the Hoover Dam) you see a massive “bathtub ring” of calcium carbonate deposits that reaches close to 100 feet above the current water line. And there are scores of articles online about the impacts of water shortages and dreary prognostications of a future defined by battles over water.
And that’s here in the U.S., where we have it pretty good. When you look beyond our borders and especially to developing nations, the picture goes from worrisome to tragic.
According to a number of sources including UNICEF and the World Health Organization, as of 2012, a staggering 884 million people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water, that’s just about three times the population of the U.S. Each year, approximately 3.5 million people, just under the population of Los Angeles, die of water-related diseases and lack of sanitation, a number that vastly exceeds deaths attributable to the world’s various wars.
I bring this up here not out of any do-gooder hand-wringing, guilt or doomsday rap, but because as an industry that relies on water as our primary product, and as one that possesses know-how and technology to help conserve this precious resource, I’m thinking we need to be ahead of the curve on this issue.
Rather than wait for crisis points where we can’t fill pools, spas and other aquatic features, we should embrace things like chemical treatment regimens and filtration technologies that help conserve water. We should promote the use of covers to reduce evaporation and heat loss, embrace landscape schemes that require less irrigation, and offer rainwater capture systems in conjunction with aquatic features. We need to do all of that and arm ourselves with facts that support the concept that pools and other features are not water wasters, but can be used as reservoirs that help protect this resource.
Also, it might not be such a bad idea for some of us to get involved on some level with organizations that are working to bring fresh water to people throughout the world that need it most. After all, in a world so rich with resources and brimming with human ingenuity, it’s really not too much to ask that all people can face their days without worrying where their next sustaining drink of water will come from.
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Eric Herman, former editor of WaterShapes, is senior editor at AQUA magazine.