Is water insecurity a New Jersey problem?
By Mark Stewart
In Israel, water treatment facilities recycle household wastewater to meet nearly half of the country’s agricultural needs. In Australia, water is treated as a commodity, leading to a 50 percent drop in residential and business consumption. In Singapore, water flows to five million people through a combination of importation, wastewater recycling, desalinization and an ingenious system of rainwater collection. In the mid-2000s, the Bush family (more specifically the W. Bush family) purchased more than a quarter-million acres of land in Paraguay, atop one of the largest aquifers in the western hemisphere. A bungled 2014 cost-cutting decision in Flint, Michigan, exposed residents to catastrophically high levels of lead.
You’ve heard about Flint. What you may not have heard is that other cities in other states are facing issues with the quantity, quality and reliability of their water supply. The same is true in many rural areas. That’s because “water insecurity” is one of the least talked-about issues…until it impacts you.
How is water insecurity measured? It’s not, at least not officially. For now, common sense and logic must suffice; transparency and information are critical. For example, say you live in a state where one in five kitchen taps produces water that contains trace amounts of perfluorooctanoic acid (aka PFOA), a chemical linked to cancer and low birth rates—as well as accelerated or delayed puberty and a reduction in the effectiveness of vaccines. You might think, Hey, my water is only 80 percent secure. Or Wow, my water is 20 percent insecure. Either way of measuring would be perfectly valid since, again, there is no accepted yardstick at the moment.
Would it surprise you to know that the aforementioned state is New Jersey and, according to a 2017 report issued by the Environmental Working Group, we had the highest prevalence of PFOA in our tap water of any state in the nation?
So, yeah, water insecurity does impact you—because you’re not sure if you are in the 20 percent or the 80 percent, are you? Either way, it kind of makes you wonder what else is trickling through your faucets.
No Doubt About Drought
When most of us hear the words water insecurity, we think about people living under life-threatening drought conditions. They seem very far away and so do their troubles. And to some extent they are, because we are unlikely to run out of drinkable water in our lifetimes, or even our grandchildren’s lifetimes. Thus it is only natural to believe that you are insulated from the misery of drought-stricken populations.
But those other parts of the world that are facing the very real prospect of running out, well, they are already affecting you. For instance, between 2006 and 2011, a vast region of the Middle East was hit with an historic drought. It killed off livestock and destroyed crops. Families abandoned their farms, local businesses failed and people flooded into already overcrowded cities—overwhelming infrastructure and creating social, political and religious unrest. That country was Syria, which was plunged into a full-blown civil war by 2012. That war, in turn, took more than 500,000 lives and triggered a mass migration that has altered the economic and political landscape of dozens of countries, including our own. Water scarcity did not “cause” the crisis in Syria, but it unquestionably served to ignite long-existing tensions within the country and the region. That, in turn, created complex, expensive challenges for the United States that you and your grandchildren will be paying for in one way or another for the foreseeable future.
Which other parts of the world are in real danger of lacking enough water for people to drink and grow food? According to a 2016 study, four billion people live in places where they experience serious water stress a month or more every year. When you see that number you tend to picture third-world villagers huddled in remote desert enclaves. But a surprising number of people in this category live like we do. In fact, 14 of the 20 world’s largest metropolitan areas (i.e. “megacities”) have experienced drought conditions or water scarcity in the past few years. More than a third are in Asia.
However, most are not. And some familiar and even picturesque cities have encountered unprecedented water crises. In the spring of 2018, the four million residents of the drought-stricken South African city of Cape Town were asked to stop flushing their toilets and to limit showers to once or twice a week. They had already been rationed down to 13 gallons per person per day—about one-eighth of the 100 gallons a day we New Jerseyans consume. Three years earlier, the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil simply turned off its water for 12 hours a day. If it hadn’t, it faced the prospect of a “Day Zero,” which is a frightening term for the moment people turn on the taps and nothing comes out.
For the record, humans technically need about four gallons a day to survive (drink, cook and clean). That’s less than three flushes of your low-flow toilet. If that makes you feel guilty about the 100 gallons you use every day, don’t. It’s important for each of us to be prudent about our water use, but those 100 gallons are a drop in the bucket. Residential water use accounts for maybe three or four percent of total consumption. Agriculture takes upwards of 70 percent, while use by industry and energy producers makes up the rest.
If guilt is your thing, however, you could cut down on California-produced almonds and pistachio nuts, which take a trillion gallons annually to grow—about 10 percent of the state’s agricultural water supply, according to the Pacific Institute, a global water “think tank.” Or take a pass on your next cheeseburger.
Growing crops like alfalfa to feed dairy cows and cattle consumes upwards of 2.5 trillion gallons of water a year in California’s agricultural heartland. The least water-intensive crops in the U.S. include sugar beets, beans, onions and garlic.
If you really want to feel bad about your impact on a region’s water supply, then it’s time to return to South Africa. A bottle of South African wine, by the industry’s own estimate, takes almost 200 gallons of water to produce. Some quick math suggests that the country’s wineries “export” over 400 billion liters of water annually. That is about three times as much as is required to satisfy the need of every South African who currently lacks easy access to water. Part of the country’s problem is its position on the map; the irrigation water that evaporates does not return to the land in the form of rain, as in most wine-growing regions. Instead it blows out into the ocean, where it stays.
Obviously, at some point, the human race will have to start prioritizing which crops are worth the water and which aren’t. That will almost certainly happen within our lifetimes. As the planet’s population expands, the demand for food will continue to slurp up the lion’s share of the global supply of fresh water.
Today there are more than 800 million people around the globe who do not have access to a clean water supply. The potential for extreme social and political unrest exists wherever these conditions do. On the bright side, that number is actually way down from where it was a generation ago. New technology and better education have cut the percentage of people consuming unsafe water by two-thirds. That is still far too many, but at the moment the statistics are headed in the right direction.
Some of the more high-profile work in this area has been done by charities attached to worldwide celebrities. Perhaps the most notable is Water.org, which was co-founded by actor Matt Damon in the early 1990s. Water.org has focused on promoting market-driven solutions to clean water and sanitation, which is a fancy way of saying that Damon et al. believe that reliable access to safe water is key to breaking the cycle of poverty in many areas—which in turn promotes better health, education and economic opportunity. One of the organization’s most successful tools has been the creation of micro-loans to fund household water and toilets for people who could not otherwise afford them.
Closer to Home
So are we running out of water? Are we likely to face a situation here in the Garden State where access to the water we need for drinking, cooking, bathing and growing Jersey corn and tomatoes is significantly curtailed? The answer is No, but with the caveat that other parts of the country may not have it so good.
Anyone who has flown into Las Vegas over a long stretch of time can’t help but notice that its main source of drinking water (and power), Lake Mead, is slowly disappearing. The lake is not a lake at all; it is part of the Colorado River and was the country’s largest reservoir up until a few years ago. Las Vegas itself has done a decent job with water conservation. But downstream, 20 million people in Nevada, Arizona and California depend on Lake Mead, as do vast swaths of the nation’s most productive farmland. A combination of increasing drought and demand—and reduced snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains—has dramatically reduced the amount of water that flows down the Colorado River and into Lake Mead. So far, the main inconvenience has been to local boat- and marina-owners, but there are a lot more folks who stand to lose if the water level continues to fall.
Elsewhere in America, historically low levels on the Rio Grande have put cities such as El Paso on the at-risk list for clean drinking water. Somewhat closer to home, in Georgia, the city of Atlanta receives much of its water supply from West Point Lake, which was created on the Chattahoochee River on the Alabama-Georgia border. West Point Lake nearly ran dry a decade ago. Meanwhile, Georgia, Alabama and Florida are tangled up in court over water rights, which could negatively impact the Big Peach. Residents of Salt Lake City are rightfully worried about lower snowfall totals, which diminish the annual runoff that replenishes their water supply. Miami is game-planning for rising sea levels, which threatens to contaminate its aquifer.
These examples may seem distant, yet just as in the other water-stressed regions of the world, “out of sight, out of mind” doesn’t really apply. Take Nebraska, for example, which experienced an extreme drought seven years ago. The Platte River hit historically low levels, threatening its agriculture industry, which supplies the nation with wheat, corn and soybeans. Another drought of that magnitude could push things to an unpleasant tipping point—and change your grocery bill for the worse.
Here in the land of plenty, it has been two years since the DEP put any drought restrictions on New Jerseyans. And most major cities in the northeast are being smart about their water usage. The world may be getting progressively thirstier, but for now at least, here the water is fine.
Editor’s Note: Mark Stewart edited the 2011 book Clear Choices: The Water You Drink.
Kids and Water
For babies and toddlers, the threat of contaminated water rises to the level of a national emergency. In areas where old pipes taint the supply and families do not filter their tap water, blood lead levels test consistently high. Lead exposure in early childhood has a direct impact on intelligence, which creates a huge burden for the national economy down the road, and also limits an individual’s earning power in adulthood. Many parents and caregivers in areas where the water quality is poor opt instead to feed their children juices and sugary drinks. Unfortunately, they increase the likelihood of childhood and adult obesity, and the diseases that result from it.
Good to the Last Drop
Cape Town narrowly avoided Day Zero. The spring rains returned in 2018 and got the city’s reservoirs back to 60 percent. Cape Town began construction on four desalinization
plants and a new water-recycling facility. Each is expensive to build and operate, all the more so since they were started hastily, in the midst of a crisis. The future looks brighter for Capetonians, if for no other reason than they have reprogrammed themselves to consume about 40 percent less water. Old habits die hard, of course, but the near-death of their city will likely serve as a looming reminder of the value of conserving every drop.