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Getting to Know Your Water

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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That sound you do not hear is a half-million people not sighing in relief as the reservoir that slakes the thirst of the population of Raleigh, NC, and many surrounding smaller towns nears capacity for the first time in nearly a year.

And on this World Water Day, when many turn their attention to the billions in the world who lack access to clean water, it’s worth reminding ourselves that those of us who do have access to water take it for granted shamefully. Which makes it nice that Raleigh has joined dozens of cities in signing an open letter created by Corporate Accountability International to President Obama requesting better funding for the nation’s water infrastructure. The letter notes that “Thirty-five years ago, the federal government covered 78 percent of water system funding. Today it’s a paltry 3 percent.” It also points out the usual horrifying defaults on our water infrastructure investment (we fall $23 billion behind in water spending each year), to say nothing of the gross amount we’re behind in total — about $2.2 trillion, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

But back to Raleigh and its water. As recently as November 2011, Raleigh’s Falls Lake was more than four feet low – which doesn’t sound like much until you recognize that the 12,000-acre, 42-billion-gallon reservoir, averages only around 12 feet deep. It’s rained some of late, yet the upper Neuse River basin – Raleigh’s water source – still suffers under what the USGS calls a moderate hydrologic drought (our stream flows are between the sixth and ninth percentiles) and almost the entire state of North Carolina is either abnormally dry or under drought conditions.

So what are we doing about this? A quick search of the database of the News & Observer yielded an initially promising 77 results for a search of “drought 2012,” but once you filter out metaphorical droughts suffered by sports teams, droughts in other parts of the world, and droughts in economic indicators like home sales, you end up with … zero.

Raleigh’s hometown newspaper has not written a single word about drought this year, and its water supply has been low since July and significantly low since September. In fact, the Wake County Commission has taken this time to insanely object to the recommendations of a sustainability committee it empanaled itself because it finds in its recommendations for things like sensible water management terrifying overtones of the New World Order and such.

Now maybe we shouldn’t be panicking about reservoir water levels. After all, it started to rain again, and now here we are, the lake surface is at just about its standard 251.5 feet above sea level, and there’s more rain in the forecast. Bully for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who built a reservoir big enough to cope with the ephemeral flows of Raleigh’s surface water. The current anemic release by the dam of 72 cubic feet per second might even climb higher, though it seems unlikely that it will anytime soon approach the 500-plus cubic feet per second that is its mean flow this time of year. That is, the lake is full, but this time of year it usually maintains its level by releasing seven times as much water as it currently does. So nobody’s looking at a full reservoir and saying, “Okay, we’re safe.”

Mostly, regrettably, because nobody outside of people in the water and engineering industries is paying any attention at all.

You can pay attention, though — and on World Water Day you probably should. Here are a couple things you can do.

For one, just like Raleigh’s Public Utilities director, you can sign that open letter: just go here and sign it. You can also send a letter to your governor reminding him or her what a terrible deal bottled water is. Not just in how it reduces confidence in public water or in the terrible waste of all those bottles. In pure economics, the dollar you spend on a quart bottle of water in a convenience store could buy you in the Raleigh public water system about 300 gallons of water if you just opened your tap. Plus – no bottle!

Perhaps more important, though, you can do nothing more complex than get familiar with your own reservoir, the source of your own water. Where’s it come from? How much of it is on hand? How does that stack up to historical means? That is, what’s your water situation, and what’s its future? The USGS makes it preposterously easy for you to do that: start here and work your way to all kinds of information about your own region’s water. This site from the EPA lets you enter your zip code and go directly to your own watershed. This site takes me directly to water data about North Carolina and allows me to click on my own Neuse River watershed for a clickable map filled with information on flow rates, precipitation, groundwater conditions, and plenty more. If you replace the “NC” in the url with the two-letter abbreviation for your own state, you’ll get something similar and just as much fun.

Or play “How much Water Is on Your Plate?,” a game on the onedrop.org website helping you understand how much water your food needs. A piece of chicken, a tossed salad, bread and butter, and an apple, for example, requires 748 liters (197.6 gallons!) of water – and that’s before you cook it, and before you run a nice cold glass of water from the tap.

So again: it’s world water day. And chances are you’re one of the lucky ones, and all you have to do is turn on the tap for nice, clean, potable water. Spend a moment thinking about that. And what your responsibility is to take care of it.

 

Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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