Often you hear about the benefits of eating locally and the numerous environmental and economic concerns associated with our conventional food system. But rarely do you hear much about the need to focus on your local water system and the benefits of sourcing our water locally. Water is life. Without it life would not be possible. Humans could not survive longer than a week without it and if you are in a hot climate, maybe just a few days.
Aside from our personal needs, water has helped to create everything we know on our planet. It drives our climate, sustains all living things down to the cellular level, and even creates, stores, and transfers energy. It is a shame to think of how we have treated water over human history, especially in the last few centuries. Instead of dumping our unwanted waste into our water system and neglecting this life-giving compound, we should be celebrating water much like our ancestors and giving credit where credit is due.
Rivers of Fire
One of the many man-made disasters that helped to create the environmental movement of the 1960s was the Cuyahoga River fire. Since 1868 the river had been on fire at least 13 times. Not the banks of the river but the “water.” This is just one example. Along with Cuyahoga, studies across the nation showed drastic losses in the fishing industry, extremely high levels of bacteria and other pollutants in about 40% of American waterways, and essentially no federal regulation of water pollution.
Even after the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA) was passed to address this growing prevalence of dumping everything we did not know what to do with in our rivers, water quality still remains a top environmental concern. According to the EPA, even after 30 years of regulation, water pollution in the U.S. today has contaminated 39% of the rivers, 45% of the lakes, and 51% of the estuaries monitored.
The two major factors that contribute to the degradation of our water systems are water quality and availability. There are numerous pollutants that harm us and the environment, but one of water’s most destructive group of pollutants includes the same pollutants that are contributing negative impacts to our food system: pesticides and fertilizers. Nitrogen and phosphorus, fertilizers used in conventional farming, are washed away by rain and/or irrigation and eventually end up in the local water system. These elements build up in our rivers and lakes and create a breeding ground for algae, bacteria, and other non-desirable organisms. Not only does this lead to the destruction of ecosystems by creating an imbalance, it makes water undrinkable unless significantly treated.
The availability of clean, fresh water is drastically declining across the globe. This is especially true of groundwater resources which take centuries to replenish. Rainfall and surface waters seep into the ground and are stored in impenetrable aquifers. A large portion of the global population relies on these groundwater reserves and we are consuming these stores of water much faster than they are being replenished.
Climate change is not helping matters. Our climate is no longer predictable and neither is our availability of water. Droughts and floods plague our planet like never before. Storms are increasing in severity and frequency. Ocean levels are rising as fresh water in the form of ice is melting into our oceans. All of this directly impacts water availability and is in large part driven by the movement of water across our planet.
Even though water, much like our food system, is a global problem, the solutions begin locally. By understanding the problems facing our local environment and community, we can address and solve the problems we are helping to create. Madison is surrounded by water. Uniquely, it is surrounded by fresh water. Unfortunately our freshwater lakes are a perfect example of what modern society can do to freshwater systems. Notice the smell of algae blooms in the summer? That is at least partially a product of conventional farming pouring nitrogen and phosphorus into the Four Lakes region. Too much nitrogen and phosphorus causes algae to grow faster than ecosystems can handle. Algae can harm water quality, food resources and habitats, and decrease oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive. They can even be harmful to humans because they produce elevated toxins and bacterial growth that can make people sick if they come in contact with the water, consume tainted fish, or drink contaminated water.
Our Drinking Water
The second major concern facing Madison’s local water is the quality and continued availability of groundwater for our drinking water. Madison, along with 30% of America, sources its drinking water from groundwater wells. You can actually access monitoring reports for your particular well by visiting the City of Madison’s utility website and typing in your address.
Our municipal water utility, much like the rest of the U.S., treats our drinking water with chlorine, which has been used since 1927 in Madison as a means to purify our drinking water. Setting aside from the health concerns of regular consumption of chlorine, this action has saved countless lives. Many waterborne illnesses have been nearly eradicated thanks to the use of chlorine. There are some studies that show the carcinogenic impacts of high chlorine intake but most chlorine can easily be removed from your drinking water with an inexpensive carbon filter that attaches to your tap or in a pitcher. You can even purchase a shower head filter to remove chlorine from your steamy shower to prevent drying out of your skin. Check in with the Wellness department to find our shower head filter.
Fluoride is a highly debated topic. Since the late 1940s, fluoride has been added to municipal water across the nation in an attempt to prevent tooth decay. This is yet another place where our current food system and water system intersect. If our food system focused on fresh, whole foods, there would be no need to fluoridate our water system. Regardless of the health impacts of consuming fluoride, it should be a personal choice to consume fluoride, not mandated. The most effective way to remove fluoride from your water is through reverse osmosis. This is a process where water is forced through a few extremely thin membranes. Only water can pass through and chemicals and other pollutants are left behind.
This is what Willy Street Co-op uses for our water dispensers.
There are numerous other pollutants that our water utility does not remove from our drinking water including naturally occurring toxins, and pesticides. This includes our notoriously hard water. Most of that is naturally occurring but the excessive use of road salt does not help matters. The safest thing to do is to either invest in a quality home filtration system or use reusable water containers and fill up at Willy Street Co-op or another trusted source.
Conservation is extremely important. We are lucky to receive our local water from groundwater sources due to its “clean” nature. But it is a double-edged sword because groundwater is not easily replenished. The more we consume, the more time it takes to replenish our aquifers. With the growing variation in rainfall from climate change, that replenishment could be extremely hard to predict. The best course of action is to minimize your use of water as much as possible. A few suggestions would be to install low-flow toilets andshower heads, irrigate lawns and gardens when the sun is not out and use drip irrigation or seeping hoses whenever possible, and most importantly, just be conscious of the amount of water you are wasting and try to reduce your use.
There are so many more issues and concerns to consider. Just remember that clean, fresh water is not as renewable as you might think. This life-giving compound needs our attention and we cannot continue to treat it as if it were infinite. There is a set amount of water on this planet and less than 1% of it is drinkable. If we continue to pollute and degrade this resource, it will become increasingly more difficult and expensive to treat it, obtain it, and maintain it. We need water and now water needs us to clean up the mess we have started.