By Dr. Mercola
Around the globe, 1 in 4 cities face water stress, which means there’s an inability to meet human and ecological demands for water. Unlike water scarcity, which defines a lack of available water supply, water stress may also encompass lack of water due to problems with water quality, water accessibility and more.1
In a nutshell, only about 3 percent of the water on Earth is fresh water, which is dependent on rain for replenishment. Fresh water stored in aquifers, meanwhile, is being increasingly depleted, at a rate that cannot be naturally restored.
In some areas, pollution has left water largely undrinkable while industry (often the same ones responsible for the pollution) is draining underground aquifers at alarming rates. Industrial agriculture is a prime culprit. As reported by The Economist:2
“Water use by farmers has increased sharply in recent decades … This has allowed farmers to grow huge amounts of food in places that would otherwise be too dry to support much farming. But it is unsustainable: Around a fifth of the world’s aquifers are over-exploited.
This jeopardizes future use by causing contamination. It also damages the layers of sand and clay that make up aquifers, thereby reducing their capacity to be replenished.
… And as the global population rises from 7.4 [billion] to close to 10 [billion] by the middle of the century, it is estimated that agricultural production will have to rise by 60 [percent] to fill the world’s bellies. This will put water supplies under huge strain.”
Southern California Cities May Be Out of Drinking Water by January
Residents of Southern California are already feeling the effects of water stress. A five-year (and still going) drought has left reservoirs drained. In Santa Barbara County, for instance, Lake Cachuma, a reservoir built to hold the area’s drinking water, is now more than 90 percent below capacity.
Unless heavy rainfall occurs, the lake may be too low to distribute water by January 2017.3 Nearly half a million people may be affected as a result, including households, businesses and farms.
Cities are making various alternative plans, including buying water from state and private vendors and trying to tap alternative sources.
Desalination operations are also in the works, including one in Santa Barbara that would convert 3 million gallons of water from the Pacific Ocean into drinking water each day. But there are problems with desalination as well. The Washington Post explained:4
“Desalination is a marvel of technology, but some scientists say it’s also an environmental hazard.
Pipes that pull in saltwater through tiny holes harm marine animals, and the briny water pumped back into the ocean after purification is pollution. In addition, the massive amounts of electricity a plant requires is both costly and a significant source of carbon emissions.”
Is Ripping Out Lawns a Practical Solution?
A lush green lawn is a mainstay in the proverbial American Dream yet represents a drain on precious resources like water without yielding anything in return.
New York Times author Michael Pollan was one of the first to tackle the absurdity of the pursuit of lush green lawns — which he says are a “symbol of everything that’s wrong with our relationship to the land” — over environmentally friendly and productive landscapes like vegetable gardens, meadows or orchards.
Unlike a vegetable garden, which gives back in the form of fresh produce and a symbiotic relationship with soil, insects and wildlife, a lawn gives nothing, yet requires significant chemical treatments and meticulous mowing and watering to stay within society’s confines of what a properly “manicured lawn” should be.
It’s estimated that 30 percent to 60 percent of fresh water in urban areas is used to water lawns, and most of it is wasted due to poor timing and application, according to Columbia University’s Earth Institute.5
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), meanwhile, states that one-third of the water used by U.S. households is for purposes of watering lawns and gardens (enough to supply drinking water for nine New York-sized cities daily, Yahoo News reported6).
In drought-stricken California, water agencies spent more than $350 million over the past two years to pay homeowners to rip out their lawns and put in more drought-tolerant plants instead.
The hope was that the “water-thrifty landscapes” would catch on and neighbors would soon follow suit. State officials and water agencies are still in the process of figuring out whether the plan worked.
Sinkhole at Florida Fertilizer Plant Puts Water Quality at Risk
Pollution is another continuous threat to water supplies. In August, 2016, a large sinkhole emerged under a gypsum stack at a Mosaic Co. fertilizer plant in Mulberry, Florida.
Gypsum stacks are made of phosphogypsum, a radioactive byproduct of the fertilizer industry (it’s created when the companies use sulfuric acid to break down phosphate rock).
There are at least 70 gypsum stacks in the U.S., including about 20 in regions of west-central Florida, which are prone to sinkholes that allow the waste to seep into groundwater. ABC News reported:7
“The waste pile in Central Florida contains radioactive radium and uranium, radon gas, sulfates and other contaminants, according to the [U.S.] EPA [Environmental Protection Agency].
So far more than 200 million gallons of wastewater have been dumped into the Floridian Aquifer, a key drinking-water source for millions of people.
The company has found contaminants in a well being used to recover polluted water that is within a quarter mile from the hole, which means the contaminated water has reached the aquifer.”
In 2015, Mosaic settled a nearly $2 billion lawsuit with the EPA due to the company’s management of pollution. “In the settlement, EPA cited a need for the company to prevent the release of hazardous, highly corrosive wastewater, and to improve its detection of potential leaks and spills,” ABC News continued.8
Mosaic is now paying tens of millions of dollars to help patch the Florida sinkhole and monitor for runoff that may have tainted the area’s water supplies. According to The Wall Street Journal:9
“The company in early November  said it would spend some $60 million to seal [the] hole with concrete and pump the contaminated water out of the aquifer.
Mosaic has also guaranteed Florida $40 million if it fails to take actions like plugging the hole and monitoring nearby drinking-water wells through 2018.
… ‘Phosphate production does enormous damage even when everything goes right,’ said Bradley Marshall, an attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental-law group.
He said the porous limestone surrounding the local water table can easily allow pollutants to spread. ‘The Florida aquifer is like Swiss cheese,’ he said.”
Pollution Is Threatening the Danube River
The water crisis extends worldwide, including to the Danube, the second-longest river in Europe. Dubbed the “dirty Danube” by The Guardian,10 the river is facing an onslaught of pollution from microplastics, which are pieces of plastic measuring 5 millimeters (mm) or smaller.
In some areas, 40 tons of the tiny plastic pieces flow through the waters each year — and that’s not all. A Joint Danube Survey report by International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) revealed that only 7 of 20 hazardous substances threatening the river are being monitored.11
Information is lacking about the types and amounts of pollution entering the Danube as a result of industry, even as their volume is expected to increase.
“Recent foreign investments in agriculture in downstream Danube countries, such as a $500 [million] (£400 [million]) investment in Hungary and Romania from seed giant Monsanto, are expected to increase pollution pressure over the next few years,” The Guardian reported.
Similar problems have already been seen in the U.S., including in the Upper Mississippi River as areas of natural grasslands and marshes have been lost to fertilizer-intensive corn, soy and potato fields. The Guardian continued:12
“When fertilizers reach the river, they can lead to eutrophication (a depletion of oxygen), causing algae to grow explosively, which eventually asphyxiates organisms living underneath.”
4 Top Water Wastes
- Flood Irrigation: About 70 percent of freshwater available worldwide is used by agriculture. Flood irrigation, which drenches fields with water, allowing the excess to run off into nearby streams, is incredibly wasteful and facilitates pollution. Drip irrigation, which delivers water directly to roots of the plants, is much more efficient and could cut such water usage by 30 percent to 70 percent.15
- Lawns: As mentioned, water-hungry lawns guzzle down water and give little by way of return. Planting native grasses and other plants that require little or no watering is a better choice. If you do have a lawn, forgo watering or collect rainwater to do so.
- Poor crop choices: Raising water-intensive crops like cotton and corn, or raising cattle, which is also water intensive, in arid regions doesn’t make sense. Drier regions should produce crops that require less water naturally, while wetter regions tend to those requiring more H2O. Other tactics can also help, such as watering crops at strategic intervals to promote growth of fruit rather than leaves and stems.
- Wastewater: About 70 percent of U.S. wastewater is treated but only 4 percent of it is recycled into use. While treated wastewater may not be suitable for drinking water (although it is used as such in certain countries, like Singapore), it can be repurposed into water for crops.
Rain Barrels: a Simple Way to Help Save Water
Adding a rain barrel or two to your backyard is a simple way to help conserve water. This is simply a large container that you use to capture stormwater (that would otherwise be lost to runoff) from your roof. But the collected rain water should not be used for drinking water unless you filter it as it is contaminated with pollutants.
For each quarter-inch of rain that falls on an average home, you can collect about 200 gallons of water,16 which means most people can collect thousands of gallons of water in a season — plenty for watering your flower beds and vegetable garden. According to the Conservation Foundation:17
“Around 40 [percent] of total household water used during the summer months is for watering lawns and gardens. Rainwater doesn’t contain chlorine, lime or calcium, which makes it ideal for watering your flowers and vegetable garden or washing your car or windows. You may notice a decrease in your water bill!
Even if you don’t have an intended use for the water, emptying the rain barrel after a storm reduces the rate and volume of stormwater the sewer system and our rivers and streams have to manage at a peak time.”
Be sure you choose a natural material, such as wood, for your rain barrel, as plastic versions have chemical-leaching issues.