Imagine a cup of water filled from the tap and brought to your lips only to realize that your glass is empty. Water is so very vital to life – for humans and otherwise. A water reliant species without access to clean supplies of it would simply crash. Water is so vital, but so scarce. Though it may not seem that way to us, all we have to do is look at a diagram of the Earth’s supply of water to notice that there is not very much available to humans.
Nature is often taken for granted; we don’t realize how much nature gives us. If we let it, nature could purify a life’s supply of clean water. Instead we work against it and end up stymied. To look at it from an economist’s point of view, Nature is an asset, a tool that we can work with for our own needs if we only took the time to understand the ecosystems we have been swallowing up along with the water asset.
Take for example New York in 1997 and its decision about how to purify its water. During the time preceding this decision, NYC was receiving its water from the mountain watersheds in upstate New York, namely the Catskill/Delaware watershed. The water was purified through the wetlands and filtered by the roots of cattails and any excess nutrients received through fertilizer or agriculture was absorbed by flourishing plants. However, as development increased around the watersheds, contaminants began to appear in the waterways. Leaking sewage, pollution from forestry and agriculture, and manure from farms tainted the once pristine NYC tap.
As the once clean water was affected by the relentless development, a cry for action, mainly by the EPA and the commandments of the Safe Drinking Water Act, was instated. New York faced a decision to either invest $6-$8 billion, plus yearly maintenance expenses amounting to $300-$500 million, on an artificial water purification plant or- and this was a daring idea,-spend $1.5 billion on a project to protect the upstate watersheds. The plan was to form buffer zones and protect riparian areas as well as control the source of contaminants. NY State chose the natural option and began to go about the process of protecting the watersheds that quenched their thirst. Of course, this plan was not smoothly implemented without controversy. Many developers exclaimed that this plan would hurt the economy by prohibiting new property to be developed and new land to be cultivated. Still, this plan was an enormous success as far as the idea that nature could be a protected asset. But the work does not stop here. I recently heard of a tentative plan to frack in the Catskills and I see how far we have to go.
I have recently been fighting a diversion of the Gila River here in southwest New Mexico. People ask me why it is so critical to preserve the river. They argue that humans need water and I want to yell at them: Exactly! Here’s how it works: you divert water from a stream or river and the ecosystem and wetlands (which are nature’s purification systems) are degraded to a level where they disappear or no longer support a river system. This creates a situation that is unsustainable. You may be getting a temporary flood of drinking water but because you degrade the wetlands and stream health you destroyed the watershed and you will have no water in the future. You are thwarting nature so cleverly only to be rewarded with a system beyond our petty human control that collapses in on itself and us.
We want to protect water so we need to protect the zones it inhabits. This is only valid if we slow our growth. For the future of our world, we need to slow growth and switch to renewable energy. We need to revolutionize our current system by huge proportions. In relation to water quality, growth prohibits protection of watersheds because growth is blind. Growth does not care if children die from contaminated water or if species go extinct. We can’t drink from our rivers at this point, they’re just too important. We can lobby in Congress all we want but in order to do what New York did on a large, every day, viable scale we need to stop our growth and find a system that can support sustainable water use. But it won’t be easy to change the consensus of the people and more ominously, the corporations. We need to convince people of the wealth of natural land.
A quote from Orion Magazine puts it this way: “…Typically, the property owners – whether individuals, corporations, governments, or other institutions – are not compensated for the services the natural assets on their land provide to society. With rare exception, owners of coastal wetlands are not paid for the abundance of seafood the wetlands nurture, nor are owners of tropical forests compensated for that ecosystem’s contribution to the pharmaceutical industry and climate stability. As a result, many crucial types of ecosystem capital are undergoing rapid degradation and depletion. Compounding the problem is that the importance of ecosystem services is often widely appreciated only upon their loss.” Gretchen C. Daily and Katherine Ellison, “The New Economy of Nature,” Orion Magazine Spring 2002
Really, the only viable plan for the future is to slow growth because growth in and of itself will make it impossible for planet Earth to sustain us. I have utmost faith that Mother Nature will continue on, plodding through natural selection after natural selection, ice age after tropical oasis shaping a planet out of what it has, as this Earth has always done in the past. Humans are only a minuscule experiment in Nature’s formula for constant change. The Earth will find a way to plod on even through the crude oil sludge that might someday coat our land. But, for our own selfish existence and the existence of our fellow species at this time, we are seriously on the path to mess things up. We our hurling ourselves like suicidal beings against the Earth. We are screwing up our own lives.
But there is still a chance. There is a small space of time to turn ourselves around and try to slow the gears of the machine that is growth and the utter destruction of the planet by mankind. When humankind falls, it won’t be a massacre and it won’t be apocalyptic-like, with zombies chopping off our heads. It will be the wipe out of our resources, our natural resources. It will be our space overcome by human population crowding out our own selves; it will be food no longer available because all our croplands and forests will have been destroyed; it will be our water, poisoned and diverted until all of it is not accessible or not drinkable.
Water is so very vital, I cannot stress this enough.
Water is so special on this planet. It always moves, giving way for more water. It sinks and it spreads. It can dissolve compounds into it, sometimes without a hint of evidence. When we have contaminated the water, those contaminates, dissolved into the water, will spread and sink into our groundwater, which will be so far deep in the ground that we will not be able to reach them. When we have piped out all the water from rivers and lakes and the glaciers have melted into the sea, our wetlands will shrivel up and our water will never be clean.
I have said, “There is a chance;” at least I believe so, if we can look at watersheds as preservers of the peace, as filterers of the water, and as assets to us. Keeping a healthy watershed is useless without limiting our growth and becoming more sustainable in other ways just as sustainability is impossible without a healthy watershed. Though it may be hard to transition to a sustainable lifestyle of limited growth and renewable resources, it’s mandatory if we want to continue on this planet for a little while longer and leave this good Earth alive, after we our gone.
Now I ask the people who want to divert the Gila River, it is worth the water?
Ella Jaz Kirk, 2013