Water

Why We Are Failing to Protect Our Drinking Water

For 30 years clean water has been the public's number one environmental priority, but we still don't seem able to act to protect those vital supplies.

"Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink ..."

Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner anticipated the perils of climate change. There won't be less water in a warmer world -- total global precipitation may well increase. But the water will come at less predictable times, with more droughts and floods, less storage in ice and snow, and overall greater extremes. That means that storage underground is going to be more important in dry regions, and that keeping surface waters clean will be vital everywhere. But, in spite of the fact that for thirty years clean water has been the public's number one environmental priority, we still don't seem able to act to protect those vital supplies.

The California legislature, for example, went home this month after failing to come up with a solution to the pending crisis in the state's water supply systems. Wildly irrational policies, like those that cause water on one side of the San Joaquin Valley to cost six times as much as on the other, encourage waste and silliness like growing alfalfa in the desert. Those who benefit from these policies are able to block reform. A new series in the New York Times  savagely exposes the failure of government agencies to enforce the Clean Water Act, and the reckless practices of companies taking advantage of that fecklessness. According to the Times, a series of coal companies have been dumping billions of tons of toxic waste from coal mines illegally into our water supplies, reporting this dumping to state and federal regulators, and getting away with it.  And it's not just coal companies. Even seemingly innocuous industries like food processing turn out to have horrendous records in polluting the water.

The Bush administration created enormous loopholes in the Clean Water Act by fiat -- simply declaring that 60 percent of the headwaters of America's rivers were not "waters of the United States." The Clean Water Restoration Act, which would undo this folly, has passed out of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, but has not yet passed out of its House counterpart. (To help get it moving, you can send a message to your Congressional representative.)

Farmers should -- indeed, must -- be part of the solution. Healthy soils and well-managed farms are the single best step we could take to regenerate and protect our waterways and aquifers. But farm policy has been hijacked by agribusiness giants out to sell as much fertilizer, pesticide, and diesel fuel as possible, and responsible family farmers are being driven off the land by government policies that subsidize these predatory competitors.

Still, there are very positive signs from the new administration. The Bureau of Reclamation has launched an investigation into changes it should make in its management practices to deal with a warming world, and the EPA has aggressively fought back when the courts tried to strip it of its authority to protect waterways. The EPA also took the first steps towards checking mountaintop removal mining by declaring that all of the 79 permits it had pending posed threats under the Clean Water Act and would need careful review. But we're stilling facing a half trillion dollar bill for deferred investment and maintenance in our clean water infrastructure (sewers and treatment plants), and we weren't ready to take advantage of the stimulus bill to get that job funded.
 

If global warming kills us, it's likely to be through its impact on water supplies. Coleridge's ancient mariner is rescued when his heart is filled with compassion for other creatures. Will our own hearts soften in time?

Carl Pope is the Sierra Club's executive director.