Water Pollution

Water is the most precious resource on the planet, and lack of water can kill all living creatures, including humans, very quickly. Because we rely on water for life itself, we must be concerned with the quality of our water as much as with the quantity of our water supply. There are places where the sheer loss of available good-quality water has become an environmental and human catastrophe, including parts of Africa, Russia, and Asia. In the United States and Europe, there are ample supplies of water in most regions. But water quality has been a key issue of environmental and public health throughout the world.

It is interesting that although we need air to breathe, and that although air pollution is annoying at best and debilitating at worst, very rarely has the air gotten so bad as to kill large numbers of people who breathe it. The notable exceptions, such as the London smog and certain places in Eastern Europe, only prove the rule that people can live with really bad air pollution before they actually get sick.

This is not true for water. It doesn't take much to make water undrink-able. The oldest and still most common form of pollution that renders freshwater unfit to drink (where unfit is defined as dangerous and not just unpleasant) is organic growth of microorganisms such as bacteria, algae, or viruses. This often comes from fecal matter or other natural poisons that contaminate groundwater or wells. Groundwater has always been highly susceptible to this type of degradation, to the point that in most of human history, people simply didn't drink water, because it was too dangerous. The popularity of wine and beer in medieval Europe and China was at least partly because these beverages were safe as well as fun to drink. Children drank milk or wine, depending on where they lived. The idea of giving a thirsty traveler water to slake his thirst would never have occurred to anyone.

One of the most important public-health revolutions of modern times has been the control of bacterially polluted water to allow unrestricted and easy access to safe, fresh, drinking water. Water and sewage treatment plants are all over the United States, Europe, and Asia, and they are always part of large public-health projects undertaken in third-world countries, where water quality is still often the limiting factor in human progress toward a good life. In 1985 there were about thirty-five reported outbreaks of disease caused by drinking contaminated water in the United States. In 1999 the number of such outbreaks was seven, and the trend in this number between the two dates shows a steady decline.

But water pollution, including deadly pollution, does not come only from organic sources. As I said, water is more fragile than air, and there are many human activities that can cause water to deteriorate to the point where it is a poison rather than a salve. Much water pollution is the direct result of mixing human and animal waste with drinking water. But not all organic water pollution comes from human (or farm animal) excrement.

In the 1950s it was discovered that many water systems were dying from algal blooms—amazing growths of algae that killed all other forms of life in the water. These blooms were the indirect result of human activity. Sometimes the cause was the discharge of large amounts of phosphates from washing, or warming from industrial and other uses of the water. The outcry that resulted from the discovery of the polluting effects of phosphate discharges led to a ban on phosphates in detergents and a rollback of phosphate pollution and algal blooms. There are still many streams and rivers with high phosphate levels, but regional and federal standards have been instituted and the great phosphate pollution of past decades is over.

Chemical Water Pollution

The other source of groundwater pollution is chemical pollution. In Europe and the United States, pollution of rivers and lakes reached a near crisis point in the 1960s and 1970s with the well-publicized death of the Rhine and some U.S. rivers bursting into flames due to the huge concentrations of chemicals present. Since then, with the advent of major cleanup efforts and new laws (see chapter 8), European and U.S. rivers are getting cleaner, and the level of pollution measured by both chemical and biological indicators and standards is decreasing dramatically. One of the most distressing and newsworthy examples of chemical pollution in the United States was the contamination of the Great Lakes with chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and many other toxic compounds. Since the 1980s, the worst period of this pollution, control measures have resulted in an 80 percent decrease in levels of all of these compounds in the lakes themselves and a strong recovery of the biological components of the lakes, as measured by biological markers such as the strength of birds' eggs.

People living in cities such as New York and London and along the Rhine still think that their local waterways are polluted to the extent that nothing can survive. In fact, the quality of the waterways suffered terrible damage over most of the early part of the century with low oxygen levels, dead fish, thermal and chemical pollution, and foul smells. Regulations forbidding the discharge of raw waste into tributaries and streams have turned the situation around for the majority of urban waterways. In fact, for the Hudson, Rhine, and Thames rivers, the level of oxygenation in the water has returned to what it was in about 1900.

Environmental activists such as the folk singer Pete Seeger (with his sloop Clearwater) spearheaded grassroots efforts to clean up the Hudson River, which flows past New York City. For years there were concerts and fund-raising drives, protests, educational activities, petitions, and calls to government officials. And guess what? It worked! The river is clean. The striped bass have returned. I was on a commercial fishing boat on the Hudson directly opposite from the Empire State Building about fifteen years ago, and the nets were full of stripers, cod, and other species. But even now, if you ask the casual stroller along the Hudson River on the Upper West Side if he would consider swimming in the river, he will look at you as if you are crazy and say, "Are you kidding? All my skin would fall off.''

Environmentalists, environmental scientists, and many others have been saying for years that the best way to further reduce pollution as well as improve our ability to maintain our lifestyles in the face of future shortages of fossil fuels is to turn more toward alternative sources of energy. Wind power, solar power, hydroelectric energy, and battery-operated cars have generally been considered too expensive, too technically difficult, and not really marketable in our society. The economics were against their development and use as long as oil and natural gas remained so cheap. Furthermore, the production of energy from such sources was considered too low to have any real impact on the state of the world's atmosphere. But the fact is that change in this area is happening as well.

The oldest and most widely used source of alternative renewable energy is hydroelectric power. The worldwide hydroelectric capacity has been steadily increasing from 45,000 megawatts in 1950 to over 700,000 in 1997. The rising use of hydroelectric power generation, shown in figure 3-4, has been happening in the United States, Canada, and Brazil, and it is anticipated that such usage will continue to increase as fossil fuels become more and more expensive. Figure 3-4 also shows the trend toward usage of solar power. Note that the curve for the figure rises very steeply in the past few years, with a steady exponential climb from 1970 and a total increase of over

Figure 3-4. Hydroelectric and solar energy usage.

Figure 3-4. Hydroelectric and solar energy usage.


i,ooo-fold since then. It should be noted that the absolute amount of energy produced from solar power is still very low. Solar power use in 2001 totaled about 400 megawatts, compared to over 700,000 megawatts for hydroelectric power.

An even less traditional alternative form of energy, wind energy, has also made substantial and continual gains. Wind power has taken off in an exponential fashion, leaving solar energy far behind. In figure 3-5, we see that in 1980, the worldwide capacity from wind turbines was only about 10 megawatts. This figure jumped to 1,000 megawatts five years later and reached over 7,000 megawatts by 1997, and the amount of wind-power usage in 200i was an astonishing 25,000 megawatts. Although still far behind hydroelectric (not to mention fossil fuels), the enormous recent increase in wind-energy usage is a very positive sign of things to come.

Of course these figures are dwarfed by the amount of fossil fuels still used to power our vehicles and utility plants. But the growth rate in alternative energy sources is a good sign because it signals the existence of a growing rather than stagnant market for alternative energy sources. The exploding use of ethanol in automobile fuel is another positive sign for

Figure 3-5. Wind-energy usage.

Figure 3-5. Wind-energy usage.


cleaner energy and for increasing the efficiency of agricultural and industrial production.

Getting Started With Solar

Getting Started With Solar

Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.

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