Environmental Problems on Earth Day: Don’t Forget About Water Use

Environmental Problems on Earth Day: Don’t Forget About Water Use

Environmental problems led to the first Earth Day in 1970

Environmental problems that led to the creation of the first Earth Day in 1970 included (among many) air pollution that made people sick, pesticide pollution that made birds die and water pollution that made rivers burn. 

Since then, the United States has seen many gains and even more setbacks in its struggle to deal with its health and environmental problems. While the Clean Water Act of 1972 has had a dramatic effect on cleaning up our waterways, we seem to always find new ways to pollute. This is especially true of our waterways, and the Clean Water Act is under constant attack from corporations and legislators with anti-regulatory agendas.

In reality, though, water pollution is only one form of threat to our water security. Another, less acknowledged threat in the United States is water overuse that leads to water insecurity. 

Environmental Problems Include Water Insecurity

The United Nations defines water security as “[t]he capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against  water-borne pollution and water-related disasters and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability.”

The United States has always been seen as a relatively water secure nation, due in part to our abundance of freshwater resources in many parts of the country and to our historical investments in infrastructure that brought clean, abundant water resources to places that had previously lacked access. 

By damming rivers and pumping groundwater, the United States has been able to provide water to grow crops and build communities in places where it would have been impossible, just 200 years earlier. We have so much water available to us, that the United States Geological Survey estimates our average daily water withdrawals at 322 billion gallons per day! That’s a staggering amount of water, and it has allowed us to dramatically increase our agriculture, manufacturing, power production and economic development. Unfortunately, it has also come at a staggering cost to the environment.

The country now finds itself in an increasingly precarious place. Both changing climatic conditions and changing political climates have led to changing availability of water resources.

Climate change is already having a significant impact on our water resources, changing where, when and how precipitation falls. A GAO report from 2014 found that “40 of 50 state water managers expected shortages in some portion of their states under average conditions in the next 10 years.” “Average conditions” seems like a quaint concept now, with each year bringing newly broken weather records, especially those related to water resources. 

We also continue to see our water supplies as limitless, which is a critically outdated mindset that is causing wells to go dry and rivers to shrink. Many of these old beliefs about our endless supplies of water in this country have to change. Yes, we use tap water for drinking, cooking, cleaning and to water our lawns and gardens. We also use water to grow our food, to make the energy that runs our lives and to manufacture all of our consumer goods. This is what’s known as ‘virtual water,’ and as Americans, we use a lot of it. Even if we don’t make or process those things locally and we import them instead, we still use virtual water because someone else had to use water to make or process those goods and services we import.

The time is rapidly approaching (or maybe it’s already here) when water resources in the United States will no longer be able to support the lifestyles we’ve become accustomed to. Everyone, regardless of their country, their culture, their race or their politics, uses water. Everyone’s habits, practices and purchases impact both the amount of water they use and their impact on water resources. This is a great time for people to educate themselves about how water runs throughout their lives.

Students especially need to understand this impact, given that most have the majority of their lives ahead of them. Students are in the position to heavily influence the future of water resources in both their local and global communities.

Teachers and other educators can help with this effort by teaching beyond the water cycle. Earth Day is about more than just climate change, and climate change is about more than just carbon emissions. Water use and water security are at the very base of what makes this country thrive. Students need to understand that, through their habits and behaviors, they have the ability to shape the future of their own water resources and their impact on the planet. 

Water footprints are an effective framework to help students understand those connections. Our Water Footprint Calculator is an effective tool to help educators teach students how to quantify those behaviors, in order to change them. Our lesson plans incorporate the Water Footprint Calculator into interactive, problem-based activities that use real-world examples to illustrate water footprint concepts.

Environmental problems aren’t going away, as long as the country continues to give permission to polluters to pollute. It is up to those of us who breathe air, eat food and drink water to hold polluters and our regulators alike to account. 

Students who have a firm grasp of the connections between food, water, energy and manufacturing systems, and how clean, abundant water is so crucial to all of us, will be at a great advantage as they assume the mantle of power in this country. Let’s hope they create a future where Earth Day is more of a celebration of our successes than the annual awareness event about the environmental problems that plague us that it has become.

Image: 30-, 60- and 90-day forecasts of dry and wet conditions, relative to the historic record for the lower 48 states, using GRACE-FO satellite groundwater data for the initial conditions. Credit: NASA/Scientific Visualization Studio