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Water, Water Everywhere, and Not a Drop to.... - March 22, 2015

Drink. It is a common enough phrase, part of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but the fact is that clean, potable freshwater is a vital, and limited, natural resource. With the human population growing continuously, freshwater and its availability is a major global issue with real consequences. Worldwide, only 2.5% of water is freshwater, with the other 97.5% being salt water and brackish water; a mixture of fresh and salt water. Of that 2.5 % of freshwater on earth, 68.7% is frozen in ice caps and glaciers, 30.1% is in groundwater and only 1.2 % is surface water. Of that 1.2% of surface water, 75.8% of that is either locked up in permafrost or ground ice, in the atmosphere or in soil moisture. All this means that there is only 24.2%, of the 1.2 % of surface water total, currently in rivers, streams, lakes, swamps and living things. 

So what do all these percentages mean for us? It means that despite our planet being nicknamed “the big blue marble” only a very small percentage of the water on earth is actually fresh water that we can drink and use. Because freshwater plays such a vital role in human development and wildlife populations, it is a very important natural resource that must be monitored carefully.

In Maryland we are fortunate to have a plethora of water, nearly one-fifth of the total area covered by the state of Maryland is water. But just because we have lots of water on hand, it does not mean we are lackadaisical in our monitoring and research. 

Each Maryland county is monitored to see how much surface water and ground water is being used, what the water is being used for, how much precipitation falls on certain areas and many other useful parameters. Each counties freshwater needs is based on their population, land usage, industrial needs and similar uses, so some counties use much more freshwater than others. For example in 2012, Worcester county used about 13.22 Millions of Gallons of surface and groundwater per Day while Baltimore county used about 282.13 Millions of Gallons of surface and groundwater per Day. Luckily, Maryland is in a temperate climate zone that has plenty of precipitation, water from snow melt and other sources that help to replenish our fresh water sources as we use them. Unfortunately, when the rain, snow and sleet stop falling, it can lead to major problems and droughts for cities and counties. 

Maryland has had many noticeable droughts throughout the years. The last major drought in Maryland occurred in the summer of 2012, when we lost nearly three inches of precipitation every month between July and September, when the drought officially ended. This put most of the eastern shore into a severe drought warning, which kicked into effect multiple actions by the local and state governments to help reduce everyday water usage. Some actions effected municipal water services and businesses, however governments also encouraged water conservation at home by using less water for washing cars, watering lawns, doing dishes, etc. All of these actions are aimed at reducing everyday water usage from anywhere between 1-15% county wide and to help ease the burden put on local freshwater supplies. The drought of 2012 in Maryland only lasted for three months, however it had a major effect on the everyday lives of our citizens so it is hard to imagine the plight that California now finds itself in after a nearly four year drought.

As of right now, nearly all of California is either in severe, extreme or exceptional drought, with severe being mildly problematic and exceptional being very dangerous. The percentage of California covered by exceptional drought levels has increased over the past year, by nearly 3.5%. This has led to drastic consequences for everyone, from private citizens to businesses. For instance, due to the water restrictions and extremely low fresh water supply, farmers went from paying $50 dollars for an acre of water to nearly $975 per acre, a major spike in price rates. The lack of available freshwater in California has put major strains on farmers, businesses and citizens and unfortunately, there does not seem to be any relief in site. 

In an Op-Ed piece published in the LA Times last week, Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, warned that California only has about one year of fresh water left. “Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing,” said Famiglietti. “We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too.” 

In the Op-Ed piece, Famiglietti urged California to take several steps to help alleviate the situation. First, he suggested that California have immediate mandatory water rationing throughout the state. Second, he thinks California needs to accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, which establishes “groundwater sustainability agencies.” He also said that “the state needs a task force of thought leaders that starts...brainstorming to lay the groundwork for long-term water management strategies,” and that “the public must take ownership” of this crisis. 

Access to clean drinking water is vital to almost every living thing on earth and without proper management of this finite resource, we could find ourselves in a very difficult predicament. 

 

 

Harrison Jackson is the Coastal Stewards Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.  

 


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