I did something my friends found odd and my parents found horrifying. I signed on for a 200-mile survival trek across one of the most parched landscapes in the country — the southern Utah desert. Walking wasn’t the hard part, nor were the restrictions: no tent, sleeping bag or matches. I lost a pound a day for 28 days on a diet of ash-baked crackers made of flour and river water, and hunger was a constant.
But it was thirst that stalked us like a wolf. The human body — 60 percent water — can endure a month or two without food, but only three or four days without water. Sawed-off soda cans served as our canteens, keeping us alive from one alkali pothole or stream to the next, and once, when the landscape ran out of river, I came to know the cotton tongue and dizzy delirium of going without. I came home obsessed with water.
It’s an obsession now shared by more than a third of the world’s population, 2.6 billion people who live in perpetual pursuit of safe drinking water, or who lack water to bathe and flush away their sewage. “In the villages where I lived, the talk was constantly of water,” says anthropology Professor Joyce Millen, who spent her formative years in rural Africa, walking miles for water and coaxing near-mud out of desiccated wells. By 2025 the United Nations predicts water scarcity will plague two out of three individuals worldwide, and Ismail Serageldin, founder of the Global Water Partnership, says, “The next world war will be fought over water.”
We live surrounded by water on a blue planet, but less than one-half of one percent of the world’s water supply is available to us, and the fresh water in rivers, lakes and underground aquifers is threatened by industrial pollution, water-intensive and chemical dependent agriculture, runaway development, and rates of consumption growing twice as fast as the population. Global warming exacerbates the problem with droughts, shrinking glaciers and rising sea levels, which inundate fresh water ecosystems with salt. And as the temperature rises, we use more water — for drinking, bathing, recreation, crops and wildfires. Scientists predict that many cities and nations will run dry in coming decades.
The United States is not invulnerable. The Ogallala Aquifer, the largest in North America, is being pumped dry, and it seems that all major U.S. rivers are flowing mostly toward litigation, with states locked in combat over water rights. In the Western U.S., seven states and two nations are battling over legal rights to the Colorado River, whose waters are no longer plentiful enough to fulfill treaties made decades ago. Mexico is left with a salty trickle, and California, with one of the largest economies in the world, usurps the largest share. Even so, state planners estimate they will need almost twice the current amount by 2020.
“Western cities are growing, and they’re thirsty,” says economics Professor Don Negri, who develops statistical methods that calculate the impacts of climate change on agriculture. “Population is up and reservoir levels are down, and 80 percent flows to farmers. There won’t be enough water to go around.”
Not even in water-rich western Oregon, where drought has already driven hundreds of farmers out of business and water shortages have brought controversy. After a judge ruled in 2001 that Klamath River waters should be left instream to protect salmon runs, farmers stormed the head gates and illegally diverted irrigation water. Farmers, tribes and fishermen became embroiled in a “fish versus food” conflict so intense farmers patrolled canals with shotguns and federal marshals were called in to restore order. “It looked like a scene from the Old West,” Negri says.
As the planet warms, Oregon will see reduced snow pack in the Cascades — mountains that act as an enormous storage facility, slowly releasing water as snowmelt through the summer. “We will need to find a way to capture and store the precipitation from winter rains — perhaps in underground aquifers — or we’ll see serious water constraints,” Negri says.
“When crisis occurs the old rules no longer work, and policymakers turn to the researchers who have been thinking about this for a long time. Crisis is often the catalyst for change, and that change will involve hard thinking about how we manage and allocate water. Right now, there is an institutional perversity in Western water law, especially in the ‘use it or lose it’ doctrine.” Originally intended to discourage waste by preventing people from diverting more water than they could use, the law now serves to discourage conservation. Preposterous case in point: During a severe, multi-year drought in the interior West, some politicians encouraged residents to step up lawn watering so water rights wouldn’t revert to the next appropriator in line. Ill-conceived federal programs exacerbate the problem, giving subsidies to grow water-intensive crops, like rice, in the desert.
Even though allowing rivers to flow freely was once considered wasteful and diversions for fish habitat controversial, many water managers now recognize the ecological benefits of instream uses. “We often forget that water has value when left in place,” says Karen Arabas, an environmental and Earth sciences professor whose tree-ring research documents 500 years of drought in Oregon. “It’s hard to put a price on habitat health, so it doesn’t show up in the marketplace. That’s where problems crop up. Selling or transferring water can give the state a quick economic boost, but the value of leaving water in the river doesn’t have an immediate perceived economic value.”
Both Negri and Arabas believe more water will flow from agriculture to cities and habitat restoration in the future, with farmers making up the difference with better technology, stronger conservation measures and higher-value crops, such as berries and nursery plants.
Shortages are not the only threat to our water supply. The goods we consume are part of the problem. For example, it takes more than 100,000 gallons of water to produce a car. “We can’t have our standard of living without chemistry and manufacturing, but one of the byproducts of industry is water pollution,” says Dave Goodney, environmental chemistry professor. ”If we want to solve our environmental problems, we need to understand them, and chemistry is a big part of the solution.
“Until environmental protection laws came along in the 1970s, companies could dump virtually anything into waterways,” Goodney says. “The local canneries and paper mill put a heavy load on the Willamette River, which was terribly polluted. We’ve seen a dramatic improvement in water quality since their closing, and since the new regulations took effect.” A lingering problem is that the toxic industrial chemicals that settled into river sediments long ago are almost impossible to remove. Some contaminants in Portland Harbor, now a Superfund cleanup site, are the result of industrial pollution that occurred decades ago.
Today’s industrial byproducts include estrogen mimickers and endocrine disruptors, which enter the water supply and play havoc with human development and reproduction, but many chemicals come from our own bathroom cabinet. The prescription and over-thecounter drugs that pass through our bodies or get flushed down the toilet are almost impossible to remove from drinking water, and have been linked to cancer and hormonal and reproductive problems.
One of the largest problems is the chemical runoff from farms and households. “Every time we throw away leftover paint or fertilize our lawn, it ends up in the Willamette River,” Goodney says. “With municipal sewers and factories, you know where the pipeline is going into the river, but nonpoint source pollution is a tougher nut to crack because it comes from all over the place.” States, counties and individuals are starting to respond, regulating chemical use and making sure chemicals are disposed of as safely as possible. And some cities, like Silverton, are using biology to remove fertilizer nutrients; the city finishes cleaning municipal sewer water with waterfalls, gardens and wetlands at the Oregon Gardens.
Many believe the most significant threat to water is the privatization of the planet’s water resources. In 2000 Fortune magazine reported that water would be the “oil of the 21st century,” shaping the rise of transnational corporations and the fate of nations.
The frenzied rush toward private ownership of water has alarmed and energized an alliance of national leaders, economists, scientists, farmers, environmentalists, indigenous peoples, churches and nonprofit groups. Even the United Nations and the Pope issued declarations that water is an inalienable human right. “Nothing illustrates global injustices more starkly than the question of who has daily access to safe drinking water and who does not, because water is one of the most basic requirements of human life,” says Millen, who has helped establish health projects on several continents, including one in Lima, Peru.
Like many other large cities around the world, Lima has vastly outgrown its water infrastructure. “The municipal system was built for a fraction of the current population,” Millen says, “and the tens of thousands of recent arrivals who reside on the outskirts of the city have no piped-in water. They are forced to buy water from private vendors who get it free from city taps, sell it at exorbitant prices, and profit from human desperation. The poorest people spend up to a third of their income on water that wealthier people in the valley receive free.
“We need to decide as a global community whether water is a commodity to be sold for profit to enrich a few or a basic human right available to all. In a world where 2 million children die every year for want of clean water, it’s regrettable we have to ask that question.”
The problem isn’t reserved to the developing world. Aging infrastructure has not kept pace with population growth in U.S. cities, where 70,000 miles of corroded, leaky pipelines jeopardize public health and community budgets. City officials sometimes see public–private partnerships as attractive solutions, but privatization has not been the panacea they hoped. Once privatized, water is managed for profit, not for water quality, public health or fair access, and rate hikes and substandard practices often follow.
Bottled water has also gained closer scrutiny, even at Willamette, where its elimination is under consideration. “Bottled water is marketed as the ‘natural’ choice, but there’s nothing natural about it,” says President Lee Pelton. “It takes three liters to produce a one-liter bottle, the packaging is a landfill item, and the water doesn’t receive the same scrutiny as tap water.” Slow to regulate, the Food and Drug Administration has only recently proposed testing source water for fecal contamination.
“Corporations shouldn’t have the right to plunder aquifers,” Millen says. Bottlers often profit from water resources that are owned, developed and maintained by taxpayers, but citizens are starting to push back. Upscale restaurants in major cities are canceling bottled water contracts and community opposition is growing against large-scale extraction of water by bottling giants. Willamette, which receives Salem tap water — voted the “Best of the West” by the American Water Works Association — is developing plans to give each incoming student a reusable water bottle and serve pitchers of water at events.
A focus on water is not relegated to one or two physical sciences at Willamette. The topic shows up in almost every discipline across campus — including anthropology, economics, education, English, history, law, environmental and Earth sciences, chemistry, biology, politics, religious studies and psychology — in the form of research, curriculum, service projects or artistic endeavors. Some faculty members even offer pro bono expertise at the local or even international level. In each case, their disciplinary background informs their thinking and activities.
They share a hope that squeezed water supplies will shape a new management paradigm, one based directly on science rather than political and economic drivers, but they recognize that there are no easy answers.
“People look to the oceans, and we do have the technology to extract salt from seawater, but it requires enormous amounts of energy, causes environmental destruction and is prohibitively expensive,” says Scott Pike, an environmental and Earth sciences professor whose paleoenvironmental research uncovers the hydrological profile of past civilizations. Massive water transfers are also losing acceptance. “You can’t simply transfer water from Oregon to California without recognition of the environmental and social impacts, even if they can pay for it,” says Negri.
Pike believes we will need to think more about limits, including restricting development to the capacity of our underground aquifers. “We have all these new homes pulling water from an aquifer that might not be recharged for a long time,” he says. “Any new construction has to go through analysis, but the process is often driven by economics and politics rather than science. If we pump too rapidly, the surface of the groundwater table sinks. The greatest threat to Oregon’s water is not scarcity, but poor management.”
In an effort to help gain a clearer understanding of local supplies, Pike and his students monitor stream quality throughout the Mill Creek Watershed, gathering data for state and county planners. “This watershed is one of the major drainages for Salem, but it only gets monitored once it gets to the urban areas, while the headwaters are located up in the mountains. It’s a very manipulated system, running through federal lands in the mountains, farmland, municipalities and industrial areas, so any policy has to deal with all the stakeholders.”
Other Willamette professors are helping stage rescues as well. One of Millen’s medical anthropology classes coordinated with county health officials to investigate water resources in Marion County, pinpointing inadequacies of the local sanitation system and problems with sewage overflow. Joe Bowersox, director of Willamette’s Center for Sustainable Communities, coordinates student restoration projects on local streams.
And biology Professor Gary Tallman is developing genetically modified plants that withstand heat and associated drought. “As global warming speeds up evaporation from crop plants and irrigators have less water, we will see more starvation worldwide,” he predicts. “There are concerns with genetically modified plants, but most of the concerns are about modifying plants with non-plant genes. My work focuses on modifying existing plant genes. It’s not unlike breeding, but traditional crop breeding is less predictable and takes years.” Tallman wants to speed up the process to meet what he considers a crisis.
Ultimately, there’s no easy technological fix, and so many solutions will have to come from leaders and citizens choosing wisdom over shortsighted actions. “It will take a tremendous amount of political willpower to create wiser laws,” Arabas says, “but there’s no option. Unlike the auto industry, where people can switch from oil to hydrogen, there’s no substitute for water.”
“Certainly when it comes to water, economics and politics must be part of the equation,” says Bowersox, whose scholarship focuses on water and forest policy. “But we have to talk in terms of broader values as well. Our decision-making is often stripped bare of less tangible human and non-human consequences: What is the cultural, spiritual and ecological value of salmon? Of a heron rookery? Of children having clean water to drink? The danger is that many arguments become abstract accounts, devoid of language that compels people to rethink their values. As a society, we need to measure water according to its true worth and manage our resources with the wisdom of a longterm perspective.”
On my trek through the desert, I carried a small can of water for 200 miles, and once when it ran dry I collected drops of rain on my tarp and dug down through the sand toward moisture. Rivers were veins of life that flowed through the canyons, and the sweet breath of rain was the first and last resort for every juniper, jackrabbit and rattler. I came to understand that water represents the clearest, strongest hold on life. All I had was a few long swallows, carefully balanced between sun-chapped fingers, but it was enough.
Religious studies Professor Dave McCreery has witnessed the dramatic effects of water scarcity more than most. He is a paleoethnobotanist who has spent the last 35 years unearthing ancient cities in the Middle East. “Civilizations rise and fall based on how people manage their water resources,” says McCreery, whose work has been featured on the History Channel. “We think of civilization as progress, but when people settled into villages their health deteriorated, raw sewage flowed through the streets and epidemics ran rampant, much like today. Over-irrigation increased the salinity of the soil until crops failed — and societies collapsed. There’s a pattern of cities growing until a point of sudden abandonment, and that collapse often centers around how people use — and misuse — water.
“Archeology has taught me that you can’t take anything for granted. We have the idea that we’re invulnerable, but if the U.S. lasts forever we’d be the first nation to accomplish that. We have to realize our limitations and vulnerabilities and plan accordingly.
“As we become more aware that water is not an inexhaustible resource, we’ll adopt the practices used in the ancient world for thousands of years. The Romans had indoor toilets, but they didn’t have toilets that took 10 gallons to flush. In the Middle East today, almost all homes have cisterns that collect winter rainwater. You live off that water all year long.”
The best advocates for water are local citizens. We can carry our own water bottle, clean with vinegar and baking soda, use native plants in our gardens, buy food produced with fewer chemicals and help restore local streams.
Smith, can take it one step further. Smith, an environmental law professor who provides pro bono legal expertise to the World Council of Churches about water as an inalienable right, asked members of her church congregation to give up soda and lattes during Lent, drink water instead, and send the savings overseas to an “adopted” village to help provide water. “I thought the only way we can begin to deal with the global water crisis is one village at a time,” she says. “We all belong to communities — academic, religious, social — and so I started with my village, my church, and we reached out to another village.”
Children listened while Smith explained the idea to her congregation, and after they left for Sunday school classes, she said, “Every 15 seconds a child dies from a disease that would have been preventable with clean drinking water. If we lived elsewhere, in the time I’ve been speaking all these children would have died.
“If we want democracy and political stability around the world, the first thing we need to ensure is that people are not thirsty,” says Smith, who is working toward a master of divinity degree and plans to push water justice as part of her ministry. Her Drink Water for Life movement is spreading to other congregations in the Willamette Valley.