A Thirsty World Providing Water and Protecting Supplies Will Be One of the Global Challenges of the 21st Century

By Mattson, Marcia | The Florida Times Union, July 18, 2000 | Go to article overview

A Thirsty World Providing Water and Protecting Supplies Will Be One of the Global Challenges of the 21st Century


Mattson, Marcia, The Florida Times Union


In a swamp so dry that cypress trees are tipping over because their roots aren't anchored by enough water, Rosanne Prager checked the water level in a shallow well.

"It's 3 feet lower than a couple months ago," said Prager, of the engineering firm CH2M Hill.

It's a drought and the dry season. But the St. Johns River Water Management District suspects a third reason the swamp, west of St. Augustine, is drying up.

It's surrounded not only by young pines planted by a timber company, but by several St. Johns County wells that pump water from shallow wells to serve residents' needs.

The problem is a tiny sign of a big dilemma: how to give Earth's burgeoning population all the water it needs, without ruining the water supply or environment.

The obstacles, to varying extents, are the same on every continent:

-- Populations are growing, often in arid areas, straining above- and below-ground water sources and threatening water quality and the environment.

-- Water treatment plants need to be added and aging ones improved at a cost of billions of dollars.

-- There remains a lack of concern in many regions about conserving water or protecting it from pollution.

-- A piecemeal system of making decisions about water use has neighboring utilities and governments, who tap into the same supplies, either ignoring or fighting each other.

Organizations like The World Bank, a government-funded organization that helps pay for development, are trying to get nations to work out their future water needs together, since many share the same water sources.

"The demand for water is going up extremely rapidly and we're having greater competition from all sectors for water," said Stephen Lintner, principal environmental specialist with The World Bank Environmental Department's Land, Water and Natural Resources Division.

Providing and protecting water will be one of the global environmental challenges of the 21st century, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in an April speech.

Worldwide, more than 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. More than 2 billion live in countries experiencing some kind of water stress. And at least 5 million people worldwide -- more than the population of Maryland -- die every year from water-related illness.

Albright said the United States will have talks on how to foster regional cooperation and is contributing $2 million to a new United Nations fund to improve regional water management.

"Studies show that the squeeze on water resources will tighten as populations grow, demand increases, pollution continues, and global climate change accelerates," she said.

". . . Unless properly managed, water scarcity can be a major source of strife, as well as a roadblock to economic and social progress."

Much of Florida and Georgia rely on an underground water supply -- mostly from the Floridan aquifer.

This is the most productive source of fresh water in the United States, and some say, the world, allowing huge amounts to be pumped from local wells. The aquifer runs from South Carolina to the Caribbean, with varying degrees of freshness. Below Orlando, its water is too salty to use.

Southern Duval and northwest St. Johns counties are living with the result of poor planning years ago to meet water demands.

Inadequate pipes to handle Mandarin's increasing demand has periodically left JEA customers without water. And a new JEA well in Mandarin has caused several hundred private wells in Duval and St. Johns counties to stop producing water. The JEA is required to fit impacted private wells with new equipment so they can pull water from a greater depth, where the pressure is higher.

Forty percent of the 19 counties in the St. Johns River Water Management District, which spans the eastern half of the state from Nassau to Indian River counties, will have problems meeting the demand for water in the next 20 years if they don't change how they get water, a recent district report concluded. …

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