Water Tapping a Strained Supply

Article excerpt

Water--why worry? New Jersey is blessed with 40 inches of rain on average each year. Water is everywhere. Yet the state's magnificent shoreline is receding, its reservoirs are shrinking, salt is leaching into underground water and basements are flooding. Why worry? Minnesotans count 10,000 lakes and more. But their premier waterways--Lake Superior and the Mississippi River--as well as several lesser bodies of water are endangered as a result of pollutants, acid rain and agricultural runoff, threatening the state's water quality, as well as its fishing and tourism trade.

Why worry? Did the rifle and covered wagon win the West or was it the ability of engineers to harness rivers, construct reservoirs and build a reliable water supply? Millions of recent settlers in the arid lands of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have gambled that the future will be wet enough for them and their progeny.

Every indicator says it will not.

The snowpack in the Rocky and the Sierra Nevada Mountains that supplies most of the fresh water to the region's rivers is dwindling. Climatologists predict that much of the snowpack will disappear in the second half of this century in the wake of global warming.

The Colorado River, which provides water to 30 million Westerners, has experienced reduced flow this decade compared to the recent past. Two of its principal reservoirs--Lake Mead and Lake Powell--stand at 50 percent of capacity.

Lack of rainfall has rendered drought conditions in much of the southeastern United States, in the western Dakotas and parts of Texas' Rio Grande Valley. Los Angeles went five months without measurable rainfall last year and water tables across the nation have been falling due to overuse.

"Water is the axis issue that intersects the world's greatest challenges, from health, poverty and security to climate, immigration and environment, even financial and commodities markets," said J. Carl Ganter, director of Circle of Blue, a network of journalists and scholars concerned with water issues worldwide. "We're just beginning to grasp the stresses on our world's water supplies."

How will water shortages affect U.S. population--predicted to reach 400 million by mid-century? Much of this growth could come from illegal immigration from places like Mexico where severe drought and declining aquifers have pushed people north.

Where will newcomers go within the United States and will they have sufficient water supplies to ensure their livelihoods and futures?

Such questions do not usually occur while one is taking a shower or enjoying an iced drink.

"People have very little idea where water comes from. It comes out of the tap. That's it," observed Joan Ehrenfeld, who heads New Jersey Water Resources Research Institute, based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

For years Ehrenfeld has studied the source of the water coming out the tap in New Jersey--its wetlands. She and others at the institute cover 20 percent of the state, including thousands of square miles of freshwater and coastal wetlands, estuaries, bays, lakes and bonds.

The state boasts "the strongest wetlands law in the nation," Ehrenfeld said. But New Jersey--the fifth smallest and the most densely populated state in the nation with more than 1,000 persons per square mile--has added 1.3 million citizens over the last 30 years. Demographic pressures have meant more acres of wetlands and virgin habitat have had to surrender to urban growth and suburban sprawl.

Though few of its 8.6 million residents are aware of it, they rely on wetlands to filter and recharge ground water, making it safe for drinking and for crops. The Garden State has significant agricultural land between Philadelphia and New York City.

Widespread flooding last spring brought a new awareness to some that wetlands are vital for storing floodwater from overflowing rivers and surface water runoff, thus protecting downstream businesses and basements. …