In the age we live in, many things are taken for granted: the power that lights up our house, the Internet that facilitates our communications and satiates our curiosity, and the water that comes from our taps, to name but three. The fragility of these resources is only appreciated when they fail us through storms, cable problems, and boil-water alerts. Suddenly, the things that we take for granted aren't as secure as we like to think.
Much public attention, at least in Ontario, has recently and rightly been focused on water-taking permits that allow companies like Nestlé to take millions of litres of water daily for a mere pittance. Indeed, few would argue with opposition parties calling for public input into the whole issue of the commercialization of our groundwater. However, the problems confronting our most precious resource go well beyond a single issue, and they pose grave challenges for the entire world.
A new study offers some troubling news. One of the main impediments to clean drinking water comes from agriculture:
Agriculture is a huge contributor to water pollution, from fertilizers used for row crops to the manure created by large-scale animal agriculture. In Washington state, a 2015 lawsuit found that a huge dairy operation had been polluting groundwater in a nearby community, causing the level of nitrates in residents’ drinking water to spike to unsafe levels. Nitrates, when found in high levels, can cause serious health problems for both infants and adults with compromised immune systems.Fossil fuel production is another source of pollution:
Elsewhere, industrial production of crops like corn and soy, which rely heavily on fertilizers to increase yields, can lead to dangerous algal blooms which, when toxic, can shut down drinking water for entire cities.
With fracking — also known as hydraulic fracturing, when high pressure water, sand, and chemicals are used to break open subsurface shale in order to liberate the natural gas trapped therein — water is a massive component of the entire process. Each fracked well requires somewhere between 1 million and 6 million gallons of water per well, which can place strain on surface water resources.But in addition to massive water wastage,
fracking can also impact water quality well after the actual fracking itself has finished, when waste fluids are injected back underground for disposal. In some cases, that cocktail of wastewater and chemicals can leach into aquifers, polluting the groundwater near fracking operations. That’s what happened in Dimock, Pennsylvania in 2009, when two families sued Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. for polluting their wells with methane. That’s also what happened in 2008, in Pavillion, Wyoming.Development is another villain in this story:
Development is a massive driver of that pollution — when urbanization or agriculture comes into a watershed, land that was previously covered with native vegetation is cleared. That means that the soil that was once bound by root systems is free to run into waterways when a storm comes along, choking waterways with sediments and damaging both drinking water quality and ecosystems that depend on clean water.A myriad of other contributing factors also pose grave threats to our water, including climate change, pharmaceuticals and sewage, all of which you can read about in detail in the source article.
Deforestation — which often occurs to make way for agriculture or development — is also a huge contributor to sediment pollution. Wildfires can also increase sediment pollution, by burning away vegetation that kept soil intact.
The conclusion drawn is that although bleak, the situation does not have to be dire. A rapid switching to more green energy would
not only ... keep ... fracking wastewater out of groundwater, but it would slow the impacts of climate change on other parts of the water system, as well.The ball is now squarely in our collective court.