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Sierra dwellers should worry about water

Water! For the most part, we take it for granted. You turn on the faucet and out it comes with little or no thought as to where it comes from, how it gets here, and where it goes when it leaves. But many global experts are becoming increasingly alarmed with the rapid decrease in our global water supplies, fearing that it could become a much greater crisis than decreasing oil supplies. Water demand in the last 50 years has more than tripled as our global population has gone from two billion to more than six billion people.

We usually think critical water issues are occurring only in the poorer, drier countries of the world. But the 2006 U.N. World Water Development report, titled “Water – A Shared Responsibility,” suggests that “the availability of adequate water is among the most basic and most urgent of the common issues faced by poor and rich nations alike.” Large areas of the U.S. are already using far more water than can naturally be replenished and this will only be exacerbated by climate change consequences such as lower rainfall, increased evaporation, and changing snowmelt patterns.

Less than 3 percent of the earth’s water supply is fresh water and, each year, total global water use rises by 2 to 3 percent. In the U.S., per person usage of water is 350 liters a day, while Europeans use 200 liters and Sub Sahara Africa subsists on 10-20 liters. Certainly there is room for massive conservation opportunities in this country simply by raising our awareness, taking personal action, and getting involved in local, national and global water issues. We must begin to appreciate the absolute miracle of water. As Nobel Prize winning biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi has said, “Water is life’s matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.”



Here in the Sierra, we have been blessed with abundant water, making it easy to feel immune to the growing global water crisis. It doesn’t really seem like such a big deal until you look at the entire planetary water system. Around the world, lakes are disappearing, wells are running dry, rivers are no longer reaching the sea and a vast water deficit is looming. The crisis is sneaking up on us because it is largely invisible, historically recent, and growing at an escalating rate. This doesn’t even account for the reduction in usable water due to escalating pollution of our water supply. We are using our global water supplies at a rate far exceeding the planet’s capacity to recharge and sustain itself.

Local Forest Soil Scientist, Carol Kennedy, Watershed Program Manager for the Tahoe National Forest, reports, “the current climate, which is in a warming trend, speeds up the global water cycle leading to more extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and storms. This has resulted in winter and spring temperatures that have become warmer in the central Sierra. The length of the snow season has decreased by 16 days from 1951 to 1996 in California and Nevada and the annual runoff from the central Sierra that occurs in late spring has been decreasing for approximately the past 50 years. Earlier snow pack melting in the Sierra Nevada has resulted in mountain streams going dry by summer and 12 percent less spring and summer snowmelt in the Sacramento River than 100 years ago.”




What can be expected in the future?

• The latest projections for California are an average increase in temperature of 4-10.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 100 years.

• Summer temperatures in Central Valley could increase 14.5-18 degrees Fahrenheit.

• Winter precipitation projections range from a decrease of 30 percent to a slight increase (5 percent).

• Spring snowmelt is expected to decline (30-90 percent) and melt prematurely.

• In most cases, total annual stream flow into major Sierra Nevada reservoirs is projected to drop by 10-20 percent before mid-century and 25-30 percent before the end of the century.

• Spring and summer stream flows are projected to decrease 10-25 percent by mid-century and 40-55 percent by the end of the century.

• Regional warming (3-5 degrees Fahrenheit by the 2040s) is likely to be faster than global warming (1-4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2040s)

In addition to the above predictions, the salmon habitat is being negatively affected, forest and coastal ecosystems altered and coastal hazards exacerbated. Biologist Chuck Hawkins, who is working on methods to accurately measure the health of water systems, says that if we have biologically healthy streams, we are protecting water quality for human consumption. Invertebrates that live in rivers are like canaries in coalmines – they are indicators of potential problems. If healthy invertebrate populations exist in our rivers and lakes, the water is probably safe to drink and use for other human needs.

Seventy percent of our water use is for irrigation, 20 for industry and 10 for residential. Each of us makes personal water decisions everyday. Beyond our personal use of water, being involved in community planning can make a huge difference. Our local water supplies are greatly affected by development and potential industry impacts to local wells, ground water, rivers and streams, and distribution of available irrigation supplies, whether used locally or sold downstream.

The greatest thing we can do is to start to appreciate the miracle of water. To stop taking it for granted and increase our awareness of where it comes from, how we use it and where it goes. We each make a difference and our children’s children are counting on us to make the right decisions. For information, go to http://www.welloflight.com.

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When you drink the water remember the spring.

Chinese proverb

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Michael Stone writes a column that appears every other Monday in The Union. He can be reached at michael@welloflight.com.


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