September 2017 - LIVING ON EARTH
Are You Thirsty Now?
By Skip Holmes
Over 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water and the oceans hold about 97% of all the Earth’s water. So it would seem there should be plenty of clean, healthy water for us all. Sadly that is a false assumption.
Much of this water is undrinkable as it is sea water. The remainder is in lakes, reservoirs, rivers, streams or underground. So where does the water you drink come from? Frequently we turn on the tap at the sink and take it for granted. Or do you purchase bottled water or some version of ‘enhanced’ water?
If you live where there is a municipal water supply system, then your tap water is supposed to meet specified water quality standards. Sometimes the standards are being met, yet there are contaminants present that we do not test for. A recent example was in Hoosick Falls, where a contaminant was discovered that was a potential carcinogen. Only through the work of a concerned citizen did this become known, the public alerted, and corrective action taken.
Municipal systems obtain water from reservoirs, rivers, and from underground wells. The problem in Hoosick Falls was from a system utilizing wells. Contaminants can travel a considerable distance from a pollution source and find their way into underground wells.
There are underground springs that emerge from rock formations and they are used as a source of drinking water. Those of us who have been hiking or paddling in the Adirondacks and the Catskills used to consider taking water from a running stream. However, given the potential for contaminated water, it is no longer an acceptable approach. Does the term ‘beaver fever’ mean anything to you?! Several years ago there was a group of cyclists out on a long ride to Mount Graylock and they ran out of water. They knew of a spring where they had obtained water in the past so stopped to fill up their water bottles. About a week later they stopped showing up for group rides. Many of them contracted giardia and were quite ill for a week. Trusting an unknown source of water is no longer a smart decision. Many of these springs have become contaminated by animal waste and other pollutants.
Okay, you might be getting the idea that we should give some thought to where our water comes from. Many of you might now be thinking, “Bottled water is for me.” Well perhaps not! Where does the bottled water come from? Did you ever read the label on the plastic bottle? Turns out that some bottled water comes from municipal water supply systems. The bottled water industry will use municipal water, filter it, sanitize it with ultraviolet light and bottle it. Some even add trace minerals back in after they have filtered it to provide some taste and then charge as much as a bottle of soda for it.
The NYS Department of Health is responsible for the standards of water we drink. They also have a set of definitions for types of bottled water. There is distilled water, spring water, mineral water, etc. Mineral water is available from several springs in Saratoga Springs.
What about the plastic bottles that hold all this water? Over 50 billion bottles of water are consumed in the US each year. We athletes do get thirsty! We should consider what happens to all those plastic bottles. National statistics say that only 20% of these bottles get recycled. Do the math; 40 billion bottles a year end up in a landfill or worse, the lakes, rivers and the oceans. These bottles only represent a small percentage of the contaminants that end up in our water ecosystem.
Many of us like to participate in winter sports and we frequently travel to locations after a fresh snowfall. Consider that the roads that we travel on have been salted and sanded to allow us to travel at highway speeds. In 1941, about 5,000 tons of road salt was used in the US. We now use 10 to 20 million tons of road salt each year depending on weather conditions. Lake Champlain has seen a 30% increase in salinity over the past 10 years. Runoff from the roads into the Lake Champlain watershed is largely responsible for this increase.
Many lakes in the Adirondacks are under duress from all the development built on their shoreline. The lakes are receiving increasing amounts of phosphorus from lawn fertilizer. The waste disposal systems are contributing bacteria to the water ecosystem. Remember the closing of the Million Dollar Beach at Lake George this summer or in previous years as well? Coliform bacteria from human waste disposal systems are the culprit. There are 100 bodies of water in New York that cannot be used or enjoyed according to a NYS DEC report. Do you recall the NYC Triathlon that was supposed to have contestants swimming in the Hudson River? There was significant discussion about that amongst contestants. As clean as the Hudson River is now compared to the 1960s, I would not consider swimming in it. Would you?
Well how about you kayakers and canoe paddlers? You might not swim or drink the water you paddle on, but there is another concern. We tend to visit numerous bodies of water for our paddling experiences. How many of you are checking your kayak or canoe for aquatic invasive species? You may have noticed the motor boat inspection and wash stations at many boat launch sites. There are now about 40 of them in New York. These stations perform inspections and wash boats as necessary to insure that the aquatic invasive species do not get transferred to other bodies of water. Those of us with kayaks, canoes and even SUPs should be checking the surfaces of our watercraft to insure we are not transporting these species into other bodies of water. You should wash them at home after a paddling trip to comply with the rules.
This is only the tip of the iceberg or glacier when it comes to the issues for the water on our planet. And there are fewer glaciers today given the current warming of our Earth. Take time to consider your footprint and as many of us ADK’ers say, leave no trace, or at least a smaller footprint.
If we want the Adirondacks to continue to provide us with the outdoor experiences and connection to nature we will need to advocate for environmental protection laws and insist that our local, state and federal representatives address climate change.
Skip (Oliver) Holmes (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professional engineer, a Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) professional, and teaches Sustainable Design courses at the RPI School of Architecture. He is an outdoor enthusiast who also is a cyclist, Nordic skier, paddler and hiker.