Water, water everywhere, but will there be enough to drink?

Remember the rhyme of the Ancient Mariner stranded in the middle of the ocean with no fresh water: “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink?” That might be the case again someday if we don’t use water wisely and clean up contaminated rivers, streams and lakes.

The water contamination problem is not as seriously in the United States as it is in China and other rapidly developing countries.

For example, in the mineral rich Congo, the capital city of Kinshasa has 15 million people and no sewage system. Half of its citizens have no access to clean water, and as a consequence, the life expectancy of a new baby is 46.

According to The Economist magazine, China’s water pollution has contaminated almost 100,000 square miles of ocean off its coastline and more than half the water in its seven largest river basins is unfit to drink.

The World Bank reports the resulting health problems cut the productivity of rural communities by two percent and the costs to industry and agriculture from diminishing supplies of clean water reduced GDP by another two percent. In total, the World Bank puts the cost of China’s air and water pollution at $100 billion a year. The report initially pegged the number of pollution-related deaths at 750,000 a year until the Chinese government complained and the figure was removed from the report.

Even in Beijing, sewage treatment is inadequate and many Chinese still dump raw pollutants into lakes and rivers. To compensate, farmers, local leaders and industry tapped into the nation’s ground water supply, but Nature can’t replenish the supply as fast as it is being withdrawn, so the water table is rapidly falling.

The water problems in other parts of the world may present an opportunity for our nation’s burgeoning “green industry” and Washington, in particular, seems to thrive on solving environmental problems.

For example, in the 1950s, 20,000 gallons of raw sewage flowed freely into Lake Washington each day. In 1958, city leaders in the Seattle metropolitan area created Metro, in large part, to clean up the lake. Metro engineers eventually designed four wastewater-treatment plants, more than 100 miles of large tunnels and interceptor sewers, and dozens of pumping stations. The project took nine years and $140 million.

Since President Nixon signed the Clean Water Act in 1972, even the tiniest enclaves in our country have installed waste water treatment systems, but there is still work to do if we are to have enough clean water for our grandchildren.

In Washington, we need to build additional storage reservoirs so we can capture spring runoff or flooding and release it when supplies are low. The new water storage capacity would allow us to water our crops, safely flush salmon to the ocean and ensure our cities have adequate drinking water supplies.

If predictions are correct that climate change will reduce winter snow pack and cause heavier spring rains and flooding, new water storage reservoirs should be a critical part of our water policy.

As the water table drops in deeper and deeper wells, the Odessa area in Eastern Washington needs water for crops. It is not as if we don’t have sufficient water for those farmers, we just continue to argue in the halls of government about how to get it there. The area needs water from the Columbia and that additional withdrawal could be more than offset by new reservoir capacity.

Time is wasting while we continuously argue and debate our water problems. Meanwhile, other parts of the world, such as China, need more of our food to feed their people. We are not only endangering the rich agriculture area of Odessa by letting it run dry, but we’re also missing new market opportunities for our farmers.

The United States has the technology to help solve global water problems. The question is, will we get off the dime and finish solving our own challenges, and will we then market those solutions to the rest of the world?

Don C. Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.

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