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A photo of Lake Superior's shoreline.

The Great Lakes contain 20 percent of the Earth's total freshwater. Collectively, they have 9,402 miles of shoreline and 94,710 total square miles of surface area (about the size of Texas).

Crystal clear: Water is emerging as the commodity of the future

Water is emerging as the commodity of the future

By Rick Moore

From M, summer 2004

Experts suggest that seven gallons of water is the minimum daily need for every person for drinking, washing, cooking, and bathing. But in many parts of the world, access to clean and safe water comes a cupful at a time, and is cherished by the drop. By 2025, 2.7 billion people will be living in countries with severe water scarcity, according to a United Nations estimate. Outbreaks of cholera and other waterborne diseases plague water-scarce nations. More children in so-called developing countries die from diarrhea as a result of contaminated water than from any other condition, with dirty water contributing to the deaths of 15 million preschoolers a year. There are as many threats to water quality and quantity as there are brands of bottled water at your average American supermarket. Overpopulation, global warming, deforestation, loss of wetlands, nonsustainable farming, and invasive species are at the top of the list.

In May 2000, Fortune magazine declared that "Water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century: the precious commodity that determines the wealth of nations."

Tangential to those threats, but of growing importance, is the burgeoning trend of privatization. More and more, water is being treated less as a fundamental public good--like fresh air--and more as a commodity to be bought and sold. In the sobering 2002 book, Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water, authors Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke point out that control of the world's water supplies is increasingly falling into the hands of about 10 big corporate players, and supplying water to people and industries is already estimated to be a $400 billion annual enterprise. These threats are variables that have changed and will change over time, but there remains one constant truth: the world's freshwater supply is utterly and frighteningly finite. Of all the Earth's H2O, approximately 97 percent is salt water or otherwise unsuitable to drink, and another 2 percent is frozen in glaciers and ice caps. The 1 percent of the freshwater that remains is all that we have for residential, agricultural, industrial, and community needs. And that 1 percent is not distributed equitably around the world. In May 2000, Fortune magazine declared that "Water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century: the precious commodity that determines the wealth of nations." The corollary to that statement, of course, is that nations--and corporations--controlling water will hold all the trump cards, and water-scarce nations will become increasingly beholden to those who control the supply.

Land of 10,000 lakes

The United States is not immune to pressing issues of water quantity and quality. From the Great Lakes to precious wetlands, declining water levels can mean permanent changes in ecosystems. The demands on the Colorado River are such that it often barely reaches its destination, the Gulf of California, and recently the Rio Grande dried up before making it to the Gulf of Mexico. Underground aquifers, relied on for irrigating fields across America, are being tapped at alarming rates. The Ogallala aquifer covers nearly 200,000 square miles and extends from South Dakota to the Texas panhandle. According to the authors of Blue Gold, the Ogallala provides water for one-fifth of all the irrigated land in the U.S., but is being depleted 14 times faster than the normal process of restoration.

Of all the Earth's water, approximately 97 percent is salt water or otherwise unsuitable to drink, and another 2 percent is frozen in glaciers and ice caps. The 1 percent of the freshwater that remains is all that we have for residential, agricultural, industrial, and community needs.

Here in Minnesota, water is more than just the basis of a license plate slogan; it is a part of our cultural and recreational identity. The name Minnesota is derived from the Dakota word meaning "water that reflects the sky." Our state has the most water resources of the 48 contiguous states and more shoreline than any other state outside of Alaska. Its whopping $10 billion water-related tourism industry means that Minnesota has a vested interest in water quality as well as quantity. While Minnesota is far from being water-stressed, it still faces water issues. A lot of Minnesotans might wonder, "We're not Arizona, we're not Colorado; what's the problem?" says Deb Swackhamer, environmental chemistry professor at the University and co-director of the University-based Water Resources Center. The problem is, and may increasingly be, that we aren't the only ones in control of our water. At "Minnesota Water 2004: Policy and Planning to Ensure Minnesota's Water Supplies," a biennial conference hosted by the University of Minnesota, researchers and water professionals gathered to discuss threats to Minnesota's water supplies as well as current research and policy developments. (The conference was sponsored by the University's Water Resources Center and co-sponsored by the University of Minnesota, Duluth's Sea Grant and Natural Resources Research Institute.) In the 1990s, Minnesota's population increased more than any other state in the five-state area (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, South and North Dakota) and reached the five million mark in spring 2002. State demographer Tom Gillaspy estimates that the state will reach six million residents between 2020 and 2030. While that fact alone may not be cause for alarm, Gillaspy notes that "Difficulties with water in some parts of the country may have an impact on Minnesota." With southern states experiencing exploding populations and increasing difficulty in finding adequate supplies of water for agricultural and residential uses, the likelihood of serious attempts to tap Minnesota's water will only increase. There have already been overtures--some from North America and some from abroad--to tap into water resources near and dear to Minnesota, including a proposal to take water from Lake Superior by the tankerfull. If there were an effort by other states to try to divert water from Minnesota, "we would have a major battle on our hands, and I hope that day never comes," says Governor Tim Pawlenty, who spoke at the water conference in support of his Clean Water Initiative. The initiative is designed to protect water, provide safe water for communities, maintain an adequate picture of water issues, and restore Minnesota's impaired waters. Pawlenty says now is the time to address water issues in the state. "We still have a lot to do," he says. "The stress of the population is going to be increasing the strain on resources. Just treading water--no pun intended--is not going to cut it." In addition to supply issues, the state faces continuing challenges around contamination--such as mercury and bacteria--as well as the protection of public drinking water, the preservation of wetlands, the infiltration of invasive species of fish, and global warming. Like water supplies, water quality is often influenced by outside forces. Mercury, for instance, comes primarily from airborne coal and materials-processing emissions. But Minnesota-generated emissions account for only about 10 percent of the mercury in the state, says Jeff Jeremaison of Gustavus Adolphus College. Similarly, invasive species of current concern in Minnesota--specifically, zebra mussels, Eurasian milfoil, the spiny water flea, and Asian carp--are by definition not native to the state. Doug Jensen, invasive species coordinator at Minnesota Sea Grant, says that there are about a dozen recent invasive species found in the Great Lakes, and they have the potential to cause millions of dollars worth of damage. According to Swackhamer, in recent years invasive species have been limited by increased ballast control measures on Great Lakes ships. "Hopefully, we have finally begun to close the barn door," she says. "There may be a horse or two left." Likewise, she says, the Great Lakes in general are doing better than they were 10 or 20 years ago, but are no longer improving at as great a rate. Toxic chemicals are still present at sublethal levels, enough to cause birth defects in bald eagles. Then there is global warming, the subtle yet insidious phenomenon that is finally starting to make people sweat. The naturally occurring greenhouse effect, which keeps heat in our atmosphere, is being exacerbated by an increased concentration of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Already, the Earth's average temperature has increased by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1860s, glaciers are receding, and sea surface temperatures are rising. One scientist projects that in Minnesota, temperatures will continue to climb--by as much as 5-10 degrees during the winter and 5-15 degrees in the summer--over the next century. In addition, winters will be shorter, and there will be more extreme rainfall events and a shorter duration of ice cover. This could result in reduced summer water levels and groundwater recharge levels, declining lake levels (including Lake Superior), an increased probability of flooding, and a shift in aquatic ecosystems.

"We still have a lot to do," says Governor Pawlenty. "The stress of the population is going to be increasing the strain on resources. Just treading water--no pun intended--is not going to cut it."

Ultimately, some of our water woes will require global solutions with a heavy dose of local input. And lest these litanies of statistics sound like too much doom and gloom to overcome, it's refreshing to know that people all over the world are diving in to help. In western India, johads, or earthen dams, are being built by the thousands by local villagers to trap monsoon rains for drinking water and irrigation. Closer to home, cities across America are conserving water by repairing infrastructure and updating plumbing fixtures in homes. And sometimes collaborations and solutions cross cultures. The U's Water Resources Center is part of a unique collaboration--the Mekong-Mississippi Partnership--whose fundamental goal is to help Mekong River Basin countries make better decisions on river development based on lessons learned along the Mississippi.