Friday, July 24, 2009

To Be or Not

As I was walking to the bus stop this morning and passing through a park area near our house, I could smell the newness of the plants and soil refreshed by last night's heavy rains in the Washington, DC area. It had been very dry in the area recently before yesterday's rains. The ground was hard and parched. Many plants - grasses, shrubs and trees - were starting to reach their wilting points. And the typical urban response of turning on the sprinklers at night was not putting a dent into an emerging water deficit. Yesterday's half-inch, plus, rainfall will help.

We are fortunate in the eastern states to have abundant water. So, I'm not too concerned of the prospects of a long-term drought in the DC area. And I know elsewhere in the Northeast and Midwest, fresh water supplies are fortunately very abundant. Pennsylvania, my home state, has more stream miles than any other state besides Alaska. The Great Lakes hold about one-fifth of the world's fresh water supply. And the Mississippi River discharges roughly somewhere between 200 and 700 thousand cubic feet of fresh water each second.

The abundance of water that we enjoy is not matched everywhere. Dozens of countries obtain most of their water from sources outside their own borders. Water withdrawals from rivers bordering multiple jurisdictions are contentious (i.e., various Indian states, U.S. and Mexico, the Middle East). And as glaciers continue to melt worldwide, those countries and regions dependent on glacial melt (China and India) and snowpack melt (Western U.S.) for freshwater supplies are likely to see less reliable or diminishing supplies. Three news reports from just this past week highlight a growing incidence of water shortages worldwide, in places like the U.S. Southwest, Middle East and India.

Some who take note of these growing trends and who have abundant water resources available within their regions have taken the initiative to protect those water supplies from outside exploitation. A prime, recent example would be the governors from the eight Great Lakes states. On October 3, 2008 President Bush signed a joint resolution of Congress consenting to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact (The U.S. and Canadian governments have entered into a similar agreement.). The signature marked the final step in a Compact negotiation and approval process reaching back into the 1980s, and enabling the protection of Great Lakes water for future generations to enjoy and utilize-individuals, businesses, industries. And the ongoing protection of the lakes' waters will help secure the rich natural heritage of fish, birds, mammals and other wildlife for which the Great Lakes region is renowned.

Not only are the volumes of Great Lakes water being protected, but the quality of those waters is being maintained and restored through the collective, organized and concerted efforts of the Great Lakes government, business, conservation and grassroots communities. For more than a century now, individuals, governmental bodies, companies, agencies and organizations have joined together to protect and revitalize the international treasure that is the Great Lakes. The results of those collective efforts can be most recently seen in the $400-plus billion Great Lakes restoration appropriation making it way presently through the U.S. House and Senate.

The Mississippi River Basin, like the Great Lakes, is an internationally renowned and treasured natural resource. And like the Great Lakes, people in the region and around the country care for and value the waters of the Mississippi River. But the waters of the basin are not protected from those who might want to export them for outside use. There is no "Mississippi River Water Resources Compact." And no concerted effort to protect and restore the quality of the River waters from the source to the Gulf of Mexico exists. None to the scale and degree of cooperation so evident in the Great Lakes basin. None remotely as effective as the collaborative that has succeeded in those lakes to the north and east.

That model for success is there for all to see, draw from and apply toward the effective protection and restoration of great water bodies world wide; for the protection and restoration of the Mississippi basin waters.

As the world's population booms; as demands for fresh, clean water soar; and as available supplies of that resource dwindle, those of us with abundant fresh water within our communities can choose to assure its presence for our and future generations. Or not. We can choose to use the models of connection, engagement, cooperation and collaboration - models like that employed to such great success in the Great Lakes. Or not.

The choice is ours to make. And the time to make the choice is now. Because in the end, without enough fresh water, the question will no longer be whether to cooperate or not. It will be whether to be . . . or not. - Mark Gorman

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