The Clean Water Act Addresses Health Issues

By Isabelle Bienen, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)
All photos © Alison M. Jones unless otherwise noted

Isabelle Bienen is Northwestern University junior studying Social & Environmental Policy and Culture & Legal Studies. This is the 3rd of 5 blogs Isabelle wrote as a NWNL Summer Intern on the U.S. Clean Water Act [CWA]. Her 1st two CWA blogs: CWA Beginnings -Mississippi River Basin and CWA Beginnings – Columbia and Raritan River Basins.

Jones_170617_NE_5169.jpgSign in Missouri River Basin, Nebraska

This blog in our series on the Clean Water Act [CWA] focuses on health threats of water pollution on urban, rural, indigenous, marine, flora and fauna communities. Beyond toxicity issues mentioned in the series’ earlier blogs, prevalent and serious health threats described below go further in underlining the need for the CWA.

Urban Health Threatened

Human health is threatened by polluted drinking water and dirty sanitation facilities, of which there are many more in urban than in rural environments. Unfortunately, urban environments can also include overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, unsafe drinking water and more health-related issues. In the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, the spread of disease through water was especially prevalent in urban environments, notably in cholera breakouts. During this time, scientists realized that just because water might look and smell clean, that did not mean that it was safe to drink.

Author Robert D. Morris states in his book, The Blue Death (2009), that water spreads infectious diseases through contact with contaminated fecal matter and other bacteria. Regarding urban cholera breakouts, Morris claims, “The health department staff had initially believed that the outbreak had attacked a few hundred people. As the outbreak wore on, they began to think that it might have hit as many as a thousand. No one fully grasped the power of water to spread disease” (Morris 214)1. This highlights the extent to which disease can spread via water in an urban environment, especially in major cities such as New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland which do not filter their drinking water. These cities rely on protection by their watersheds natural resources and some chemical disinfectants to ensure that their drinking water remains purified.

Jones_140907_LA_0752-2.jpgMississippi River plant between New Orleans & Gulf of Mexico

An example of health threats in an urban area, discussed in the first blog of this series, is found in the stretch of Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans with a high number of petrochemical plants. Known as “Cancer Alley,” this region is seen as responsible for numerous reported cases of cancer. In 2002, the State of Louisiana reported the second most cancer-caused deaths in the United States.

At the opposite end of the Mississippi River from  “Cancer Alley,” a 2-year Minnesota study begun in 2015 by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency discovered urban development was causing increased levels of nitrate in the Upper Mississippi River. This study added 274 miles of the river to Minnesota’s list of  “impaired waters” that fail to meet even one water-quality standard.3  However, further upstream near the Lake Itasca headwaters of the Mississippi River, water quality was far less polluted and thus this landscape has remained far less changed.3 These studies support the need for adequate regulation of urban development and waters to protect city residents.

Rural Health Threatened

In rural environments, the causes of water pollution and extent of illness from contaminated drinking water differ from those in urban environments. Water quality in rural environments actually tends to be worse than in urban areas where drinking water is treated. It appears that rural mortality rates due to cancer are higher in rural areas.3

Jones_070627_WA_4800.jpgIrrigation water polluted by farm chemicals goes to Washington’s Columbia River

As well, water contamination from pesticides is more prevalent in rural environments. In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson addresses, “…the never-ending stream of chemicals of which pesticides are a part….”  She warned that, “Their presence casts a shadow that is no less ominous because it is formless and obscure, no less frightening because it is simply impossible to predict the effects of lifetime exposure to chemical and physical agents that are not part of the biological experience of man.4 Monitoring the amount of pesticides and other harmful toxins that enter water systems is critical due to the extent of unknown effects of toxic chemicals in water supplies have on human health.

Carson also states that if a human liver is affected by pesticides, “it is not only incapable of protecting us from poisons, but the whole wide range of its activities may also be interfered with.”4  This highlights the wide-ranging and uncertain consequences of pesticides on the human health system. It is clear that in rural communities, without treated water systems and with a high quantity of farm pesticides, unmonitored water pollution is detrimental to human health.

Health of Indigenous People Threatened

The health of North American native communities is especially at risk from polluted water since these cultures heavily rely on local water and natural foods gathered by hunting and fishing. Insufficient and low-quality water supplies are common in these communities. This causes fish and other aquatic life to die off or move to other locations, which decreases food supplies for indigenous people. Many tribes lack access to safe drinking water or water filtration systems due to their geographic location and their lower economic status. For instance, within Arizona’s Fort Apache Reservation, there is an increase in children experiencing diarrhea or stomach issues.7

Jones_121021_TX_5758.jpgSign warning of water contamination in Red River Basin, Texas

Increased effects of climate change also cause more intense rain patterns and flooding, with waste overflows bringing bacteria, viruses and algae into US water systems. This spread of toxins can deplete aquatic life, as well as infect those who drink from or swim in these waters.7 Adequate resources are needed to monitor the prevalent “nonpoint sources” of pollution in water systems of indigenous communities to ensure that their health does not continue to suffer.

Health of Marine Life Threatened

NWNL documentation of its US watersheds includes each one’s terminus – often a delta or estuary – which in most cases combine fresh and saline water. Frequently, the health of these terminal bodies of water is worsened by their river’s downstream flow of pollution. Thus, toxins delivered in fresh water impacts the health of marine life that flushes in and out of river estuaries, as well as the upstream riverine life.

Jones_090621_NJ_0979.jpgShore of a polluted area of the  Lower Raritan River, New Jersey

One of the main causes of death and relocation of marine life when toxic rivers meet an ocean, gulf or sea is hypoxic dead zones where oxygen levels are reduced. While there are various physical, chemical and biological factors that help create dead zones, a high amount of toxic nutrients is one of the main factors. When agricultural pollutants, especially nitrogen, phosphorus, and wastewater, enter bodies of water, algae grows to the point that it sinks and decomposes. That process of decomposition consumes the oxygen needed for other marine life in these bodies of water.  

Most typically, dead zones occur in bodies of water near heavy amounts of agriculture and industrial activity. The second largest dead zone in the United States is in the northern Gulf of Mexico, below the Mississippi Basin’s extensive “Grain Belt”.8 There are also dead zones in the Columbia River Basin Estuary in the Pacific Ocean, also downstream from large swaths of farm country.

A 2008 study revealed over 400 dead zones worldwide.8 However, dead zones can disappear if water pollution is heavily reduced or eliminated. This happened in 1990, following the fall of the Soviet Union when the cost of chemical fertilizers increased. Although it was an unintended consequence, a decrease in fertilizer applications shrank a large dead zone in the Black Sea.9

Aquatic Flora and Fauna Threatened

The health of native flora and fauna – terrestrial and aquatic – is at risk where there is increased water pollution. Relocations of fish populations are indicative of water quality. Lower populations of fish species provide evidence of higher levels of pollutant bacteria or decreased levels of oxygen in the area. One instance of aquatic life eliminated by water pollution has been the disappearance of oysters in the Hudson River and Raritan Bay.

By the 1920’s oysters and many other species had disappeared from the Hudson River due to environmental deterioration from 1890 on. Before that, water-filtering oysters were found in Ossining, New York, Newark Bay, Arthur Kill, Kill Van Kull, Jamaica Bay, Raritan Bay, and New Jersey shores of the Hudson.  By 1920 however, oyster populations had largely disappeared, overwhelmed by sewage pollution, harbor dredging and industrial activity that even oysters couldn’t filter or cleanse.

Jones_090515_NJ_4550.jpgSpillway for waste water runoff into the Raritan River, New Jersey

These factors created pockets of dead zones in the NY waters where Dissolved Oxygen levels had declined to a critical point of 0-2% saturation in the summer.10 In 1909 dissolved oxygen in the Hudson River was at 72%, but by 1935 it dropped to 40, and was often at zero in summer months.10 These drops clearly correspond to historical periods of increased sewage pollution.10 Although oysters are filter feeders, they too are finally affected by extreme levels of toxins and pollutants.

Indicators of Successful Water Clean-up

Typically, species like oysters that “filter feed” eventually leave areas of low-water quality.  Low amounts of filter-feeding species indicate low water quality.10 Recently, stewards for the Hudson River and Raritan Bay initiated the Billion Oyster Project to reintroduce the oysters.  (See earlier NWNL blog on Oysters Creating a Living Shoreline.) The success of their reintroduction of colonies of oyster spats is a clear indication that the quality of those urban waterways has significantly recovered from earlier extreme lows that hurt native flora, fish, and fauna populations.  The NY-NJ oyster story is a great example of the rewards of clean water recovery efforts.

Citations:  

  1. Morris, Robert D.  The Blue Death: The Intriguing Past and Present Danger of the Water you Drink, Harper, 2009.
  2. Pollution Issues, accessed 7/11/18, published 2006, IKB, link.
  3. Star Tribune, accessed 7/11/18, published 2017, IKB, link
  4. Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
  5. Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act, accessed 7/11/18, published 2015, IKB, link.
  6. US Environmental Protection Agency, accessed 6/20/18, published 2016, IKB, link
  7. National Ocean Service, accessed 6/20/18, published 2013, IKB link
  8. LaFasto,  Drew.  “Water Quality’s Effect on Flora and Fauna,” Atavist, accessed Summer 2018, link
  9. Biology Department of Brooklyn College, accessed 6/20/18, published 1982, IKB, link.
  10.  The Times Picayune, accessed 7/26/18, IKB, published 2018, link

Cape Buffalo, Bison and Water

By Bianca T. Esposito, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)

NWNL research intern Bianca T. Esposito is a senior at Syracuse University studying Biology and minoring in Economics. Her research this summer is on the intertwined relationships of biodiversity and our water resources. This is Bianca’s second blog on Biodiversity for NWNL. Read her first blog on wild Salmon here.

This blog compares how water impacts the health of sub-Sahara’s Cape buffalo populations to how North America’s bison impact the health of our water resources.  This investigation covers three of our NWNL case study watersheds: Africa’s Mara and Nile River Basins, and North America’s Mississippi River Basin.

The Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer) is found in Kenya’s Mara River Basin savanna and Uganda’s Nile River Basin plains. The bison (Bison bison) used to dominate the Mississippi River Basin’s Great Plains and are still there in scattered small populations. Both species are large, herbivorous mammals that primarily graze on tall-grass ecosystems. However, their habitats and connections to water differ significantly.

Africa’s Cape buffalo migrate seasonally in large herds on cyclical routes dependent on fluctuations in water availability. They move out of areas with limited resources and into areas where moisture and nutrients are available. Cape buffalo also migrate away from their habitat when water levels increase, since flooding restricts their foraging abilities. In these cases, Cape buffalo move to a drier habitat where, in turn, they may experience drought. Either way, when resources become low, their vulnerability becomes high.

Jones_090927_K_9062.jpgA lone Cape Buffalo bull in Kenya’s Mara Conservancy (© Alison M. Jones)

Africa’s famed Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem is located throughout northern Tanzania and extends into Kenya. Much of this region is situated within the Mara River Basin. In the Serengeti National Park, the migration pattern of the Cape buffalo, similar to that of the wildebeest-zebra migration, is dependent on the fluctuation of rainfall each year. Generally, this journey begins in April when Cape buffalo depart their southern plains habitat to head north. This movement is triggered by the onset of heavy rain that floods the plains, reducing the Cape buffalo’s ability to graze. By May the herd is in the northwest Serengeti, where the dry season lasts through July and proximity to the equator allows rainfall to be more evenly distributed, allowing greater opportunities for foraging. Then, in August, the late dry season hits, causing the herd to move further north. On their venture north, they cross the Mara River into Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. The Cape buffalo remain here enjoying green pastures until November, albeit subject to drought if there’s no rainfall. In December, usually the first rainfall comes which they sense as the onset of the rainy season. They then trek back into Tanzania’s southern plains for the wet season. From January to April, they graze there on plentiful, nutritious grasses.  

Syncerus-caffer-Masaai-Mara-Kenya.JPGHerd of Cape buffalo in Kenya’s Mara Conservancy (Creative Commons)

When Cape buffalo inhabit dry lands their reproductive success (also referred to as “recruitment ability”) decreases; but their body condition improves due to what seems to be a fat-storing mechanism that anticipates limited future resources. One benefit of Cape buffalo having to cope with drought is that when food supplies are reduced, they forage through peat layers in dried-up underground channels, releasing nutrients otherwise trapped below ground.

A current major concern for this species is that anthropogenic factors (human activity) causing climate change are expected to increase both water levels and drought, which could push the Cape buffalo outside of their protected areas. In 2017, the Serengeti experienced a drought that lasted over a year causing declines in populations of many species, including Cape buffalo. Drought also causes herds of cattle, goats and sheep outside to enter protected lands to graze, creating a competition for resources between wildlife, livestock and humans in both the Maasai Mara National Reserve and Serengeti National Park. If the Mara River – the only major river in the area – dries up, there would be few resources for ungulates. As well, when droughts end, there is always potential for flash-floods which deter herds from crossing rivers to find greener pastures.

Jones_120107_K_0640.jpgA lone Cape Buffalo bull in Kenya (© Alison M. Jones)

When water is scarce in the Serengeti, a decline of Cape buffalo leads to increased lion mortality. When Cape buffalo lack sufficient food due to drought, they become weak and must travel increased distances to quench their thirst. This leaves the herd fatigued, causing some members to fall behind and thus become more vulnerable to predation. Also, after a drought and the rains begin, Babesia-carrying ticks infect Cape buffalo. Infected buffalo become weak or die, allowing easy predation by lions. Unfortunately, their carcasses transfer babesiosis disease to lions. Alone, this disease is not fatal to the lion. However, babesiosis coupled with canine distemper virus (CDV) is lethal.

Babesiosis from Cape buffalo has caused two major declines in Serengeti lion populations. In 1994, a third of the lion population was lost due to this combination, killing over 1,000 lions.

Lions_taking_down_cape_buffalo.jpgLions taking down a Cape buffalo (Creative Commons)

On a smaller scale, in 2001 the Ngorongoro Crater lion population also lost about 100 lions due to this synchronization of disease. Craig Packer, a University of Minnesota biologist, stated, “Should drought occur in the future at the same time as lions are exposed to masses of Babesia-carrying ticks—and there is a synchronous CDV epidemic–lions will once again suffer very high mortality.” He also warns that extreme weather due to climate change puts species at greater risk to diseases not considered a major threat before.  Fortunately, mud-wallowing that Cape buffalo use to cool down their bodies is also an effective shield against infiltrating bugs and ticks once the mud dries.

Overall, Cape buffalo rely heavily on rainfall patterns; but climate change is disrupting traditional migratory patterns by raising water levels or causing drought. Both extremes present negative impacts to the Mara River Basin and the biodiversity that inhabits it.  

North America’s bison – a bovine counterpart to African Cape buffalo – historically occupied The Great Plains west of the Mississippi River. Early settlers recorded 10 to 60 million bison openly roaming the fields. Like Cape buffalo, bison also migrate in search of food. Their migration paths used to cover vast territory, thus paving the way for many current roads and railroads. A major threat to  bison – as with most species – has been habitat loss due to human infringement, as well as well-documented, extensive hunting by new settlers heading west. By 1889, only approximately 1,000 bison remained in North America.

Jones_121024_TX_6814.jpgFarmed bison in Texas (© Alison M. Jones)

Due to recent conservation efforts, bison populations are rising; however, not to past numbers. Currently, they are found only in National Parks, refuges and farms. As of 2017, approximately 31,000 pure wild bison remain in 68 conservation herds. “Pure wild bison” are those not bred with cattle for domestication. However, only approximately 18,000 of the remaining population “function” as wild bison. This count excludes very small bison herds used for research, education and public viewing – or bison held in captivity waiting to be culled by protected areas such as Yellowstone National Park due to required limits.

Bison inhabiting the Mississippi River Basin, which drains throughout the Great Plains, have many positive impacts on its waterways and tributaries. Yellowstone Park, where the Yellowstone River drains into the Missouri-Mississippi River system, is the only place in North America where bison continue to freely roam as they used to. In Yellowstone, bison occupy the central and northern area of the park where they migrate by elevation, seasonally choosing food according to abundance, rather than quality. In the winter, they select lower elevations near thermal hot springs or rivers where there is less snow accumulation.

Bison positively affect water supplies when they wallow and paw at the ground. This results in intense soil compaction that creates soil depressions in grasslands. After many years, this soil depression tends to erode since bison don’t like to wallow on previously-created depressions. However, during the rainy season, wetland plants and vegetation grow in these wallows created by bison dust-bathing and trampling. For a short time many species enjoy these ephemeral pool habitats before they disappear in droughts or floods. Meanwhile bison wallows increase species diversity that would otherwise not be present in grasslands.

A_bison_wallow_is_a_shallow_depression_in_the_soil.jpgBison rolling around in a dry wallow (Creative Commons)

Bison have other positive impacts on water. As they trample through streams, they widen available habitat and alter water quality. Even after a bison dies, it can still contribute to the health of its ecosystem. Their carcasses are a nutritious food source for wolves, coyotes and crows. Studies suggest that bison carcasses take roughly seven years to fully decompose, during which time their remains release nutrients such as phosphorus and carbon into rivers. These nutrients sustain microbes, insects, fish and large scavengers of the area. A bison carcass can also provide sustenance for local fish since maggots, green algae and bacteria grow over their bones during decomposition. Bison carcasses also deposit nutrients into the soil which fertilizes plant regrowth.

Bison can negatively affect water resources, by decreasing native plant diversity due to overgrazing. However, they graze on only grass, which allows forbs (non-woody flowering plants) to flourish, adding biodiversity in grasslands. As well, when bison urinate, they deposit nitrogen into the soil, a key nutrient for grass growth and survival. Their urine also becomes a selectable marker allowing them to return to formerly-grazed pastures during the season. This constant reselection of grassland, allows combustion in ignored, non-grazed pastures, since fire tends to occur in tall grass with nitrogen loss. After fires, the bison are attracted to newly-burned watersheds because of C4-dominated grass which grows in dry environments. Bison select C4-dominated grassy areas because they have low plant diversity, unlike less-frequently burned sites where forbs are abundant. Thus, bison’s pasture preferences allow for more biodiversity, creating healthier watersheds.  

Jones_121024_TX_7314.jpgMural near of Native Americans on bison near Masterson, Texas (© Alison M. Jones)

Each of these two similar bovine species have significant, but different, relationships to water availability and quality within their river basins.  The African Cape buffalo migration is guided by water fluctuations. This could impact their future since anthropogenically-caused climate change could incur longer and more frequent droughts and increased flood-water levels to an extent that would drive Cape buffalo out of their protected habitats. In contrast, North American bison herds improve the health of waterways in the Mississippi River Basin in several ways. Nutrients from their decomposing carcasses add to the health of tributary streams and rivers; and their mud wallows support greater diversity of wetland and grassland flora.

Whether we look at watersheds in Africa or North America, it is clear that it is as important to study how biodiversity is affected by water availability, as how watershed water quality and quantity affects its biodiversity. Any changes to these ecosystems due to climate change could drastically affect the biodiversity and health of these watersheds.

Bibliography:

Briske, David. Springer Series on Environmental Management, accessed June 19, 2018, via link.
van Wyk, Pieter. MalaMala Game Reserve Blog, accessed on June 19, 2018, via link.
Bennitt, Emily. Journal of Mammalogy, accessed on June 19, 2018, via link.
Wilcox, Bradford. Springer Series on Environmental Management, accessed June 19, 2018, via link.
Chardonnet, Philippe. Gnusletter, accessed on June 19, 2018, via link.
Defenders of Wildlife, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
Coppedge, Bryan R.
The American Midland Naturalist, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
Polley, H. Wayne.
The Southwestern Naturalist, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
Crow, Diana.
Smithsonian, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
Knapp, Alan K.
American Institute of Biological Sciences, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
North Arizona University, accessed on June 25, 2018, via link.Dybas, Cheryl Lyn.
BioScience, accessed on June 25, 2018, via link.
Water Resources and Energy Management (WREM) International Inc., accessed on June 25, 2018, via link.
Defenders of Wildlife, accessed on June 26, 2018, via link.
Yellowstone National Park, accessed on June 26, 2018, via link.
Huffman, Brent. Ultimate Ungulate, accessed on June 26, 2018, via link.
Department of Primary Industries, accessed on July 9, 2018, via link.
Popescu, Adam. New Scientist, accessed on July 9, 2018, via link.
Hoagland, Mahlon B. Exploring the Way Life Works: The Science of Biology, accessed on July 9, 2018E, via link.
White, PJ. Yellowstone Association, accessed on July 9, 2018, via link.

Agua es Vida

By Connie Bransilver for NWNL
(Edited by Alison Jones, NWNL Director)

Photographs by Connie Bransilver

Connie is a Founding Senior Fellow at International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP, NWNL’s Fiscal Sponsor). She  recently returned to her native New Mexico from Naples, FL. Connie has been a professional nature photographer for 26 years, working in all seven continents. Her major work has been with rare lemurs in Madagascar, and human-wildlife interactions throughout Indonesia. See more of her work on her website.

IMG_6579 Rio Grande north of Montano.jpgRio Grande north of Montano, New Mexico

Throughout the middle Rio Grande Basin acequias (ditches) and the public paths on either side, connect neighbors, knit communities, irrigate agricultural fields in season, and are now caught in a Gordian Knot of rights to scarce water. Their cultural and social significance for traditional Hispanic and tribal communities are deep. But after the mid 1800s, when the United States acquired the southwest from Mexico, the value of water, always scarce, ran counter to those values.

Understanding the centrality of the acequias in traditional agrarian life along the Rio Grande is understanding the dependence of Native American, Spanish and eventually, even Anglo lives in honoring, beneficially using, and exploiting the waters. Traditionally, acequias provided water for all uses, along with communal obligations for their care and maintenance. They endure because of “querencia,” meaning attachment to place and respect for the land, nature and the miraculous water that sustains body, mind and spirit. The questions of who, if anyone, owns the rights to what water usage has split villages and cultures, and clogged courtrooms for hundreds of years.

IMG_4314 Acequia path dogwalker.jpgAcequia path dog-walker 

Rio Grande headwaters lie in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. Passing through New Mexico the Rio Grande trickles along 1,885 miles into the Gulf of Mexico, creating the Texas-Mexico border and making the Rio Grande the fourth longest river system in North America. Agua es Vida; so custody battles between Colorado, California, the Navajo Nation, pueblos along the river, burgeoning cities (like Albuquerque), and dams (like Elephant Butte holding water for Texas and Mexico) result in traditions butting against new laws and regulations, and fierce court battles without clear resolution.  Demands grow as water becomes increasingly scarce.

Once alive and sacred, the Rio Grande formed the centerpiece of the Puebloan world. Wide, muddy, meandering, shifting braids of water, sometimes drying to a trickle, other times widening into a broad swamp (or cienega), taking homes and fields hostage, are now harnessed by technology, governed by an elaborate web of laws and uses for economic growth.  Therein lies the essential conflict: competing claims challenging ownership of the flow.

IMG_4358 Weir open for flow.jpgWeir open for flow

The first Spaniards reached the middle Rio Grande around 1541, but did not find the gold they sought. Instead they found, and used, the natives who suffered at their hands until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. By 1692 Spain had sent armed soldiers, settlers (including, we now know, many Jewish “conversos” fleeing the Inquisition) and priests to tame the Indians.  With Juan de Oñate and his men came the systems of acequias and land rights via massive land grants from the King and Queen of Spain to secure settlement. Foreign to the native populations living along the river, this Iberian mastery of controlling and distributing water was rooted in the Moorish occupation of Iberia, and also in ancient Rome and the Middle East. Native Americans had instead lived with the rhythms of the river, never aiming to master it. Those who survived, and whose pueblos remained viable, soon adopted the network of acequias to maintain their agriculture, still based on the golden triangle of corn, beans and squash that provide a nearly complete human diet while simultaneously regenerating the soil.  Spanish recipients of huge land grants applied their own brand of subsistence agriculture. Both communities honored the land and the water.

IMG_4359 Acequia, paths and adobe home.jpgAcequia, paths and adobe home

Spain yielded to Mexico, then Mexico lost this land to the United States in 1847 in the Mexican-American War.  Then followed a wave of Anglos arriving from the East who sought fortune. They also brought a profound ignorance of the indigenous, irrigation-based culture that had sustained this fragile land for centuries.

Now the mighty Rio Grande’s life-giving waters are shrinking. Warmer winters yield less moisture, increasingly delivered as rain rather than snow in the headwaters. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that the San Juan Mountains are “at the bull’s eye of the future drought region.”1 While Anglo technocrats consider the acequias as anachronisms, the acequias have recently joined into a state-wide umbrella organization to push back against unrestricted transfers of water rights.  In this part of the world, water rights, or the right to use water transfer separately from surface rights.

IMG_4323 Weir releasing irrigation water.jpgWeir releasing irrigation water 

And what of the competing needs for water? Increasingly the courts are looking at Queen Isabella’s 1492 will, forming the basis of Pueblo, Spanish and Mexican claims to water. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially ended the war with Mexico, acquired Nuevo Mexico and other lands in the West, and honored existing claims to water that were in place at the time. Those rights extend back to the 1492 will. Thus the claims to precious water in the Middle Rio Grande — between Cochiti Dam to the north and Elephant Butte Dam to the south, where half the state’s population resides — may ultimately be defined by that 500-year-old Spanish document.

In the meantime, my village, Los Ranchos, and all the adjacent villages along the Middle Rio Grande, share the pathways and rural culture of the web of acequias. Neighbors greet neighbors and work together to maintain the water flow – Hispanics, Anglos, Indians and all the mixtures among them. Questions about how the river can meet all the demands of its people might even be turned around. Maybe current residents value the agricultural ambiance and natural environment supported by the water and the acequia systems more than continued growth. A broader conversation on the value of water might begin now.

IMG_6578 Rio Grande north of Montano from balloon.jpgRio Grande north of Montano from balloon

Footnotes

 

  1. Reining in the Rio Grande – People, Land and Water, Fred M Phillips, G. Emlen Hall, Mary E. Black. University of New Mexico Press, 2011.

Other Sources

Iberian Origins of New Mexico’s Community Acequias, Jose A. Rivera, University of New Mexico and Thomas F. Glick, Boston University. NewMexicoHistory.org.
Prior-appropriation water rights,” Wikipedia.
“New Mexico files counterclaim in water suit: Texas accused of mismanaging water, hurting farmers in NM,” Michael Coleman, Albuquerque Journal Washington Bureau, Albuquerque Journal, May 24, 2018.

 

Buzz Numbers

By NWNL Director, Alison Jones

As NWNL plans its website redo (to launch this fall), we envision “Buzz Numbers” on the home page.  What?  Well, “Buzz Numbers,” are our Project Manager Sarah’s take-off on “buzz words.”  Just another great tool to quickly project complex concepts.  So, while in that mode, here’s a NWNL BLOG with 0 references to specific watersheds and just 1 URL link. The Buzz Numbers below refer to values of, or impacts on, all rivers and streams in the Americas or East Africa, the 2 regions where NWNL case-study watersheds are located.

Jones_160319_CA_1544.jpgDrought in California, 2016

BUZZ NUMBERS for The Americas

  • 13%: The Americas’ share of world’s human population
  • >50%: Share of Americans with a water security problem
  • 50%: Decrease in renewable freshwater available per person since 1960s
  • 200-300%: Increase in human ecological footprint since 1960s
  • >95%: Tall grass prairies lost to human activity since pre-European settlement
  • >50%: US wetlands lost (90% in agricultural regions) since European settlement
  • 15–60%: American drylands habitat lost between 2000 and 2009
  • 5 million hectares [3.7 million acres]: Great Plains grassland lost from 2014 to 2015
  • $24.3 trillion: terrestrial nature’s annual economic contribution (=GDP)
    Jones_080530_WY_1866.jpgGrey Wolf in Yellowstone National Park, 2008

Projections for 2050 in the Americas

  • 20%: expected population increase (to 1.2 billion) by 2050
  • +/-100%: expected growth in GDP by 2050, driving biodiversity loss if ‘business as usual’ continues
  • 40%: loss of biodiversity expected by 2050 if climate change continues
———-
Jones_040828_ET_0050.jpgVillagers in Lalibela, Ethiopia with erosion in foreground, 2004

BUZZ NUMBER Trends / Data for Africa

  • +/- 500,000: km2 [123 million acres] degraded by deforestation, unsustainable agriculture, overgrazing, uncontrolled mining activities, invasive alien species and climate change – causing soil erosion, salinization, pollution, and loss of vegetation or soil fertility
  • +/- 62%: rural population using wild nature for survival (the most of any continent)
  • +/- 2 million km2 [494 million acres]: land designated as protected
  • 25%: Sub-Saharans suffering hunger and malnutrition (2011–2013) in the world’s most food-deficient region
Jones_130118_K_1688.jpgCommercial fisherman preparing to sell in Nairobi, 2013

Economic Values of Nature’s Contributions East Africans

  • $1.2 billion: annual inland fishery value added
  • $16,000: annual food production per km2 [247 acres
  • $12,000: annual forest carbon sequestration per km2 (247 acres])
  • $11,000: annual erosion control per km2 [247 acres]

All our Buzz Number stats come from the Appendix of an ISPBES Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services March 2018 Report, sponsored by UN

Jones_120125_K_5464.jpgWoman collecting water from spring in Mau Forest, Kenya, 2012

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Day Zero – A Water Warning

By Stephanie Sheng for No Water No Life (NWNL)
Edited by NWNL Director, Alison Jones

Stephanie Sheng is a passionate strategist for environmental and cultural conservation. Having worked in private and commercial sectors, she now uses her branding and communications expertise to drive behavior change that will help protect our natural resources. Inspired by conservation photographers, The Part We Play is her current project.  Her goal is to find how best to engage people and encourage them to take action. 

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I was horrified when I first heard the news from South Africa of Cape Town’s water crisis and impending ‘Day Zero’ – the day their taps would run dry. Originally forecasted for April 16, then pushed out to May, the apocalyptic-sounding day has now successfully been pushed out to next year. Had Day Zero remained slated for April or May, Cape Town would have been the first major city to run out of water. Although postponed, the threat still remains, and thus restrictions on water usage to 13.2 gallons (50 liters) per day for residents and visitors. Water rationing and a newly-heightened awareness around water use is now the new, legally-enforced normal in Cape Town.

Two things struck me as I read about this situation. First, the seemingly unthinkable felt very close. My visit to Cape Town a few years ago reminded me of San Francisco, my home before New York. Suddenly I was reading that this seemingly-similar city was on the brink of having no water coming out of their taps. As that hit me, I considered what modern, urban life would be like when water is scarce.

ClimateChange-ColumbiaBC.jpgCape Town’s restriction of 13.2 gal (50 L) per day is miniscule in comparison to the 39.6 gal (150 L) per day used by the average UK consumer[1] and the 79.3 to 99 gal (300 to 375 L) per day used by the average US consumer.[2] Unsurprisingly, Cape Town had to undergo drastic changes. It is now illegal to wash a car or fill a swimming pool. Hotel televisions blare messages to guests to take short 90-second showers. Washroom taps are shut off in restaurants and bars. Signs around bathroom stalls say, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.” Hand sanitizer is now the normal method of hand cleaning.WASH-Tanzania.jpgShocked by the harsh realities of what water shortage could look like here at home, I was inspired to walk through my day comparing my water habits to the new realities being faced by those in the Cape Town facing a severe crisis. I wanted to discover opportunities where I could cut back, even though I consider myself on the more conscious end of the usage spectrum.

Here is a breakdown of my average water usage per day while living and working in NY, based on faucets spewing 2.6 gal (10 L) per minute[3], and a toilet flush using 2.3 gal (9L).[4]

  • Faucet use for brushing teeth and washing face for 4 min/day: 6 gal (40L)
  • Faucet use for dish washing and rinsing food for 7 min/day:5 gal (70L)
  • Toilet flushes, 4/day: 5 gal (36 L)
  • Drinking water: 4 gal (1.5 L)
  • Showering for 9 min/day — 8 gal (90 L)

My water usage totaled roughly 62.8 gal (237.5 L) per day. That is lower than the average American’s usage, but still more than four times the new water rations for Capetonians!

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Living in an urban city that isn’t facing an impending water shortage, it may be more difficult to control certain uses than others (e.g. not flushing the toilet at work). However, there are some simple, yet significant ways to lower our daily water use:

  • Turn off the faucet while you brush your teeth and wash your face.
  • Use the dishwasher instead of washing dishes by hand. Only run it when full.
  • Only run the laundry with full loads.
  • When showering, shut off the water while you soap up and shave. Put a time in your shower to remind you not to linger.
  • Recycle water when possible. If you need to wait for hot water from the faucet, capture the cold water and use it for pets, plants, hand washing clothes, and such.

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Water use discussed thus far includes obvious personal contributors to our water footprint. But the biggest contributor is actually our diet. Agriculture accounts for roughly 80% of the world’s freshwater consumption[5]. Different foods vary greatly in the amount of water consumed in their growth and production. Meat, especially from livestock with long life cycles, contains a high “virtural water” content per serving. For example, 792.5 gal (3,000 L) of water are required for a ⅓ lb. beef burger[6] – representing four times as much water as required for the same amount of chicken. That virtual water content ratio is even greater when red meat is compared to vegetables.

We don’t have to become vegetarians, but we can cut down on meat and choose meats other than beef and lamb. That change alone would save hundreds of thousands of gallons (or liters) consumed in a year, which is much greater than the 18,069.4 gal (68,400 L) I’d save by reducing my current water usage to that of a Capetonian. Consideration of virtual water content offers some food for thought!

Sources

[1] BBC News
[2] United States Geological Survey
[3] US Green Building Council: Water Reduction Use
[4] US Green Building Council: Water Reduction Use
[5] Food Matters Environment Reports
[6] National Geographic
All images/”hydrographics” are © Alison Jones, No Water No Life®.
For more “hydrographics” visit our
website.

NWNL “Pool of Books” 2017

NWNL has compiled a list of new and old favorite books about water issues and our case-study watersheds for your reference for gifts and for the New Year. Many of the authors and publishers are personal friends of NWNL. All of them are worth reading. The links provided below go to Amazon Smile, where a portion of all purchases go to an organization of the buyers choice. Please help support NWNL by selecting the International League of Conservation Photographers to donate to.

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Global:

Rainforest by Lewis Blackwell (2014)

Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity by Sandra Postel (2017)

Water from teNeues Publishing (2008)

North America:

The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest by Audrey Della Benedict & Joseph K. Gaydos (2015)

Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland by Miriam Horn (2016)

The Last Prairie: A Sandhills Journal by Stephen R. Jones (2006)

Yellowstone Migration by Joe Riis (2017)

Sage Spirit: The American West at a Crossroads by Dave Showalter (2015)

Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor by John Waldman (2013)

East Africa:

Serengeti Shall Not Die by Bernhard & Michael Grzimek (1973)

Turkana: Lenya’s Nomads of the Jade Sea by Nigel Pavitt (1997)

To the Heart of the Nile: Lady Florence Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa by Pat Shipman (2004)

India:

A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka by Meera Subramanian (2015)

NWNL Photo Exhibit, ‘Following Rivers’ opens @ BIRE March 14th

The Hudson River rises in pristine forests and enters tidal waters under heavily-trafficked urban bridges.  
The Hudson River rises in pristine forests and enters tidal waters under heavily-trafficked urban bridges.

On the banks of our rivers we raise families, grow food, do laundry, fish, swim, celebrate and relax. “Following Rivers,” a new exhibit by conservation photographer and No Water No Life Founding Director Alison M. Jones, tells a visual story of people and the critical water issues they face.

Combining the power of photography and science, NWNL, has spent 8 years documenting river basins in North America and Africa. The exhibit encourages viewers to translate images into questions. What are the impacts of our daily actions? How can we best protect our life-giving rivers and estuaries? Should we reduce resource consumption, require stronger pollution controls, minimize resource extraction, or forgo fossil fuels and material luxuries? How can we approach water as an opportunity for unity and cooperation, rather than a source of conflict?

Downstream impacts of new dams worry elders in Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley.
Downstream impacts of new dams worry elders in Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley.

NWNL believes the nexus of science and art, intellectual and physical resources, and local knowledge can effectively spread awareness of Nature’s unique interdependence and vulnerability of our watersheds’ glaciers, forests, wetlands, plains, estuaries, tributaries. Without raising that awareness, there will be no action.

The exhibit will be on view from March 14 through October 3, 2015.
Join us for a free public reception on Saturday, March 14 from 5-7 pm with Artists talks on April 11 and July 11, 2015 at Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries, Clarkson University, 199 Main Street, Beacon, NY 12508 – (845) 838-1600. Gallery Hours: Tu-Th 9-5, Fri 9-1 Sat 12-6 (second Sat until 8)  Sun/Mon-Closed

Learn More about No Water No Life.

This event is part of a global campaign, celebrating International Day of Actions for Rivers.

Rivers in Africa and N America support migrations, but are also clogged by invasive species.
Rivers in Africa and N America support migrations, but are also clogged by invasive species.