Today (March 22) is World Water Day, an appropriate day to reflect on the importance of water in our lives — and the role that water has played in catalyzing environmental progress.
And for you to take action on that understanding (more on that below).
Human civilization arose on the banks of the Nile, Tigris and Yangtze rivers. Water is of course essential to our survival: Our bodies are mostly water, and we can persist only a few days without it. And in addition to being in our drinking glasses and showers, water, somewhat invisibly, also flows through our food, energy, clothing and nearly everything else we use.
Water has not been invisible in the realm of environmental progress. Review the history of conservation — its seminal moments and figures — and one can truly say that a river runs through that history:
- Perhaps the most famous environmental battle in U.S. history was John Muir’s (ultimately unsuccessful) fight to save Hetch Hetchy Valley, in Yosemite National Park, from San Francisco’s water-supply reservoir. The echoes of that epic conflict — and its questions of what to save, what to use — still reverberate today.
- The environmental career of another conservation giant, David Brower, was launched by the successful fight to stop a dam in Dinosaur National Monument.
- Often hailed as the first environmental law decision, in 1891 a court ordered miners in California’s Sierra Nevada to stop dumping tons of sediment into rivers.
- Seven decades later, the era of advancing environmental protection through the courts commenced in earnest with a 1965 decision to protect the environmental and aesthetic values of the Hudson River Valley from a hydroelectric project.
- Four years after that decision, in 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, catalyzing the Clean Water Act and other laws that now form the regulatory foundation of environmental protection in the United States.
Today, as societies grapple with the great challenges of both minimizing and adapting to climate change, it is becoming increasingly clear that many of the dangers from climate change — and thus the adaptation opportunities — concern water. Faced with sea-level rise and increased risk of both droughts and floods, the world is learning that climate change in many ways means water change.
As these new threats intertwine with yesterday’s ongoing threats — pollution, overharvest, sprawling development — scientists are desperately trying to quantify and communicate the value to society that ecosystems provide.
Under the concept of “ecosystem services,” water again emerges as centrally important. The most valuable ecosystem types in the world include lakes, rivers and systems — such as floodplains and estuaries — that depend on seasonal flows of freshwater from rivers.
The incredible benefits that healthy freshwater ecosystems can provide are demonstrated by the 70 million people who are fed by the Mekong River’s floodplain fishery and the $4.5 billion annual value of fisheries in the Great Lakes. The public knows the value of water, as protecting water supplies consistently ranks as the highest priority in public-opinion polls about the environment.
Despite its central importance, an enormous amount of work remains to ensure that freshwater ecosystems and the services they support — drinking water, fisheries — are healthy and sustainable for future generations.
In the United States, much of the progress in protecting water came only after we hit rock bottom: rivers catching fire, dead lakes, and tens of thousands of dams fragmenting nearly every major river.
In the developed world, the challenge is to “re-engineer” our water-management systems so that they can continue to provide benefits such as water supply and hydropower while also supporting the range of values provided by healthy ecosystems.
Meanwhile, the developing world stands at a crossroads: One path leads to burning and depleted rivers and ubiquitous dams, while the other avoids those devastating consequences through innovative approaches to development.
The Nature Conservancy is working to advance both re-engineering and the pursuit of new approaches to water development. The Conservancy now has hundreds of staff working on freshwater conservation, and we’ve invested in over 600 water projects worldwide. Some examples of this work:
- Alongside a range of partners, the Conservancy has removed old dams, reconnected rivers to their floodplains, and worked with the Corps of Engineers to change how they operate some of their dams to restore river ecosystems downstream.
- Taking this re-engineering to the next level, the Conservancy is part of a coalition that forged a new design for the Penobscot River in Maine: By removing some hydropower dams and changing operations on others, the Penobscot will once again support thriving populations of migratory fish — such as Atlantic salmon and shad — even as total hydropower production from the river will increase slightly.
- The Conservancy is now crafting the next-generation tools and policies to advance freshwater conservation at global scales. We are developing new scientific and policy approaches to protect healthy rivers, advocating methods to reduce the impacts of hydropower development, and building a new framework for measuring the water sustainability of corporations and other large water users.
The urgency of this challenge is underscored by two statistics: nearly 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, even as the world’s freshwater ecosystems — and the species and services they support — are degraded and endangered to a greater extent than any other ecosystem type.
What can you do? This World Water Day, take a minute to think about water and its importance:
- Do you know where your water comes from?
- If so, do you know how sustainable your water supply is, both in terms of long-term availability and its impacts on ecosystems?
And then try your hand at conserving water with these tips. While some of the steps may seem small, consider that when the Los Angeles region was confronted with a reduction in water supplies — when a judge decreed the city couldn’t further deplete Mono Lake — its citizens embarked on a range of water-saving measures. Today, Mono Lake is still a lake and Los Angeles uses about the same amount of water it did in 1975, even though a million more people live there.
(Image: Mono Lake. Credit: Jeff Opperman/TNC.)