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Tuesday Is Earth Day: The Drops of Life

Editorial

Next year, the United Nations will release its assessment of global access to water in a report titled "Water in a Changing World." Here's an early headline: Forget oil. In part, because of global warming, future wars will be fought over water.

We tend to dismiss such talk in the Pacific Northwest; we take water for granted. For now.

"I think we, in the North, have this myth of abundance, that we just can't imagine running out of water," Canadian author Maude Barlow recently said on the webcast TV program, "OnPoint." "We all learned back there somewhere in school that we couldn't run out. So there's just this notion that, well, it's gone somewhere. I used it, but it comes back into the cycle. So it just hasn't permeated. But I think that it's more important than the energy crisis. Nobody is going to die from a lack of energy. It might slow the economy down incredibly. It may change our way of life, but you're not going to die. And even climate change is going to be slow compared to the onslaught of water now. More children die every day already, in our world, of dirty water than HIV/AIDS, car accidents, war, and malaria put together. It's the No. 1 killer. There are 2 million children a year that are dying of waterborne disease."

Earth Day includes measuring risk -- and no threat is greater to humanity than catastrophic water shortages.

Just last year, for example, the Philippines narrowly avoided a catastrophe when summer rains did not arrive and, without a wet season, reservoir levels dropped to dangerous levels. The Angat Dam -- a primary water source for the capital city of Manila and its more than 10 million people -- dropped to unsustainable levels. The threat receded this year because of a mild La Niña phenomenon, but a major urban area nearly ran dry.

That could be the fate for American cities. Aquifers and water tables are dropping throughout the nation. Georgia and Florida have been under severe water restrictions. And Barlow says, even now, "Florida is pumping its groundwater so fast that it's actually swallowing up houses and sometimes even shopping malls."

Nevada's Lake Mead and Arizona's Lake Powell -- the water source for much of the American Southwest -- could be unusable by as soon as 2021, according to a research by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC-San Diego. The report suggests that natural forces such as evaporation combined with climate change are causing a net deficit of nearly 1 million-acre feet per year.

It's past time to rethink how we use every drop.

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