Water, Water Everywhere—But How Pure Is It?
WATER makes up 70 percent of the earth’s surface. It might seem that surely here is an inexhaustible supply beyond serious damage.
But keep in mind that only 3 percent is fresh water. Of this, less than 1 percent is available to man for drinking, cooking, bathing, irrigation and other uses. The remaining waters are locked up in salty oceans, in ice packs, or in underground deposits.
What is the condition of earth’s vital supply of fresh water? Have you taken a close look at the rivers or lakes near your home lately? What you see may shock you.
What Is Happening to the Supply?
Estimates are that each day about 175,000,000,000 gallons of sewage and waste pour into the waterways of the United States. More than 50 percent receives only “primary” treatment, which does not remove most pollutants.
Dr. Jack Gregman of the Department of the Interior says: “Just about every stream in this country is polluted to some degree. Some now are beyond their capacity to handle waste.” In July 1969, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River became so loaded with oil and debris that it actually caught fire, damaging two bridges!
Rivers in other industrial countries are in a condition similar to those in America. Perhaps you have a picture in your mind from travel posters of the beautiful Rhine River in Europe. Today, along much of its length, the Rhine is acknowledged to be not much better than an open sewer. Der Spiegel says of the pollutants being poured into it: “If all of these substances were to be transported by rail then you would need more than 3,000 boxcars”—each day!
Remarkable Ability to Purify
Man’s use of streams as a sort of sink into which to pour waste is not new. Until fairly recently this created no great problem. Flowing water has amazing ability to purify itself.
When organic waste matter is dumped into a river, the motion of the water breaks up and dilutes much of the sewage. Then the river ‘digests’ the remaining particles by oxidation and by water bacteria that consume organic wastes, changing them into harmless, odorless compounds. Even the waters of a creek that show strong pollution near a small town may be completely clean by the time they get just a few miles downstream.
Today, however, more and more of the earth’s streams are suffering from ‘indigestion,’ becoming murky, scummy and foul-smelling. Why? They are being severely overloaded, taxed beyond their normal ability to purify themselves.
Appearances Can Be Deceiving
As with the air, you cannot always judge the purity of a body of water just by how it looks. That river or lake near you may look fairly clear, even blue. Yet it may be ‘dying.’ How so?
This is because of what is known as “eutrophication.” This simply means being “overburdened with nutrients.” Here is what happens.
Farmers today use tons of chemical fertilizers, rich in nitrates. Much of these eventually drains off into streams. Housewives use modern detergents, strong in phosphates. These, too, wind up in rivers and lakes. Then what?
This overdose of nutrients feeds an explosive growth of algae and other small water plants. When the algae multiply, the sunlight does not penetrate the water as well. Deeper-lying algae die off. The abundant decaying matter now uses up more and more of the oxygen in the water. Fish sicken and die. In time the lake or river becomes virtually lifeless.
Lake Erie is an example of this suffocation. Worthwhile fish, swimming and clean water have all but disappeared. And the Providence Sunday Journal states: “This process of ‘eutrophication’ has overtaken at least 40 [major] lakes in Europe and the United States.”
“Well, there’s always Switzerland,” you may say, “where one can still find lakes in beauty and health, untouched by man’s carelessness.” True, the lakes there still look blue and beautiful to most people. But the Swiss are seeing them change, slowly losing their crystalline purity. Lovely Lakes Zurich, Geneva and Neuchâtel are joining the ranks of earth’s ‘sick’ bodies of water, seriously affected by “eutrophication.” And a report from Germany says that Lake Constance “must be listed with the American Lake Erie, the Lago Maggiore [between Italy and Switzerland] and the Norwegian Oslo-Fjord as dying.”
Mankind’s Ultimate Garbage Dump
Most rivers and lakes eventually empty out into seas and oceans. One might feel that here, finally, is a water supply too vast to be in any real danger. In reality, earth’s oceans and seas are also being polluted rapidly, the ultimate garbage dump for mankind.
Last December, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization invited four hundred scientists from forty maritime nations to discuss this problem. Scientists there expressed alarm about the Mediterranean Sea. Not only is human waste dirtying beaches “from Tel Aviv to Trieste,” they said, but the sea’s self-cleansing power can no longer cope with the volume of pollution pouring into it. These scientists concluded: “The Mediterranean is rushing toward complete pollution.” The Baltic Sea is not much better off.
During 1970 explorer Thor Heyerdahl and his crew made a journey across the Atlantic Ocean in a papyrus boat. They were amazed at what they saw in mid-ocean. Huge areas were covered with oily lumps, foam, slime and liquid pollution. Some days they were reluctant to bathe because the ocean was so filthy.
According to U.S. News & World Report, some environmentalists therefore warn that “unless governments move faster to curb pollution the oceans of the world will be as dead as Lake Erie by 1980.”
Effect on Living Things
Fish ‘kills’ in rivers, lakes and oceans are so numerous now that many are hardly noted in the press anymore.
In the oceans, about 90 percent of the fish live in coastal areas. That is precisely where man is polluting the worst, through the discharge from poisoned rivers (some containing mercury wastes) and by oil spills or the deliberate flushing out of oil from ships. Dr. Max Blumer of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution says that “man puts at least three million tons of oil a year into the oceans. The yearly total may run as high as ten million tons.”
In one small area off Pensacola, Florida, more than thirty fish ‘kills’ involving millions of fish took place in a three-month period of 1970. In the North Sea recently a vast layer of dead fish was discovered. Several yards thick, it stretched out about 80 land miles (130 kilometers). The fish had been killed by pollution pouring into the sea from Europe’s streams.
Pesticides, such as DDT and others, carried by the wind or washed off the land into rivers, end up in lakes and oceans. Many of these pesticides take years to lose their potency. Small marine organisms take in the pesticides. Larger fish eat small fish that eat contaminated organisms. Finally birds eat the fish. At each stage up the ‘food chain’ the insoluble pesticides concentrate. As a result many species, especially birds, are dying out.
One example is found on California’s Anacapa Islands. There, of 500 mating pairs of brown pelicans, only one young was produced last summer due to pesticides interfering with their reproductive systems.
And keep in mind that pesticides have been found from pole to pole, in Arctic seals and Antarctic penguins!
Oxygen Supply in Danger?
Poisoning the oceans jeopardizes plant life as well. It is said that such plant life, particularly the plankton called diatoms, produce much of the earth’s supply of oxygen—some say as much as 70 percent. Added to the beating being taken by plant life on land areas, man’s oxygen supply from the seas could be threatened.
The problem is colossal. Yet there are also colossal forces operating to man’s good. The sun draws up nearly 15,000,000 tons of sweet water from the salty oceans and other sources every second, and rain clouds pour out about the same amount on earth. Obviously a Source of power far greater than these put such forces and cycles into operation. We are wise if we look in that direction for relief.
[Diagram on page 9]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
THE HEALTHY LAKE
1 Sun’s energy enables plants to convert substances into food
2 In using basic food substances, microscopic plants give off oxygen
3 Microscopic animals eat the plants
4 Predators eat smaller animals, eventually die
5 Scavengers live on dead or decayed matter
6 Bacteria act on all remains
7 Basic food substances are released by bacteria