Water is in the news and, as is the custom, that generally means bad news. The
drought along the East Coast has been covered repeatedly by The New York Times,
by National Public Radio and by major TV networks coverage that is a measure
of just how bad that news is. The April 8, 2002, issue of The New Yorker
magazine featured an article on Cochabamba, Bolivia, titled "Leasing the
Rain: The world is running out of water and the fight to control it has begun."
And in 2000, the Water Science and Technology Board of the National Research Council
released a report titled Envisioning the Agenda for Water Resources Research in
the Twenty-First Century, in which the authors refer to the "daunting water
problems of the twenty-first century." How bad are pending water problems
and how soon will they really begin to hurt?
Unlike a major earthquake, volcanic eruption or meteor impact, problems of water
quality and quantity are likely to evolve slowly over time and unevenly across
the landscape. Gradually, an aquifer becomes depleted, urban population growth
finally exceeds its water supply, or contaminants from a landfill slowly work
their way into the groundwater, which in turn works its way into surface waters.
Then one day the faucet doesn't run or the water has a new smell. A seasonal drought
may be the proximal cause, but years of disregard will be the real culprit.
Because it is gradual, this evolution makes it difficult to assess the magnitude
and timing of pending water problems. We don't want to cry wolf only to bear,
for decades, ridicule for unfounded pessimism. The Club of Rome suffered such
a fate for its unfulfilled predictions of mineral resource depletions. Probably
the best we can do is practice "eternal vigilance" through the routine
collection and interpretation of field data and the clear and convincing communication
of its significance to the public
These conclusions compose the bulk of findings from the National Research Council
The two feature articles in this issue are examples of such eternal vigilance
in water research. In our first story, Tom Scott of the Florida Geological Survey
documents a particularly disturbing water contaminant transfer in Florida. Thirteen
of the state's major natural springs now display a nearly 20-fold increase in
nitrate levels compared to concentrations in 1972. These springs are fed by groundwater
from the state's major aquifer. Animal and human wastes, along with water draining
fertilized farm and orchard lands, have worked their way into the groundwater,
only to reappear in the state's springs. These nitrate levels support choking
blooms of aquatic plants. Through ongoing field research, Survey scientists detected
the concentrations, and the state's government is funding efforts to develop and
implement remediation programs.
In the second feature, "Managing the Water Above and Below," Pixie Hamilton
and Timothy Miller of the U.S. Geological Survey make a case for greater scientific
emphasis on the mutual impacts and interactions of surface water and groundwater.
As they observe, "Typically, groundwater inputs [to surface waters] are not
included in estimates of contaminant loads." This omission has implications
for compliance with water quality standards, issuance of permits and control of
discharge wastes. "For example," the authors write, "more than
half of the water and nutrients that enter the Chesapeake Bay travel first through
the groundwater system."
To complete this month's water focus, our Comment is from Rita Colwell, Director
of the National Science Foundation. She notes that cholera, a disease she knows
from her own research, can be controlled simply by providing uncontaminated water
for drinking and bathing. Yet 18 percent of the world's population now lacks safe
water and 40 percent lacks adequate sanitation. As recently as the beginning of
the last century, one out of 10 babies in the United States died of water-borne
typhoid or dysentery before they turned one. Thirty years later, those risks had
been eliminated by filtration and chlorination. Research and remediation can achieve
similar success worldwide.
This month's contributions are lucid examples of the monitoring, interpretating,
predicting and informing we have assumed as our eternal vigilance for having occupied
and stressed Earth.
Believe your compass,
Samuel S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief