Geotimes

From the Editor

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 study.

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


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