From the Editor

Sitting here in the northern Appalachians in a spring drizzle that has lasted for days, it is difficult to achieve the right frame of mind for the focus of this May issue — water shortages. Potable water is one of the more elusive natural resources to assess, right up there with ocean fisheries, geothermal energy and undiscovered oil. The difficulty is that it is mobile and often hidden, with its quality and quantity affected by numerous natural and anthropomorphic processes. For most of us, we are unaccustomed of thinking of it as a problem (unless it is too many drizzly days in a row). Yet, the frequency and severity of worldwide domestic water shortages continue to grow toward local problems of global proportions. As the pieces in this issue illustrate, new science, technology, policies and attitudes cannot come soon enough if we are to keep water problems from eroding our social and economic dreams and plans.

In the western United States, earth science has a role to play, as Lisa Robert discusses in “Hijacking the Rio Grande: The Impacts of Aquifer Mining in an Arid River System.” Focusing on the high-growth Middle Rio Grande river valley, specifically Albuquerque and environs, she says “a calamity is in the making” as users “pump groundwater faster than rain and runoff can replenish it.” She reports that even if pumping were to cease, it would take more than 60 years for the aquifer to recover. As development continues to gallop out of “sync” with resource availability, the region’s Native American pueblos and tribes are at risk of losing the most.

Not far away, another urban center is in trouble, as Staff Writer Megan Sever reports in “The Dwindling Denver Basin.” Here the region is locally mining 10,000-year-old groundwater and watching well levels drop 30 to 35 feet per year. Possible interim solutions include conservation and water transfers, but somehow this seems to be missing the obvious: There may just be a limit to growth, and perhaps we should slow down, assess the problem and then do the right thing.

A similar but different dilemma is identified by Staff Writer Naomi Lubick in “State of the High Plains Aquifer.” A recent report by the U.S. Geological Survey on the water supply beneath a major portion of the nation’s breadbasket notes that in spite of drawdown of a common aquifer and the potential for deterioration of water quality, states still find it inconvenient to collaborate in addressing the challenges of an uncertain water future. Both here and in Denver, earth science has a major social science role to play.

Shifting the focus from the American West to the Old World, Avner Vengosh and colleagues address water quality issues, in “Natural Boron Contamination in Mediterranean Groundwater”; the story also shifts from water quantity to water quality. The authors report that the boron standard for drinking water that the European Union selected in 1998 is considered precautionary rather than science-based. The diagnosis from recent geologic research in the region is that boron concentrations in groundwater result from natural processes. The only way to address health risks, once we know what they might be, is through costly water treatment. For once it seems that earth science has caught up with its social science role.

Rounding out the features is this month’s Comment, in which Craig Schiffries speaks to “Closing the Gap Between Water Science and Water Policy.” This is exactly the point of our feature articles, isn’t it? Water science is earth science and water policy is social science, and as Schiffries intimates, they are still about as distant as are the Old World and the Old West. Water issues once again highlight the coming and great social role of earth scientists, should we choose to accept the assignment.

Believe your compass and prepare to run for office,

Samuel S. Adams
Geotimes Editor-in-Chief

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