Meeting a freshwater rock star

It wasn’t a concert or touring show that packed Madison’s Capitol Theater Tuesday night. Seven hundred or so people turned out on a miserable rainy night for a lecture about water.

The star attraction was Sandra Postel, founder of the Global Water Policy Project and a Freshwater Fellow with the National Geographic Society.  The occasion was the kick-off of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters’s Waters of Wisconsin (WOW) initiative.

WOW is an encore of sorts to a previous Academy effort a decade ago.  Then there was the recognition that water could not be taken for granted, and efforts like the Great Lakes Compact have since offered some protection for the resource.  But WOW, the next generation, is coming at a time when pollutants like phosphorous are creating enormous threats to the health of lakes and rivers.

Steve Carpenter of the UW Center for Limnology referenced the stormy weather in his introductory remarks to Postel’s talk, noting that the rain falling now will become agricultural runoff.  Eventually the water will carry nutrients to lakes and rivers where toxic algae will bloom in summertime.

Pollution is measured in terms of dilution, Carpenter offered, and while we think of Wisconsin as water-rich, in terms of unpolluted water, we are as water-poor as New Mexico.

When Postel took the stage, she offered many similar staggering snippets revealing the the severity of our global water crisis.  Wetlands in Wisconsin and around the world have been reduced by half.  The loss of that natural sponge effect wetlands provide may well have been a contributing factor to the devastation of the most recent rounds of flooding on the Mississippi.

Large dams, which can disrupt the ecological balance of river systems, have increased in number ten-fold since 1950, from about 5000 to 50,000.  While in about the same time span, groundwater depletion has doubled.

On the large screen behind her, Postel showed images of the Aral Sea, the classic ecological case study in imprudent resource management.  After the Soviet Communist regime diverted the rivers feeding the Aral Sea–once the world’s fourth largest lake–in the 1950s to irrigate cotton fields, it began to disappear.  But the recent rate of its decline was shocking to see, as, like a repeating animated GIF, aerial views from 2006 and then 2009 keep dissolving over one another showing a lake’s frightening disappearing act.

Framing her talk with the assertion that for the next decades the human story will be a water story, Postel posited that we need a better understanding of the hidden cost of water use.  Would you rethink buying that cotton tee shirt if you knew its production took 700 gallons of water?

Consumer behavior is a large part of the conservation picture, but somewhat more macro economics play a part as well.  Borrowing a term usually related to industry, Postel talks about water systems as ecological infrastructure.  Here, there are some success stories, like Boston’s conservation efforts that have reversed the trend of growing use with growing population.  And protecting the quality of New York City’s upstate water supply has saved millions in water treatment expense.

Postel characterized this as investment in watershed services, a reframing that speaks more to real economic cost.

There is also hope in technology, Postel assured the crowd, from micro-irrigation that delivers water directly to roots without the waste of wide dispersal, to improvements in desalination that can make saltwater fresh.

In her conclusion, Postel said “So, yes, there is hope.  It is that we will come to know that the soft rain, and flowing water are undeserved, but precious gifts of life.”

And with that, 700 hundred people went back out into a rain that wasn’t that soft, but likely much more appreciated.




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