Fresh Water

January 13, 2016 by islandersvoice1


Steve Ulvi, a resident of San Juan Island, brings his considerable writing skills, honed during the long winters of northern Alaska where he and his family lived in the bush for eight years, and where he served 25 years with the National Park Service, to bear on a subject we way too often take for granted.

Fresh Water by Steve Ulvi

We all take water for granted. We use it and abuse it with little consideration of its astounding properties. Perhaps not individually, but certainly as a society. Recyclable but not renewable. It is the definition of a tragedy of the commons, even here in the region of fog, vast temperate rainforest and ghosts of salmon past.

Some of my strongest memories during countless adventures (and mishaps) center around running short of water or the toil of obtaining it; collecting and melting snow or river ice for winter months on end, foolishly sucking snow in deepening dehydration after draining the Nalgene bottles, slurping tepid, stained water from dry ridgeline caribou tracks, crawling hands and knees, backpack on, the last hundred yards to the north rim of the Grand Canyon after a sickly week, and watering a large garden by hauling 5 gallon pails of turbid Yukon River water up the bank in the heat of many subarctic summers.

Let’s turn back the clock. Nearly every molecule of water that inundates much of our earth was spewed in awesome volcanic eruptions, carried frozen in asteroids or just recently we learn, microscopically imbedded in the swirling, coalescent star material that became our solar system. During the unfathomable deep time of water transformation of this planet, solar radiation cranked the monstrous engines of the hydrologic cycle that allowed for life as we know it.

Only earth emerged from the deep time of unmitigated extremes of heat and cold (see Mars and Venus for cautionary tales relating to the ancient presence of water in our solar neighborhood) as the rare blue water world spinning nicely at just over 1,000 mph, veiled in clouds with a very thin, relatively stable, protective gaseous atmosphere. Any given water molecule has been recycled through countless evaporation/precipitation cycles since an early atmosphere formed.

In spite of the original source, nearly every drop of water is at least many hundreds of millions, or several billions of sun orbit cycles old, cohering to create the phenomenal shape-shifting substance that has continually eroded and re-shaped earth. In addition to sticky molecular cohesion, capillarity and universal solvency, water is a unique and wonderful compound existing as liquid, gas or solid in transition in immense volumes on earth. The salient point is that water is not created to any real extent anymore.

Talk about the ultimate recycled substance! Any water molecules condensing on the glass of your cold summer drink, or steaming off a winter cup of joe, may well have coursed through a steamy mammoth gut, been exhaled by Alexander the Great, been locked in glacial ice for millennia or coursed in the blood of giant dragonflies. And then some a thousand times over. So there is more than a little truth in the old saying that cheap beer tastes like “it has been through a horse”.

I suspect that you remember the faded posters and textbook illustrations in grade school, if you were “naturally” inquisitive, depicting the hydrologic cycle as it generally occurs on earth. Colorful illustrations with bold arrows showing evaporation from the equatorial seas and billowing storm clouds as a visible form of raw energy, dumping rain and snow somewhat predictably depending on latitude, season, elevation and quirky weather gyres. To the young or uninformed, this awesome global energy and heat transfer process seems magical, beyond puny human disruption, and without limits.

The “genies” of physics and chemistry are now well out of the bottle. Uncorked by human hubris and over a century of drunken sailor abandon in burning fossil fuels. Fortunately for us, the immense global circulation of air and waters based upon thermal gradients, earth spin etc., have fluctuated within broad regional norms for the last 10,000 years of interglacial civilization growth. No longer.

Until recently, in fact well along in the 59th minute of the 11th hour of human awareness of the great natural mysteries, no one, including the greatest philosophers, monks or scientists has ever understood the physical-chemical cause and effect of massive atmospheric fluctuations that high school students today know.

The demonstrable facts and our ability to identify patterns make glaringly evident the fix we are in with accelerated climate change. Heat increases molecular activity and evaporation. Warm air holds much more water than does cool. Atmospheric water vapor is generally a blessing as precipitation, but a curse now as a potent greenhouse gas thickening the heat trapping blanket.

Peopled landscapes the world over, always unequal in terms of dependable water, will be blasted or bypassed by the increasing rivers of moisture carried in large scale atmospheric flows now shifting into a different gear. We live in an uncommonly temperate, forgiving region that is being transformed more rapidly than we imagine.

In our panoramic view shed the high ranges capture rain and store snowfall to annually replenish aquifers, subsurface moisture banks and reservoirs connected by ancient dendritic drainage patterns visible from space. But not so on these island bedrock landforms that shouldered 4,000 feet of grinding ice for tens of thousands of years prior to the latest melt and the last incredible sea level rise that preceded the first human footprints on beach sand here.

Fresh water in our island archipelago is not as well understood, or perhaps as abundant, as we imagine. Natural storage of winter rainfall varies from fractured bedrock aquifers to deep glacial rubble to surface lakes and reservoirs. Maybe well over 90% of the unfathomable volume of precipitation on our islands from November to June ends up right back in the salt-chuck in fairly short order.

Without rivers or snow pack release, island groundwater is hit and miss and probably more tenuous than we imagine. Groundwater pressure keeps salt water from intrusion, but wells will fail or salt out in intensified drought conditions with development and growth.

The future climate regime here-like this year-is predicted to be one of longer, hot droughty summers and warmer, wetter winters pushing the freezing levels much higher. A pretty enviable forecast all in all. But given the seam-bursting pressures of regional population growth and severely diminished ecosystem services already out of whack, climate disruption will test every notion of community stability.

Our county rightly allows rainwater to be held without a water right with reasonable limitations. But catchment systems are an exception, rather than a rule around here due to inconvenience, expense and labor. Yet if you drill into some water and “prove up” you are free to use up to 5,000 gallons a day for residential uses. How wise is this unnecessary largess?

Our groundwater, pooled in bedrock fractures, unknown in capacity, is not considered to be in danger, so no tax incentives for conservation or rainwater catchment are contemplated, despite the obvious social utility of such measures. Over time water will be a key element in food security out here as huge carbon-burning and wasteful food distribution systems collapse.

We are very fortunate to have local citizen groups and non-profits stimulating a more specific public discussion about water resource volumes, conservation measures, policies regarding grey-water use, small scale desalination, agricultural uses, roof catchment, and ways to increase infiltration and limit surface runoff. We lack the basic information on recharge and volumes of our sub-surface water from which to form adaptive policies.

Later in 2016 we have the chance to consider two of the three County Council positions and push for climate change and water use to be topics of serious discussion. We should know by now that waiting for government or big business to bring about the necessary changes in the way we value and conserve water, given our unique circumstances and the climate disruption on the horizon, is a fool’s gambit.

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