Some time ago – what seems like a long time ago, but in reality is not so far removed – the news was full of the actions of a combined group of people, led by Native Americans, who called themselves the Water Protectors. Their driving truth was, “Water is Life.” They were encamped in a place called Standing Rock, and they were opposing the KXL pipeline, a proposed transport of tar sands oil from Canada to Gulf of Mexico ports. Besides running across sacred Native lands and encroaching upon farming and ranching lands, using eminent domain, this pipeline would have run under the Missouri River, a major source of water for not only those on the reservation, but also a multitude of people downriver from the crossing. A major focus of those participating in the Standing Rock resistance was the protection of the water. Pipelines tend to leak, and pollution with tar sands oil would be disastrous.
Although this is history, the movement to protect the water continues, as do the efforts by the various companies connected with the KXL pipeline construction. The overt protests at Standing Rock came to an end, but the construction of the pipeline was halted at that time, although attempts to get approval for construction still continue. The movement to protect the water has become more diffuse, but it, too, continues. It is not only the inheritors of Standing Rock who are engaged in protecting our water. Non-profit activist groups large and small advocate for, clean, and defend our rivers, lakes, oceans and aquifers. They, too, understand that water is life. More water than visible land comprises the Earth. Our bodies and those of our fellow denizens of our earthly home are composed of more water than solid mass. A cycle of water acts as a living stream of nurture for the planet. We are blessed that these water protectors are there.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss the water cycle with one of my older students. His assignment included more than just the simple “water evaporates, clouds form, rain or snow falls, rivers carry it back to lakes or the sea.” We also looked at the effects of drought and flood and touched on the influence of climate change on the water aspects of the weather. More significantly, we examined the effects of not only the water cycle, but also of human activity, on the aquifers. Aquifers store underground water which can be used in times of drought or less rain. Plants access the water through longer root systems; nature taps the aquifers with natural springs; people drill wells to provide themselves with water closer to their dwellings than the nearest creek or river. Some of the water in larger aquifers can be eons old. Worldwide, the levels of water in these underground water storage systems is lowering; the aquifers are drying out. Why?
We examined particularly the Ogallala Aquifer in the central United States, in the area we call the Great Plains or High Plains. Before the advent of advanced technology, this aquifer was able to sustain the non-rain water needs of the region it underlies, and to recharge itself through groundwater seepage during times of rain or snow melt. Then came the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, caused by farmers plowing much of the grass cover of the plains lands to grow crops such as wheat and corn and other grains. Plowing up the grass exposed the topsoil, which blew away with the winds on the plains during that time. When the farmers finally returned, they brought with them more technology with which to access the underground water for irrigation. A traditional windmill can withdraw only so much water at a time; high-tech drilling and pumps are another story. Agriculture became a major consumer of aquifer water. (Other consumers are cities, with their large numbers of people who want constant easy water access, suburbs with their manicured lawns, desert cities sporting swimming pools, and the like.)
Currently, water is being taken from the Ogallala Aquifer (and other aquifers) faster than it can be replenished. A slow, soaking rain is the most optimal means of refill. Aquifers are renewed by groundwater and slow rain runoff soaking through the soil to the aquifer. Floods and major storms are less effective. However, human-influenced climate change is increasing the incidence of floods and major storms and leaving other areas rainless for long periods of time. Rain runs more quickly off our farmed lands, often polluting the rivers into which it runs. Runoff which reaches the river has less chance of soaking to an aquifer. We are building more cities. Why should that matter, except for increased numbers of people depending on the aquifers? Consider. How does rain reach an aquifer? By soaking into the ground before it becomes runoff into a river or sewage system. Compare the amount of bare ground in the country to the bare ground in the city. In the city, we have mostly pavement; the ground is paved over, and the rain has no chance to sink in. Instead, it goes as runoff into a sewage system or perhaps a nearby river.
We humans, ostensibly the smartest beings on the planet, have developed a sophisticated system of water consumption without considering the need for renewal, the impact of our civilization on the sources of our water, or the balance of nature which was designed to sustain us and other beings. We have looked at a multifaceted issue from one angle only. Are we smart enough to develop ways to replenish what we have taken and ensure future replacement of what we use? I am sure we have the capability. Are we humble enough to admit that we are not smarter than nature, not able to sustain a one-way flow of consumption? I hope for our survival that we are.
To those who are in or are entering or who are aiming to enter scientific fields, I ask for the sake of our survival as humans to wield this powerful tool with a goal and attitude of understanding the Earth and the natural aspects of our environment and habitats so as to cooperate with this primal system and support its continued existence. We are smart, but using our intelligence to conquer nature instead of cooperating and to create what we consider to be a better system will ultimately backfire; we will then either perish or exist in a post–natural world of which we now have only inklings. Let us all, together, develop the humility to realize that we are part of a greater whole, not separate beings outside of that whole, and permitted to destroy it with our consumption and at our convenience.