We're Running Out of WATER
You are 70% water, so you’d better read this article. Maybe afterward you won’t grumble so much when it rains. This continent is headed for a catastrophe unless we stop treating water as an enemy and start protecting it as our best friend
WHEN it rains, grumbling city folk from St. John’s to Victoria turn up their coat collars, snap on their rubbers and wish someone would turn off the tap. Many farmers, too, kept out of their fields by a downpour, gripe away and start worrying that their crops will miss the market. Car drivers all over curse the spots on their shining polish jobs, and business girls despair over their nylons.
You’d think rain was a nuisance!
Truth is that we would all die in a few hours if there wasn’t any. Even the wheat in the loaf of bread you call the “staff of life” has used up two tons of water in its growth.
Engineers have computed that the modern Canadian and U. S. way of life depends on approximately 700 gallons of water per person per day. That’s what is actually going through the meters. If you eat the equivalent of a loaf of bread and pound of beef per day you are using another 22 tons, or about 6,000 gallons.
Your body is 70% water. It will get along on six pints of the raw stuff per day (beer or coffee counted in) but when you throw in the odd lettuce leaf, French fry or beefsteak you’re using the end product of a lot of raindrops. It takes 300 to 500 pounds of water from the soil to produce one pound of leafy crop, 300 tons to grow one ton of corn, 40,000 pounds to produce the pasturage that goes into the making of one pound of beef.
You also use water to brush your teeth, shave, bath, to scrub floors, to heat and air-condition homes, to maintain steam in thousands of locomotives and steam plants, to smelt steel, to produce chemicals . . .
Even the air you breathe would be a parching gas as deadly as chlorine if it didn’t have water vapor in it.
Yet we treat water, the mother of all life, as an enemy to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible. We hail great swamp drainage projects as feats of engineering progress. We have built monstrous ditching machines to slap tile drains down faster. We have razed forests and plowed under the land’s grass cover, ignoring the fact that this is nature’s sponge put there to hold water where it’s needed. We go on building bigger and bigger cities, stacking families on top of each other like bees in a hive, without asking until it is too late where water, the city’s lifeblood, is to come from.
Until a few years ago we were getting away with it, but now we’ve used up our credit and are starting to pay the bill.
Recently newspaper readers followed with amused smiles the plight of New Yorkers whose dwindling water supply was so stringently rationed that men were driving out of the city to get shaves, and where luxury liners were serving free wine instead of water with meals. Meanwhile one of America’s largest rivers continues flowing serenely past Manhattan—«o polluted with unnecessary filth and industrial waste that to drink it is to risk poisoning.
Icebox Drippings For Babies
Last summer Toronto and its suburbs were drenched by the heaviest rainfall of years yet the ban against lawn sprinkling had to be enforced as usual, and at times in adjacent North York pressures dropped so low that residents had to carry buckets of water from basements to second-floor bathrooms to flush toilets.
These are merely the most publicized manifestations of a continent-wide catastrophe in the making. From Atlantic to Pacific, Rio Grande to the Arctic, the soil’s water levels are rapidly lowering. Thousands of wells and streams are drying up. Thousands of acres of once-fertile soil are being transformed into wastes of yellow blow-sand. Our life-supporting water sources are visibly dwindling.
The Agricultural Institute of Canada, an organization of 32,000 scientific workers, last year handed a statement on the water problem to provincial ministers of agriculture across Canada. The institute declared: “Conservation of soil and water represents the greatest natural-resources problem facing Canada at present. Lack of an adequate and integrated government policy covering land and water resources is a growing menace to farmers and our whole economy. It is a matter of national concern.”
In 1949 the Ontario Legislature appointed a committee to study
the conservation needs of the province, with emphasis on soil and water. In its report the committee said: “The evidence has been most emphatic on the lowering of ground-water supplies. Farmers complain that wells are going dry, many cities are finding it difficult to secure water for an increasing population, or even for their present numbers ... If rain and snow water continue to race away at top speed into rivers and lakes, rather than percolate into the ground, the day is coming when Ontario’s inland cities will be forced to build vast and costly works, piping water from the Great Lakes . . . Inland towns cannot continue to grow without more water.”
News stories like this one from Malton, Ont.., are becoming more common each year: Water to Malton district homes was shut oft sometimes for 12 hours at a time as municipal wells failed. Mothers used icebox drippings for mixing baby formulas, children drank pop with meals. Near Oakville a mother nursing a sick baby had to dissolve its tablets in ginger ale when Trafalgar township’s water mains went dry.
Professor E. G. Pleva, head of the geography department at University of Western Ontario, London, recently warned that waste of water resources by cutting forests and draining swamps was causing ground-water levels in Southern Ontario to drop as much as a foot a year. This means that shallow inexpensive wells which once provided cheap and abundant water for numerous communities are now dry and municipalities must keep drilling them deeper and deeper.
At Forest, near Lake Huron, the first town well drilled many years ago produced water that rose in the casing to within 16 feet of the surface. Today the water level
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Running Out of Water
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in Forest’s wells lies 90 to 110 feet below the surface and the wells must be 150 feet deep to supply the town’s needs.
For 10 years Preston, Ont., drew water from two springs and two wells but practically every summer the supply was inadequate. Twenty-four test holes were drilled in a frantic search for new water sources but every try was another failure. In August, 1949, their 25th attempt struck water at 297 feet. Preston now has enough water for present needs but those 24 dry holes are a grim reminder that there is a slim surplus left for future expansion.
London, Ont.., originally depended on springs for its water, but, as the population soared, the springs dried up. Now water is drawn from 32 wells and provincial authorities have warned that the city is always just a jump ahead of disastrous water famine. The only long-term alternatives are extensive reforestation and other conservation practices t;o get water back into the soil, or a costly pipe line to Lake Erie 25 miles away.
Regina and Moose Jaw started out as prairie towns where the nearest large water source was the South Saskatchewan River, about 100 miles away. But wells fed from sloughs seemed to yield an inexhaustible supply. Then farmers drained the sloughs, plowed them up for grain fields. Ducks which had depended on those sloughs moved northward, but Regina and Moose Jaw couldn’t move. They grew instead into cities demanding seven million gallons of water a day.
Here’s Real Perpetual Motion
Last year Regina notified the Federal Government it could carry on no longer and would need immediate financial assistance for a 100-mile canal and piping project to the South Saskatchewan. Cost: $6 millions (some engineers say $8 millions). Regina says it can handle only $2 millions of the bill. The province has offered to chip in another $2 millions but wants it paid back out of water revenues, which throws at least two thirds of the cost back on the city.
Winnipeg went through the same growing-pains 30 years ago. Originally it had an excellent underground source. Wells tapped soil where water under pressure shot up well casings and spouted four feet above ground. But by 1920 Winnipeg’s wells would no longer serve its growing population. Today most of its water comes from Shoal Lake on the Manitoba-Ontario boundary through a costly 98-mile pipe line.
Spectacular as some of these stories are, the real Tnenace of our disappearing water is on farmlands. Fifty gallons of water are needed to produce one ear of corn. And soil fertility depends on water; without water soil becomes desert.
C. Gordon O’Brien, general secretary of the Agricultural Institute of Canada, said recently: “In spite of better
varieties of grain, larger amounts of fertilizer and improved methods of producing crops, average yields of hay and oats remain stationary. Our soil is not as good as it used to be.”
Orchardists submitting evidence to the Ontario Legislature’s committee on conservation last year pointed to lower peach yields and said that unless an irrigation system was established the highly productive Niagara fruit belt would eventually fail to produce peaches economically.
To a city-dweller the water supply is a vague and distant matter camouflaged behind miles of plumbing. Rainfall, so far as the city man can see, is just an irritating phenomenon always stopping ball games when the home team is winning.
But to the farmer the water supply is a problem as pressing as taxes. In 1949 two infants in the Regina area died—12 were sent to hospital with cyanosis, a condition that reduces the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity. Well waters dropped so low that the concentration of nitrate poison in some
wells rose to 1,300 parts per million. (The danger point: 20 parts per million.) Neglected well tops permitted the contamination to get in, but low water caused the dangerous concentration.
Meteorological records show there is as much rain falling on Canada as there ever was (420 million gallons per square mile per year). What, then, is happening to our water?
The answer lies in what scientists know as the “hydrologic cycle.” Water chases itself around in a gigantic circle --from oceans and lakes to the atmosphere to the land, back to oceans and
lakes again. It evaporates from the large water surfaces, enters the atmosphere as a vapor. It rises, cools, condenses into clouds, the clouds into rain or snow. Ninety per cent falls back into the oceans. The 10% carried over land before it falls has to get back to the oceans the best way it can, and, on its road back, a million forms of life from dandelions to mankind are waiting to grab off their bit, use it, then send it on its way again.
Four things happen to rainfall. Some evaporates directly. Some runs off the soil into rivers, eventually into the
oceans. Some is held in the surface soil where it absorbs minerals and feeds the plants that feed us. The rest sinks deep into the subsoil where it joins the vast underground reservoir of water moving slowly seaward under practically all of the earth’s surface.
This last, the groundwater, is the balance wheel which keeps nature’s waterworks functioning smoothly. It is the reserve that feeds springs, wells and rivers. When surface soil dries out between rains, groundwater moves up to replenish it and keep vegetation growing. It was a perfect system— until man knocked the balance wheel off balance.
Nature had erected an intricate baffle system to prevent rainfall and melting snows from running off too rapidly into creeks and rivers. Slowing down the run-off assured that plenty of water would seep into the soil and build up the groundwater reservoir. Keystone of the baffle system was the forests, which caught rainfall and forced it to leak slowly through to the ground where a mat of mosses and decaying leaves soaked it up like a dry sponge. A scientist has computed that a square mile of moss will hold 100 million gallons of water. In spring, forests shaded the snow and kept it from melting faster than the soil could absorb it. On the prairies dense grass did as efficient a water-holding job as the forests elsewhere. Prairie marshes and forest bogs trapped water that the soil couldn’t immediately absorb. And even water that overcame these obstacles and reached a creek still found the going tough in its oceanward pilgrimage, for every half mile or so an energetic troop of beavers had thrown up a dam.
Heads, Drought; Tails, Flood
When man came he needed agricultural land and soon forests and swamps had to go. He did his job too efficiently. He stripped off the barriers and springtime water raced pellmell across his sloping fields into flooding rivers. Then the water was gone in a wild spree of destruction, until springtime brought it back to the land again.
Says Professor A. F. Coventry, of Toronto, a leading conservation expert: “Spring floods and summer droughts are opposite sides of the same bad penny: heads, drought; tails, flood. And in either case we lose.”
On March 16, 1942, one and a half inches of rain fell on land drained by the West Humber River, near Toronto. At 11 a.m. on March 17, 4,000 cubic feet of water per second was tumbling down the flooded stream. Scientists computed that half of all the water which fell on the basin of the West Humber was in Lake Ontario, lost to man, 12 hours after the rain.* The following September less than one cubic foot of water per second was flowing down the river, and many farmers were drawing water because wells were dry.
In 1937 a survey of King township, northwest of Toronto, revealed that of its 200 miles of streams which originally flowed throughout the year, only 30 miles are now permanent. The other 170 miles flood in spring, become bone-dry in summer. In spring there are 1,535 miles of creeks and rivers flowing in the area between Toronto and the west end of Lake Ontario. In an average summer only 500 miles of them contain water.
We cannot cover Canada with forests and swamps again and live on acorns instead of wheat. But there is much we can do to reduce the springtime water run-off to a walk-off that will last all year.
Forest engineers say that 15% to 20%, of the land (prairie land excepted)
should be forested to maintain a reasonable balance in the water cycle under a climate such as Canada’s. Southern Ontario is now less than 10% forest land, many counties less than 5%. We have not only stripped trees from agricultural land, we have deforested 8,000 square miles of land so infertile that only trees will grow on it . Germany, though fighting for “living space” in two wars, nevertheless has 27% of its land in forest. The Dutch have even created forests on land reclaimed at enormous cost from the sea.
Canada, at the rate it is now reforesting its over-cleared agricultural areas, will not have an adequate forest cover until 2750—if runaway water hasn’t carried all of our topsoil into the oceans long before that time. Yet the income tax law offers only a boot in the pants to the farmer who tries to preserve what woodlots he has. If he sells his woodlot holus-bolus to a lumberman it is capital gain not subject to tax. If he harvests trees a few each year as they mature, leaving the woodlot intact, he pays income tax on the revenue. He is penalized when he does the right thing.
No Rain in the Garden of Eden
On the fields themselves water runoff can be slowed to a crawl by practices now widely followed in the U. S., but largely ignored as yet in Canada. Two of the most effective methods: permanent sod pasture on steep hillsides, contour plowing on all cultivated slopes.
Grass is a potent protector against soil erosion and excessive run-off. In a test on gently sloping fields at the Central Experimental Farms, Ottawa, corn fields lost 289 tons of water per acre in run-off, alfalfa 28 tons per acre. Corn increases soil erosion by at least 100 times. William Vogt, in his book “Road to Survival,” says the two most damaging contributions of the Americas to civilization have been corn and syphilis. Of the two, he says, corn has produced the greatest misery by tearing down soil and promoting human hunger in most lands to which it has spread.
The biggest contributor to water loss from cultivated fields is the vaunted straight furrow. Every furrow becomes a ditch, leading water downhill. In contour plowing furrows are laid out horizontally across the slopes, following the contour of the land in a wavy pattern. Each furrow then becomes a dam, trapping water.
The U. S. Conservation Service measured run-off from two identical fields, one cultivated on the contour, the other cultivated up and down the slope in the usual way. The straightfurrow field lost 10.3% of the water from each rainfall. The contourcultivated field lost one tenth of one per cent.
Studies have proved that contour plowing, by forcing water to soak into the soil, increases yields as much as 30%. It also conserves gasoline, horses and machinery, for the plow horse or tractor is always moving on a level plane.
Dams, ponds, strip-cropping, terracing on hillsides, summer-fallowing^
prairie shelterbelts to cut down drying winds—there are numerous ways to conserve water and get. it into the soil. We don’t lack the know-how of water conservation, we lack water appreciation.
If the lessons of New York, Regina and our hundreds of miles of floodstoday-and-dry-tomorrow streams are still to be ignored, perhaps history can make the lesson clearer. For the great civilizations of Babylon, Persia, Egypt and Rome are dead today, not because they lost their wars, but because they lost their water.
Five thousand years ago Mesopotamia’s valley of the Tigris and Euphrates possessed a fertility legendary amongancient peoples, who believed that here lay the lush Garden of Eden in which the human race began. Babylon’s population grew, the land was overgrazed and overcultivated to feed them. Today it is as sterile a desert as any on earth. Where did its fertile soil go?
The Old Testament gives history’s grimmest clue to the life-destroying might of unloosed water. The cities of Ur of the Chaldeas and Eridu were
once seaports on the Persian Gulf. Today they are 200 miles inland, for 200 miles of the Persian Gulf were filled solid with the soil that had made Babylon great.
It can’t happen here?
When the Humber River was on one of its periodic flood sprees in 1942, University of Toronto scientists measured the silt content of just one of its three branches. It was carrying 2,700 tons of soil per hour into Lake Ontario.
The Humber is one of Canada’s smallest rivers. ★
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