1. "When the
well’s dry, we know the worth of water." Benjamin Franklin quoted those
prophetic words nearly two and a half centuries ago, when America’s wells – both
literally and figuratively – overflowed with water.
2. Today those same wells are in
danger of running dry, and along with the rest of the world we face a critical shortage of
clean, fresh water.
3. The problem is not the supply
of water; earth has virtually the same amount today as it did when dinosaurs roamed the
planet. Ninety-seven percent of that supply is in the form of salt water. Only 3 percent
is fresh, and two-thirds of that is ice.
4. The problem is simply people
– our increasing numbers and our flagrant abuse of one of our most precious, and
5. A computer-graphics rendition
of the United States dramatizes the problem. According to it, California and Idaho show
the areas of highest use, thanks largely to crop irrigation. In California, for example,
78 percent of the water used goes to agriculture and only 22 percent for urban needs.
6. Altogether the United States
withdraws 339 billion gallons of ground and surface water a day. Although four trillion
gallons of water falls on us daily in the form of precipitation, much of that disappears
in evaporation and runoff, and our rivers and springs are being dangerously polluted and
exhausted. Occasionally, as with the catastrophic flooding of the upper Mississippi Valley
last summer, we seem cursed with an overabundance of water, but such events are mercifully
7. There is, of course, no
substitute for water; it has already begun to replace oil as a major cause of
confrontation in the Middle East. The confrontations can only grow and widen.
8. A team of top photographers,
writers, and editors crisscrossed North America, exploring people’s attitudes,
habits, and perceptions of water. The team found historic mismanagement of water, blatant
cases of waste and pollution, and widespread ignorance of water problems. Yet they also
found a growing awareness of the challenges water presents and an encouraging readiness to
9. One thing is certain: We must
mend our ways. The United States uses three times as much water a day – 2,100 liters
per person – as the average European country, and astronomically more water than most
developing nations. When we realize that it can take 1,500 liters of fresh water merely to
produce one 250-gram steak, then – as Benjamin Franklin put it – we know the
worth of water.