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Now, when water utility boards are up for election, two characteristics of water that are rarely given a value should be considered: quality and reliability. Quality includes the absence of a variety of water borne diseases. Until the 1900’s, when filtration and chlorine treatment became wide-spread, the most common cause of death, especially of children, was various forms of dysentery. Water sources often were contaminated by casual treatment of waste from poorly designed sewers, outhouses and latrines. There are few people living in the U.S. today who have much experience with water borne disease, but between 1900 and 1940, the average life expectancy increased from 47 to 63 years. To a great extent, this was a result of reduced child mortality rather than most people just living longer. Prior to 1900, approximately half of the children born (on average) would die from disease. Today we can ask, “What value can be placed on most of your children living to adulthood?” It isn’t a rhetorical question. In many parts of the world, clean, safe water cannot be taken for granted. In India, for example, many cities inherited working water supply systems in 1947, when the British were driven out. Today, due to lack of public investment and/or negligence, water supplies are unreliable and often, unsafe. Wealthy Indian homes have storage tanks and pumps that self-start when the water appears in the pipes for an hour or so a day. Since the supply pipes were often placed in the same trench as sewer pipes, the suction of all the pumps draws in sewage, rendering the water supply unsafe. For the other 1+ billion poor people in the world who lack a reliable, safe water supply, the women and girls (water hauling is primarily a female duty) may spend most of their days obtaining water. This interferes with schooling, jobs, etc., assuring that these people remain poor and often ill.
Those of us living in wealthier countries now take safe, abundant water for granted. Locally, one gets 10 gallons of water delivered to the faucet for about $0.06. That is the equivalent of 74 half-liter bottles of water for which we may pay $1.29 each.
Those of us living in the Sierra foothills may consider ourselves lucky, not only for our quality of life, but for the quality of our water. We are fortunate in that our water sources generally come from the east, where few people are present to contaminate it. Public water treatment is mandated by the State of California, and though much of Sierra water would require only minimal treatment to render it safe, water treatment is uniform, meaning the poorest quality water determines the level of treatment for all water, including ours. That is the reason the California Department of Public Health may require further extensive treatment that is unlikely to make our water any safer than it already is.
The second water characteristic, reliability, is threatened both by outside interests, and by the distinct possibility of drought. Southern California, a reliably thirsty and politically robust entity, is involved with the reconsideration of the management of the Delta. It seems likely that they are considering the water in the Sierra as potential mitigation for their plans to extract even more water resources from Northern California. Water rights of the Sierras will become an even more important issue in the near future. Drought, through which much of the nation has suffered this summer, seems likely to occur again. Whether a drought is short or long seems dependent on chance, but planning for drought is a crucial part of living in these tenuous times.
An interesting book about water and its problems world-wide is “The Big Thirst” by Charles Fishman.