Water: Fragile Global Eco-Systems Damaged by Unsustainable Growth

by Blue Evening Star

(Second of a series of articles addressing water issues—from global to local perspectives)

The Chinese oracle, the I Ching, teaches that with every crisis there is opportunity. The entire globe is experiencing a complex crisis precipitated by unrestrained growth. The avalanche of growth unleashed on fragile eco-systems—which are quickly damaged and slow to recover—is largely unchecked by laws which might protect the ecological balance of the planet. The opportunity lies in coming together to make the necessary changes for sustainability.

The living systems of the water cycle are particularly vulnerable to the effects of unsustainable growth. Our planet’s finite supply of fresh water is being made unusable by chemical pollutants, depleted by the overtaxing of deep ground waters, and mismanaged as the natural course of surface waters are interrupted by technology. Many lakes, rivers, and wetlands are being turned into silt-filled dust bowls. Habitats for people and for wildlife are destroyed by the removal of massive amounts of water to supply water-poor urban areas and to satisfy the voracious appetites of industry and agriculture. Why is there so little accountability in the area of growth and its impact on the environment? Greenbelts of public lands administered for the common good of all life on the planet are needed in order to reduce the damage being done by years of exponential and largely uninhibited growth.
There is a pervasive belief in the (currently) dominant culture that progress is equivalent to growth. This blind faith in growth promotes the status quo, for it says to progress we need only to continue to do what we are doing, but more of it. Anyone who questions the status quo is labeled a heretic or a flaky environmentalist—for they are questioning the underlying tenets of our civilization.

But these tenets should be questioned, for our way of life is causing tremendous and increasingly irrestorable damage to the planet. The relationship to nature of modern (non-indigenous) civilizations is one of domination. Here in Arizona, we have only one free flowing river remaining, the Verde River. All others have been sacrificed to the god of growth, and the waters of the Verde are seen by some to be valuable only as a resource to fulfill their growing needs for urban water, not as an intact ecosystem that can nourish all life in the area for generations to come.

In the mad rush for growth there has been no regard for the fragility of the life support systems of the planet. No one has the right to destroy the life systems that our planet’s future depend upon. Why might a large corporation (or anyone) deliberately choose a course of action which they know is going to have serious detrimental effects to the environment and/or to people? Could it be because they know those bad effects are going to be shared by everyone, whereas the profits will come solely to them? This has become known among ecologists as the "predicament of the commons”—relatively small numbers of people damaging commonly needed resources for personal gain.

How many rivers, streams, wetlands, and flood plains have been polluted, diverted, dammed, or filled in the watershed where you live? Who "manages" the water and to what purpose? Shifting into a globally sustainable society will require our current world system of competitive nation-states to yield to a godly and spiritual global authority—with aligned regional sectors of local administrative bodies. (This is a teaching of The Cosmic Family volumes.)

China—where twenty-two percent of the world’s people reside—has enough water for half of its population. Aquifers (which take thousands of years to naturally recharge), and rivers are being drained dry. Remaining freshwater is heavily laced with sediments and waste.

Sandra Postel, water expert from the World Watch Institute and author of Last Oasis, Facing Water Scarcity, discloses that the technologies and know-how exist today to make every drop of water go further, decreasing the likelihood of scarcity and conflict. What is it going to take for humanity to wake up and make the necessary changes from a self-based planetary culture to one which is based on taking care of each other? Right now the world is splitting into two camps, and those who realize the need to transform all of our systems towards sustainability are forming coalitions where the need for experientially trained and properly motivated leaders is apparent. Making every entity—be it an individual, a corporation, a city, or a nation—accountable for damages directly or indirectly resulting from its actions done to the commons would be one way to turn the tide towards sustainability.

Four years ago, the Sedona/Verde Valley Chapter of the League of Women Voters met with leaders of their local area to discuss concerns. Water was a major concern for everyone. This was the incentive for the League to begin a public education process about water. That led to a coalition of concerned citizen groups to come together on the issue of water. The newly formed Northern Arizona Regional Watershed Consortium is conducting monthly water classes for those who have been, or wish to become, involved in bringing the Verde Watershed into hydrologic balance. Dorothy Hores, on the board of the League of Women Voters, attempts to address the needs for change in Arizona’s water management with the following statement: "It is absolutely crucial that we change our Arizona laws to legislation which will create locally-defined, regional water authorities which can effectively manage their water for the future."

In Arizona, Active Management Areas (AMA’s) for water are confined to the urban zones which make up only twenty percent of the state. In the AMA’s, developers are "required" to prove one hundred years of assured water supply in order to build. Since there has never been adequate research done on our water supplies (and the state budget for this research has now dwindled from not enough money to zero money allotted), no one really knows if the water will be there in the future. But the pressure for growth and development marches on, and the Arizona Department of Water Resources approves virtually all requests for water withdrawals from the "bank" of water available in this region.
In the eighty percent of the state which is classified rural, developers must "prove" an adequate water supply for one hundred years; a toothless requirement with no accountability. Outside the AMA’s, those conducting zoning hearings for proposed developments are legally constrained from even mentioning water as a factor in the viability of the proposed development. Some call Arizona water law the "Field of Dreams"—if you build it the water will come...but who is going to have to deal with shortages in the future? What legacy are we passing on?

The Northern Arizona Region Watershed Consortium is also delving into the problems in Arizona law arising from the lack of distinction between surface and deep ground waters. The laws are set up as if the diverting of water away from rural to urban areas will have no effect on the remaining deep ground water. This is a vital distinction when urban areas own the rights to surface waters in rural areas such as the case of Phoenix’s Salt River Project owning the surface water rights in the Verde Valley area. But the water cycle has not read those law books and follows its own natural laws, which say that depleted water from the water table is not easily or quickly restored. The drying up of riparian zones, wetlands, and flood plains affect the plants, the animals, and the people who live there. And when the plants die, their roots no longer call up the waters from down below, and their greenery no longer dances with the waters in the air.

Yet, with every crisis comes opportunity. Individually, water conservation in our homes and businesses is a good place to start. The greatest waste in the private sector is caused by water being used for landscaping. Collectively, supporting movements towards sustainability is necessary. And finally, establishing leadership that can be trusted to act for the good of the generations to come is imperative.

“It is becoming increasinly apparent that we shall not have the benefits of this world for much longer. The imminent and expected destruction of the life cycle of world ecolog can only be prevented by a radical shift in outlook from our present naive conception of this world...to a more mature view of the universe as a comprehensive matrix of life forms. Making this shift in view point is essentially religious, not economic or political.” -Vine Deloria, Jr. (author of God is Red)