Last month, scientists celebrated an important discovery: a potential lake under the southern polar ice cap on Mars. It’s not very big (about 12 miles across) and it would have to be very salty to remain liquid in a place colder than Antarctica, but it’s exciting because life as we know it depends upon the existence of liquid water. The search for life on Mars, even tiny microbes, faces a water problem since most of what’s there is frozen solid. If there really is a submartian lake, it’s possible the red planet may not be as lifeless as it appears.
Back on Earth, we have abundant liquid water that has sustained life for billions of years, but we’re doing our level best to foul it up. Here, it’s just one water problem after another as aquifers are depleted, municipal sources are contaminated, and water infrastructure decays with age.
In Flint, Michigan, where they’ve had a water problem since 2014, there are several pending lawsuits related to the crisis. In one, a class action suit brought by several Flint residents and businesses, U.S. District Judge Judith E. Levy dismissed several defendants including Michigan’s Republican governor Rick Snyder and former Flint mayor Dayne Walling, citing that the plaintiffs haven’t alleged that these officials knew what they were doing when they switched Flint’s water source to the more corrosive Flint River. Walling, who is currently running in the August Democratic primary to represent a portion of the Flint area in the Michigan House of Representatives, faces skepticism from voters who remember him flipping the switch on Flint’s water, but he lays the blame at the feet of state government and the emergency management team Snyder appointed to take over Flint’s finances.
Michigan, however, has a wider water problem than just the Flint crisis. Both the Kalamazoo area and the Huron River system (which runs through Oakland, Livingston, and Washtenaw counties) have been dealing with industrially contaminated water. Governor Snyder declared a state of emergency in Kalamazoo County where high levels of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFAS) have been found in the municipal water system. PFAS are chemicals used in manufacturing and consumer products; Snyder is looking at legal proceedings against 3M, a company that makes products containing PFAS. Apparently Snyder, fresh off the hook in Flint, is very concerned about Michigan’s drinking water.
While algae blooms and piles of dead fish plague Florida’s tourist beaches, schools in Brevard County, Florida, finally passed safety tests just in time for school to start, but the area still has a major water problem. Nearby residents from Florida’s barrier islands are alarmed at levels of perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) in ground water. Like the PFAS and PFOS found in Michigan, these are chemicals used in a multitude of industries, are implicated in a wide variety of cancers, and which remain in the environment for decades. There has been a spike in the number of cancer cases in the barrier island area, but federal officials haven’t considered it a “cancer cluster.”
What happens when your water problem isn’t contamination, but potentially running out of water for good? In Arizona, homeowners in the Sulphur Springs area drew their water from an underground basin that has been collecting rain and snowmelt for some 20,000 years. While draining an aquifer faster than it can naturally replenish itself is unsustainable from the get-go, an influx of farmers from the Middle East, attracted by Arizona’s hands-off (un)regulatory environment, descended upon the desert community and made it worse by exporting water in the form of alfalfa and other agricultural products. Now, many residents must buy water and have it delivered, or move. It’s all perfectly legal, and apparently what the voters of Arizona prefer, but does that make it right?
Water is a precious resource. You’d think we’d treasure it, but instead, we treat it like a sewer (oopsie!), waste it via leaks and broken infrastructure, and foul it with plastic, lead and industrial chemicals, as if it weren’t necessary for our continued existence. If any Martian microbes are depending on that cold, salty water, they better hope we never lay our filthy hands on it.
Related: Water News, from Local to Global