Water use and abuses

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

This summer’s drought serves as a grim reminder of water quantity and quality issues and highlights our dependence on water. When the rains return, we return to our water-intensive lifestyles. Over the years, we have witnessed some of the adverse consequences of our excessive water use.

A new neighbor drilled a well and another neighbor’s existing well went dry. Students from Nebraska reported when a neighbor drilled a well to provide irrigation water, their farm well went dry. One summer in Alabama, we experienced the lack of municipal water by 3 p.m. each afternoon as the existing water impoundment was unable to keep up with demand. Overnight, flow from the local river replenished the supply.

At a small lake in Wisconsin, it was common for summer cottage wells to be less than 50 feet deep. When outhouses were abandoned and replaced with septic tanks and leach fields, the behavior of cottagers changed. They used more water and detergents for washing clothes, and showered in the morning and after a swim. Soon, shallow wells were polluted, so people had deeper wells drilled.

As families grew, use increased, along with the tendency to hold large social events at the cottages. Keeping the lawn green became a passion, and fertilizer use became common. As water and chemical use increased, so did the pollution load in the lake, and algal blooms appeared.

Added to the lake load was the chemical pollution from intensified farming and animal confinement operations. Soon, lake owners were paying a fee to have the lake treated to kill the weedy growth. As more people seek the lake habitat for beauty, relaxation and social status, increased water consumption is assured.

In the broader society, water consumption continues to expand with ethanol plants using large quantities of it and releasing permitted levels of pollutants. Confinement feeding operations use copious amounts of water. Added is the use of water in mining operations to provide sand for fracking and water use in fracking for oil and gas. In Ohio, industry can now withdraw up to 89 million gallons per day from any river, stream or underground source without a permit. Consumption also expands with increased production of oil from Canadian tar sands largely ignored by its consumers in the Chicago region.

Another aspect of the water issue is bottled water. A recent suit from a Chicago firm alleges the bottled water sold to them in 5-gallon jugs was thought to be spring water until they learned it came from from an Illinois municipality. Critics point out that federal standards for bottled water are less stringent than those imposed on municipal water supplies. Additionally, plastic water bottles usually end as landfill waste.

Water issues and a stout grassroots campaign contributed to abandoning the planned dairy confinement operation in the Elizabeth area. A suit by environmental groups to the proposed sand-mining operation near Starved Rock State Park includes water issues.

The elation expressed over increased energy supplies from North America ignores numerous adverse effects — including those related to water — that need to be addressed. While many reforms are needed, using local water, using less water and using it efficiently provide good places to start.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Dec. 26, 2012-Jan. 1, 2013, issue

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