Two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen is arguably one of the most valuable resources this Earth provides.
Of all the things in the world to be taken for granted, water seems to hold one of the highest rankings on the charts. Whether it is used for drinking or washing, farming or recreation, water is vital to keeping America running, let alone the world.
It may help to put this topic into perspective. Water takes up nearly 71 percent of the Earth’s surface. Nearly three quarters of this big, round world is covered in water, and 96.5 percent of that water is in the Earth’s oceans — not readily available for human consumption. That means 3.5 percent of the Earth’s water is freshwater — and critical for our survival. In addition, that figure includes not only water in rivers and streams, but also icecaps, glaciers, and aquifers — even vapor.
Water in Columbia, Missouri
Mid-Missourians are fortunate when it comes to water availability and quality. In fact, the city of Columbia and surrounding community gets its water from the 44 billion gallon McBaine aquifer. Each day, 30 million gallons are pumped out for use by the city and its inhabitants. Columbia may seem safely isolated from regions suffering from drought and water shortages around the world. However, availability of fresh water is closely tied to food production, and the issue of food security is a global matter consistently spreading its reach.
The effects of droughts in California and water rights trading that continues to take place in the southwest U.S., may reach Columbia in the form of increased food and energy costs. In countries around the world women and children walk many miles to gather a day’s worth of water. If California faces extended droughts, foods that currently fill the produce aisles of Midwest supermarkets may be in short supply. If climate change continues to affect sea levels, coastal natives will move inland — population control may become the next great issue to face.
Barbara Buffaloe, sustainability manager for the City of Columbia, said prevention and preparation are just as important as the immediate reactions to ongoing water crises.
“Because we are a water rich system currently, we also do know we need to look forward as a city into ‘what if the weather changes? How do we prepare ourselves for that?’” Buffaloe said.
However, it is not only more mindful to think ahead in terms of hardship or possible disaster, it is more economical as well.
“It is a lot more expensive … to rip up your grass and plant your natural systems and hope that they establish themselves without watering them than if you were to do it now, when we do have water, and you could water it to have those natural plants established,” Buffaloe said.
The ultimate goal is not to merely mitigate the problems that have already been created, but to maintain and sustain a good quality of life. Sustainability is not achieved overnight, though. Setting ourselves up for a more self-sustaining future requires updated technologies and new mindsets.
New technologies are consistently being tested and considered for future infrastructure and systems. For instance, Buffaloe said examples of these innovations can be found outside of Columbia’s City Hall. The surrounding sidewalks are made out of recycled glass and are porous to allow water to flow through after heavy precipitation. Plants are growing for aesthetics and absorption, and notices on doors remind people of the big impacts small actions can have.
Improving water technologies for conservation and biodiversity is just as important. At the Columbia Waste Water Treatment Plant, where an average of 17 million gallons flow through every day, employees work to treat water to be clean enough to enter back into streams and rivers in Missouri. Seven hundred miles of sewer lines carry wastewater to the plant — an impossible feat without updated technologies and a necessity for the sustenance of wildlife. In the past five years, a $54 million upgrade geared toward removing ammonia has improved the Waste Water Treatment Plant and added more criteria to their clean water standards.
Tour guide and Operations Superintendent at the Columbia Waste Water Treatment Plant, Steve Huebotter, has worked there since 1984 and takes pride in the company’s ultimate mission.
“We like it when people show interest in what we do for the environment,” he said.
Places like Columbia’s Waste Water Treatment Plant remind us that nothing is set in stone.
Buffaloe said she is hopeful about the future.
“Sustainability is kind of like the Colorado river,” she said. “We’re slowly working at it and then eventually we’ll have something beautiful like the Grand Canyon, but it’s going to take a while to get there.”
Water is necessary, vital and — both fortunately and not — one of a kind. No matter where you live, water will eventually be on your mind. The much of the world, the question is becoming not ‘where is it coming from?’, but instead ‘How do we ensure that it keeps coming?’
The City of Columbia provides more information on how you can participate in the fight against water exploitation.