While much of the Earth Week news coverage has dwelt on the lasting effects of the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster, two other events have highlighted a separate but related issue: water supply.

Drought conditions in the Plains and Southwest have damaged winter wheat crops and fueled the spread of wildfires in Texas. Two volunteer firefighters, Elias Jaquez and Eric Finley, have died in Texas; 1,800 firefighters from more than 30 states have been fighting the blazes. As global climate disruption continues, we should expect to see the frequency and severity of extreme weather events like floods and droughts increasing and threatening more crops, homes, and lives.

Our energy choices affect our water as well as the overall climate, and we got a stark reminder of that earlier in the week when a blowout at a Chesapeake Energy natural-gas well in Bradford County, Pennsylvania spilled thousands of gallons of chemical-laced hydrofracking fluid into nearby waterways. Blowouts aren’t the only environmental concern with hydraulic fracturing, which uses high-pressure injections of water, sand, and chemicals into the ground to release natural gas; potential groundwater contamination is also a major concern in communities where natural gas drilling occurs. Since 2005, hydraulic fracturing chemicals have been excluded from Safe Drinking Water Act reporting requirements, so it’s been hard to tell exactly what gas companies are injecting into the ground. Last week the minority staff of the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce released a report on the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. They found:

Between 2005 and 2009, the 14 oil and gas service companies used more than 2,500 hydraulic fracturing products containing 750 chemicals and other components. Overall, these companies used 780 million gallons of hydraulic fracturing products – not including water added at the well site – between 2005 and 2009.

Some of the components used in the hydraulic fracturing products were common and generally harmless, such as salt and citric acid. Some were unexpected, such as instant coffee and walnut hulls. And some were extremely toxic, such as benzene and lead. … The most widely used chemical in hydraulic fracturing during this time period, as measured by the number of compounds containing the chemical, was methanol. Methanol, which was used in 342 hydraulic fracturing products, is a hazardous air pollutant and is on the candidate list for potential regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Other forms of energy production also affect water supply and quality. As the Fukushima disaster has reminded us, it takes a lot of water to cool nuclear fuel rods. Waste from coal mining (especially the mountaintop-removal kind) and coal-burning power plants has polluted waterways in Appalachia and elsewhere.

“A startling vulnerability and an untapped opportunity”
The US made great strides toward protecting our water supply with the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, but since then our ability to address environmental issues seems to have waned. I’m not feeling a lot of Earth Day optimism about our federal government’s ability to ensure us an adequate and clean supply of water over the next few decades.

One potential bright spot comes from Charles Fishman, who’s just published an excerpt from his book The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water in Fast Company magazine. Fishman reports that companies that use lots of water are realizing water efficiency can be good for business, so they’re developing products and processes that are less water-intensive. Fishman writes:

In the past decade, businesses have discovered water as both a startling vulnerability and an untapped opportunity. Monsanto is developing a new line of seeds and crops that require less water. Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s CTO, says, “We believe that by 2030 we can double the yield for many crops, compared to the year 2000.” In the hospitality industry, Celebrity Cruises has replaced ice with chilled river rock for cold food on the main buffet line at breakfast, lunch, and dinner on all nine of its megaships. That saves 2.7 million pounds of ice-making a year for each ship, ice that requires 330,000 gallons of water to be frozen, treated, and then pumped back overboard. In Las Vegas, the folks at MGM Resorts have worked with Delta faucets to prototype new water-saving showerheads. No less a sage than Warren Buffett has quietly realized how the water landscape is changing. In 2009, his company, Berkshire Hathaway, became the largest shareholder in Nalco, a water-services, treatment, and equipment company that has no public profile but 12,000 employees and nearly $4 billion in revenue.

GE Water is an ambitious new division of the global conglomerate, with 8,000 employees at 50 manufacturing facilities worldwide and revenue of about $2.5 billion. GE Water cleans water for a West Virginia coal mine to reuse; GE Water has built the largest desalination plant in Africa, in Algiers; GE Water has created a wastewater-purification plant that produces 172,000 gallons a day of reuse water to keep the fairways and greens lush at Pennant Hills Golf Club in Sydney.

While some businesses are benefiting from an immediate reduction in their water bills, others are investing in efficiency with an expectation that water prices will rise as the supply drops farther below the demand. (As I’ve described before, much of the world’s population already suffers from an inadequate supply of clean water, but I expect global awareness of water-supply issues to increase dramatically once those accustomed to ample water face major constraints on its use.) But some companies aren’t feeling enough pressure to make the investments:

[GE Water’s] business is busy, but it hasn’t grown as fast as GE would like. It turns out that many companies are skeptical about spending money on water when there is no urgent pressure — be it financial, governmental, or scarcity — to do so. “Customers aren’t feeling a cost for their water,” says Jeff Fulgham, chief marketing officer for GE Water, “so they’re reluctant to spend money to improve their situation.”

I don’t think it’s a great idea to rely solely on private business to ensure us an adequate supply of clean water for the coming decades, but on an otherwise disheartening Earth Day I’ll take what I can get.

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