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Water illustration

Water, water, nowhere?

In the 21st century, clean water will set the limits on growth and prosperity

By David Appell

See also:
How much water do we use?
Relocating Beijing?

Foaming water pours out of the Durham mill pond over the Oyster River dam in a roaring torrent. Released from confinement in the placid, weed-choked pond, the water leaps and gurgles as it rushes to the sea.

UNH scientist Charles Vörösmarty '83G, '91G dips his hand in the brown water at the dam's edge, measuring the tug of the spring current, at its strongest now after the snowmelt. "Two hundred years ago, water entering this river at its source would have taken one half of a day to reach the estuary," Vörösmarty says, shaking shimmering droplets off his fingers. "Today, Oyster River water takes twice that time to reach the estuary. Water everywhere is taking longer to get to the sea because of dams like this one, pollution, elevated sediment transport and destruction of flood plains."

In fact, some of the river's water is delayed in its journey for much more than a day. About 800,000 gallons gets sidetracked every day into the water system serving the town of Durham and the university. Normally, the river and an artesian well in Lee can meet the community's demand. But in a dry summer like 1999, the town must restrict water use and turn to the Lamprey River for some of the water it needs. Currently, during dry times, the town pipes water from the Lamprey to the headwaters of the Oyster River, in essence recharging that river. But this fall or next spring, the town plans to build a direct pipeline from the Lamprey to the water treatment plant.

Durham is far from the only New Hampshire town concerned about future water supplies, especially in the state's fast-growing southern tier. Newmarket, which has drawn its water from two artesian wells since the 1970s, will probably need to augment its supply from the Lamprey River in the near future--possibly as soon as this summer--according to town water and sewer superintendent George Laney. Low water pressure in Exeter and a significant drop in Portsmouth's Bellamy reservoir during the summer of 1999 have those towns looking for alternative sources. Hampton imposes water-conservation restrictions on residents each summer, banning lawn watering and car washing. And there is anecdotal evidence from well drillers that overuse of groundwater in the Bedford area means that wells need to be drilled deeper and deeper, Vörösmarty says.

More precious than oil

There is a message in the fact that prosperous towns in water-rich New Hampshire, where the average rainfall is 3.5 inches a month, are concerned about their water supplies. It gives us just the slightest glimpse of a looming problem of global proportions. In fact, an insufficient supply of clean water will probably be the single biggest problem facing most of the nations of the world throughout this century. Water shortages will affect more people more quickly and more dramatically than global warming or dwindling supplies of energy. And a recent UNH study reveals that the problem is much more serious than anyone had thought.

"The number of people experiencing water shortages right now is at least a billion more than any study had previously estimated," says Vörösmarty, an associate professor in UNH's Department of Earth Sciences and the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space. "When we look at projections for the year 2025, the undercount is even greater."


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