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Challenges to water adequacy in our time

The Reece Museum currently shows a collection of art works from across the country, the Fl3tch3r exhibit on social and politically pressing issues of our time. With the artist’s reminder that water is the predominant component of the human body, and metaphorically expressing “Rusted Tears” over lack of protection and wasteful use of it, one poster bears this inscription:

“Someday there will be no water but our tears.”

Four times within the last three decades, if memory serves me, normally water-rich Tennessee has undergone severe or worse drought. This year, from June 21when the precipitation shortfall in the TriCities crept past three inches, the deficit kept growing: five inches a month later, seven at the end of October, more than nine by the third week of November.

A cracked-soil photo in the Knoxville News Sentinel, in October, could have been taken in my garden – no watering options there except for the rain barrels’ yield – long before that.

Shallow-rooted herbaceous plants, wild strawberry for example, are dying or long dead. Late crops such as soy bean have seen reduced harvest income for farmers, amid concern that rain-starved pastures may not come back adequately in spring.

In the September/October Tennessee Conservationist, the Department of Agriculture regional urban forester for East Tennessee warns that trees, too, need watering during long dry spells in the fall. Maintaining tissue moisture through water drawn from the soil is critical for trees, he notes, to assure productive foliage comeback next spring.

But by mid-November due to the drought, more than 30 utilities had to enact mandatory or voluntary water-use restrictions. Under these, trees and other (except human-food) plants cannot be given watering help, even though trees are essential to restoring and maintaining normal and stable climate conditions and precipitation.

We no doubt have a serious problem for which, however, requisite solutions are available.

A sign on a bench, in a Denver public park, states: “Use only water that you need – Denver Water.” It is a helpful conservation reminder to citizens. It also exemplifies a new need, for conservation education and practical action, by the utilities themselves: pricing it cheaper the more a customer uses may no longer be good water policy, nor sustainable in a drought-plagued future.

The government should take positive action, to forestall climate-change worsening on one hand and avoid negative action in the form of nationwide, systemic inflow reduction to rivers and streams, on the other.

In the latter category is a threatened reversal by the Congress of the WOTUS (Waters of the US) rule. This rule, implemented by the Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency in 2014, reinstated the Clean Water Act’s traditional jurisdiction over small creeks and wetlands, which a Bush-era (2003) Guidance had exempted from protection unless directly contributory to or adjacent to larger, navigable waters.

With water-shortage risks rising in Tennessee and across the nation, the Congress should affirm, not denigrate the WOTUS rule.

A future as the artist depicted surely must, and through wise action by all, can be avoided.