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Water: The Life Giver

Columnist Ruth Hopkins on the importance of water and the threat from fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline to the Ogallala Aquifer
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Earth, the blue planet. Earth’s blue appearance in space is due to that fact that 70% of its surface is covered in water. Since water played such an essential role in the development of our planet and the evolution of all living organisms here, it should come as no surprise that water is essential to all life on Earth. Without it, every single living thing on Earth would die.

Water possesses many exceptional, life-giving qualities. Water has a neutral pH, yet it serves as a universal solvent that dissolves more substances than any other liquid. It is also the only natural substance on our planet that is found in all three states: solid (ice), liquid, and gas (steam). Water has a high specific heat index, meaning it can readily absorb a lot of heat before it also gets hot. The high surface tension of water is responsible for capillary action that allows water and other nutrients to move through our body’s capillaries, and through the roots of plants. Without water, plants could not perform photosynthesis. Powered by sunlight, plants convert carbon dioxide and water into sugars and oxygen, thereby releasing clean air for us to breathe, and creating chemical energy that other organisms may absorb through the ingestion of plants.

Because humans need it to live, without an ample exchange of freshwater through our bodies on a daily basis, our health suffers. We are mostly water. The human body is approximately 60-80% water (depending on age, sex, and weight). The human brain is 70% water. Our blood is 83% water. The high water content in our blood allows our circulatory systems to control body temperature, transport waste, and aid digestion.

We use a lot of water. Estimates of water use in the United States indicate that about 408 billion gallons per day were withdrawn for all uses during 2000. In addition to individual daily use, water is used in a wide variety of industries to make everything from bread to steel. About 400 gallons of water are used to grow enough cotton to make a single pair of jeans.

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Because of our dependence on it, water is our most valuable natural resource. Furthermore, humans can only use freshwater. Most water on Earth is saltwater. Only 2.5% of all water on Earth is freshwater. Approximately 1% of freshwater is frozen in glaciers and ice caps or remains as moisture in soil. As the demand for freshwater rises due to exponential growth of human populations, and if the critical issues of water waste, pollution and climate change remain unresolved, water shortages will threaten the survival of all life on Earth. Yet, in an effort to squeeze the last few drops of costly fossil fuels from Earth, we continue to see the destruction of freshwater resources by a powerful few, while the silent majority apparently remains uninformed, uninterested, and apathetic.

Hydraulic fracturing, also referred to as "Fracking," is the process of using a pressurized fluid to fracture rock layers in order to release natural gas, petroleum, and other materials for extraction. Fracking uses millions of gallons of fresh water per well, and is suspected of contaminating drinking water even as it releases methane. At high levels, methane can cause explosions or asphyxiation. Methane is also a "greenhouse gas" that contributes to climate change. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that when drinking water wells were close to natural gas wells, levels of flammable methane gas in the water increased to dangerously high levels. The type of gas detected in the drinking water was the same type of gas that energy companies were extracting from thousands of feet underground. This suggests that the gas may be leaking through natural or manmade faults and fractures. Besides methane, the other types of gases identified in the wells implied that the gas was derived from hydrocarbon deposits underground distinctive to areas where fracking was ongoing.

During a two week sit-in, 1,252 environmentalists, including top climate scientists and indigenous First Nations and Tribal leaders, were arrested in front of the White House while protesting the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. If implemented, the pipeline would run from Canada’s tar sands to Texas oil refineries. One of the most disturbing aspects of this proposed pipeline is that it would cross the Ogallala Aquifer, the source of fresh drinking water for over 20 million Americans living in eight states. While those who want to profit from the pipeline insist that oil leaks would be rare, the original Keystone pipeline and its accompanying pumping stations have leaked a dozen times in the past year. One such oil spill took place on the Lake Traverse Reservation, the home of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate—the Tribe in which I am enrolled. If an oil spill took place in the Ogallala Aquifer, we could potentially lose that pure, freshwater source forever.

Water is a force of nature, forever moving and changing. We’ve all witnessed its raw power—via storms, floods, tsunamis and hurricanes. Water doesn’t need us, we need it. Protection of our freshwater resources is more important than our national interest, status, cash money, or convenience. Human beings are eternally linked to Earth through water. We cannot live without it. If we fail to protect water, we are dooming future generations to a wasteland of death. We must find a better way, before it’s too late.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, a pro-bono tribal attorney, a science professor, and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network. She can be reached at