World Water Day might be the most underappreciated and unknown ‘holidays,’ yet one of the most important days of the year, or at least it is in my opinion as an aspiring water professional. There is a pretty good chance that you might not even be aware of the fact that Thursday, March 22nd is World Water Day and is 25 years old this year. International Water Day serves to bring light to existing water problems in the world and the shear importance of water. This year, the theme is ‘Nature for Water’ with a general focus around “exploring nature-based solutions” to water-related challenges that we are currently facing. Finding these solutions start with current and future water professionals as well as general efforts in the international community resulting from increased public awareness and education.
More often than not, clean water is taken for granted by the average human. Admittedly, I have been guilty of this as a kid, often taking crazy long showers or letting the water run while I brush my teeth, but that quickly changed once I became more educated. Becoming more educated on water takes more than just your parent telling you not to waste water and very general government public service announcements, it extends to understanding the underlying impacts and things that go into providing clean water for drinking purposes, recreation, agriculture, industrial processes, and maintaining aquatic ecosystems. I ignorantly thought my mom was just trying to save money by cutting back on her water bill, which is not too far of a stretch, but she was also trying to communicate the importance of water without the proper means and information to effectively communicate this. Moreover, I cannot say that I really learned anything about water beyond the water cycle in my primary and secondary education until I started my undergraduate studies, which brings me back to my main point. How can we expect humans to make an effort to appreciate the luxury of clean water with water-related challenges in mind when the average person only understands the fundamentals of the water cycle in the environment? The answer is that realistically, we cannot because the average person, like my mother, does not have the mechanisms to truly grasp that water is not an unlimited resource and being a water advocate is more than just conserving water.
As said before, being a water advocate is more than just conserving water, it extends to minimizing litter and production of waste. The average person does not associate littering in the most general sense to water pollution, but rather to animals suffocating in bags or turtles getting caught in plastic rings. The connection of animals to the health of the ecosystem, especially aquatic ecosystems, is lost on the average person. Ecosystems rely on animals and organisms to have specific interactions with each other that as a whole maintain a healthy ecosystem, it is a highly sensitive balance that can be easily interrupted by human activity. Not to mention how hard it is to ‘repair’ or ‘restore’ an ecosystem, which to my knowledge, is never truly restored to an ecologist’s standards/observations for a number of reasons. Regardless, littering at any location, whether it is close to a body of water or not, should be avoided for reasons relating to stormwater runoff. Although this runoff is often directed into stormwater drains and/or sewers, depending on the infrastructure, these unnecessary pollutants can cause problems for a water treatment plant. In terms of discarded waste, such as wood, plastic bags, etc., these can pose problems for grates and other headworks units for a treatment plant. While these do exist for obvious reasons to remove physical wastes, these units can be unnecessarily damaged or create additional costs for repair and/or removing and transporting of waste, letting tax dollars go to waste - pun intended. On a somewhat unrelated note, flushing feminine products in my opinion constitutes as littering as they are also often problematic in treatment operations, not to mention problematic for your residential plumbing. Littering at the time might seem convenient, but the reality is that you already pay for a trash removal service so use it.
Unlike the more physical wastes that exist as a result of littering, the littered wastes that are often seen as biodegradable can create an increased biological oxygen demand (BOD) in an aquatic ecosystem. For those that are unaware of what an increased BOD can do to the health of an aquatic stem, look at the dead zone in the Gulf that is a result of fertilizer runoff from agriculture upstream for reference. Sure, agriculture occurs on a much larger scale, but there is not a need for any additional nutrients to create a BOD above the threshold that the ecosystem can tolerate which in turn creates more BOD once you have dead fish on top of vegetation degrading.
Speaking of fertilizer, the same concept holds for dog and animal waste. Frequently, I see people forgetting to bring waste bags when they take their animals out on a walk or neglecting to pick up their animal waste in their yard on a regular basis. While animal waste serves as a great fertilizer for your garden or yard, just like the traditional fertilizer used in agriculture, it creates a problem relating to stormwater runoff and increased BOD levels. Sure it is at a much smaller scale; however, that does not make it less of an issue because if we can control more isolated incidences such as animal waste and general litter from generating more BOD in an aquatic system, we can better control it from furthering the challenges that we are currently facing and preventing further damage to natural water systems. Moreover, BOD concentration of the incoming water (influent) and the required nutrient removal for the outgoing water (effluent) for a wastewater treatment plant are designing factors for biological processes. This BOD concentration of the influent is taken from historical data records so one can assume that if suddenly the influent BOD concentration deviates largely (BOD increases), the process will not be effective in removal and the plant will most likely not meet the effluent concentration requirements. Though it would probably take a lot for this to happen, do not be apart of the problem and pick up your dog waste. No one wants to step in it either.
Not only does clean water prevent further stress on the health industry, acting as the forefront of public health since a lot of harmful bacteria and viruses are killed or inactivated during treatment for drinking water, clean water and aquatic systems and their conservation are essential for a lot of our ongoing water challenges (shortages, flooding, contamination, etc.) that we are facing. Water is a luxury so take the opportunity this World Water Day to be better educated on the current issues and how you can do your part to not be apart of the problem. Check out the website for more information and interactive games: http://worldwaterday.org/