NYC Could Be A Global Model Of Water Purity

September 16, 2011 | Salute to Scholars, The University

The world’s rivers are in deep trouble, says Charles Vörösmarty, professor of civil engineering and director of CUNY’s Environmental Crossroads Initiative at City College. Nearly 80 percent of the world’s rivers are so adversely affected by humanity’s footprint that the drinking water of 5 billion people and the survival of 10,000-20,000 aquatic species are threatened, according to a report published last year in the journal Nature.

“This is quite alarming to us,” says Vörösmarty, a distinguished scientist with the NOAA-Cooperative Remote Sensing Science and Technology Center and the lead author of the study entitled, “Global Threats to Human Water Security and River Biodiversity.”

“This is a pandemic problem that is now part of the contemporary world.”

Scientists examined how 23 different human influences, including dams, pollution from heavy metals and sewage treatment plants, irrigation and overfishing affect water security. The study shows that some of the highest threat levels exist in the United States (the worst threats to aquatic species are in the southeastern states, including the Mississippi River) and in Europe.

“The way we’ve gone about business currently is to impair these river systems and basically live with the problem and throw very sophisticated engineering and technology solutions to try to fix these issues after they have come to pass,” says Vörösmarty. “That’s very costly and inefficient. If we try to forge a more sustainable pathway for our society, what we suggest is that we prevent the problems from arising in the first place.”

New York City’s watershed, which provides some of the cleanest and safest drinking water in the country, is a good example, says Vörösmarty, of how the water supply should be managed and protected. “From the federal level to the state level to the municipal level, we joined hands … if we didn’t invest in the protection of the watershed, we would be dealing with very costly treatment of what amounts to a much dirtier water,” he says.
Vörösmarty, who discussed the study’s findings at the Eco-Festival at Kingsborough Community College in April, insists that there should be a more proactive approach and a global sharing of information and tools to stop the degradation of rivers.

• Nearly 80% of the world’s rivers are so adversely affected by humanity’s footprint that the drinking water of 5 billion people and the survival of 10,000-20,000 aquatic species are threatened, according to a report published last year in the journal Nature.

A founder of the Global Water System Project, representing input from more than 200 scientists under the International Council for Science’s Global Environmental Change Programs, Vörösmarty hopes the study will bring attention to the root cause of this crisis.

“We’ve repaired problems after they arise,” he says. We should be “protecting ecosystems and allowing ecosystems to do the very good job that they naturally do in providing stable and clean water supplies.”

• Nearly 80% of the world’s rivers are so adversely affected by humanity’s footprint that the drinking water of 5 billion people and the survival of 10,000-20,000 aquatic species are threatened, according to a report published last year in the journal Nature.