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A well-watered state

04/07/04 12:00AM By Ted Levin
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(Host) Running water provides one of the distinctive sounds of spring in our region. Commentator Ted Levin says we're lucky.


(Levin) Where I live in Thetford Center the availability of drinking water is not an issue. Our well taps a vein of gin clear water 230 feet beneath the surface and delivers it with a pressure of 40 pounds per square inch. Our water is so good, so plentiful I could market it under the label "Coyote Hollow Water."

Everyone isn't as fortunate. Only three percent of the planet's water is fresh. Of that, more than two-thirds is bound in glaciers - rock hard and unavailable. That leaves less than one percent of Earth's water available for drinking and washing and mixing bourbon, and that isn't evenly distributed. According a report in Business Week, water will become the "oil of the twenty-first century."

For many countries, the answer to where will we get fresh water is desalination, the conversion of brine to beverage. In 1960, there were five desal plants worldwide. Today:12,500.

The other evening, Annie stated the most cogent argument against using the ocean for something other than a receptacle for skipping seashells. "Is there no limit to growth," she said. Then, paraphrasing the ethereal voice of Shoeless Joe in the film Field of Dreams, "If you build them they will come...and come."

Recently, I visited the largest desalination operation in the Western Hemisphere, a 25 million-gallons-a-day plant on the edge of Tampa Bay. The facility supplies 10 percent of the region with fresh water.

Pinellas County, the peninsula on the west side of Tampa Bay, that includes the city of St. Petersburg, has no freshwater of its own. Never has. The county owns 11 well-fields north of its border that supplied the peninsula with potable groundwater.

Today, as Pinellas County's population approaches a million, those well-fields are depleted and surrounding wetlands are brittle fire hazards. In an effort to alleviate the shortage, the regional water authority agreed to scale back pumping groundwater and to find alternative sources. The desal facility, one of several options, is a reverse osmosis membrane system.

Saltwater is pushed at extreme pressure through tiny pores, each approximately 1/100,000 the width of a human hair. The pores are so small that ultra-tiny molecules of water pass through, but larger molecules of dissolved minerals do not. Pressure forces out the salt.

Why doesn't Pinellas County treat waste water with reverse osmosis? The yuck factor. Although St. Petersburg has been a pioneer is using waste water for irrigation, people don't want to drink treated sewage. Everyone is happy to water lawns and wash their cars with treated waste water, but to have it gushing out of the kitchen faucet is anathema, like eating dog meat.

While desalination is an unavoidable option in Florida, Texas, and the rest of the Southwest, I'm thankful I live in a region where sweet water runs above and below the surface, and leaks out of rock faces along the interstate. For at least the foreseeable future, Vermont is a well-watered state.

This is Ted Levin from Coyote Hollow in Thetford Center.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer specializing in natural history. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.
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