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Johnston: Water and us

By Adam Johnston - Special to the Standard-Examiner | May 18, 2022

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Adam Johnston

I grew up in western Oregon where, much of the time, water didn’t just fall out of the sky but was the very fabric around us, a pervasive mist for months on end. Gray skies and mossy surfaces dominated everything around me. In college, when I met people from other, dryer, western states, I couldn’t understand why these transplants seemed so down after a few months of damp. It wasn’t until I’d moved from my drippy homeland to Utah that I understood that blue skies and dry air in February was possible.

I’ve been thinking a lot about water lately, especially its scarcity. Will we have enough, how do we get more, how long can I shower and how much water should I use for my favorite peach tree in my backyard? My chest tightens as I look at snowpack measurements.

But water is more than just something we dump onto the grass or let run downstream. It is us. And water, for all of its common everyday flavorless, colorless, literally falling from the sky kind of mundanity, is amazing. It’s the weirdest of any liquid I know — for example, having a solid form that floats instead of sinks — even though it makes up most of what you drink in multiple forms (water from the tap, but also milk, soda and beer), as well as most of your own self. Contained within a network of bags (organs) held upright and protected by a collection of mineral deposits, it is our very essence.

The issue facing us now is the need for water for us to live. Utah has declared a state of emergency already in anticipation of the difficulties we’re facing with ongoing drought conditions and looming summer months. In addition, our weather and ecosystems here on the Wasatch Front depend on the giant puddle to our west, the Great Salt Lake. Its water line continues to recede to historic and panic-inducing levels and is projected to drop further this year. There simply isn’t enough of a source in our mountains to restore it. Then there’s people, us, intercepting what water there is on its way to the basin. Rather than a wasted brine container, GSL is pivotal in our lives and livelihoods, our ecosystems and our economies.

What can we do? That ocean I grew up next to has plenty of water in it, and in our technological society we often redistribute resources through pipes or on railways. Yet, the energy needed to move that much water, uphill, rivals the total of all energy we already use in our daily lives. It was only after I did the calculation that I remembered that hydroelectric dams use this idea in reverse to power entire regions, including where I grew up. Fortunately, the sun’s energy already churns weather systems and pumps water from the ocean into our snowpacks each year. The problem is that this is just as reliable as weather ever is and, with climate changing, it’s increasingly dicey.

So now what? It’s not rocket science: We need to waste less, use only what we need, and be more thoughtful about how we divert it and how our communities collectively manage it. But rocket science is also easy in comparison. You only need a few people working together to get something into orbit. To manage our community’s water supply, we have to all work together. That’s the truly hard part.

I have faith in the collective, though. Oh, to be sure, that faith is tested in so many ways. But in so many other ways, we have the capacity to care about the community and our future. Problems have solutions, even if they aren’t easy. Yet addressing a problem is the second step. The first, and maybe most important, is caring enough to be ready to solve the problem. Collaborations of humans find ways to image black holes and choreograph ballets, so surely we have the ability. Knowing that the water is in us and is us gives me hope that we’ll be willing to take this on.

Adam Johnston is a professor of physics and director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at Weber State University, where he helps to prepare future teachers and provides support for classroom educators throughout Utah.

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