Gary Lamberti Discusses
Freshwater Crisis at SHU Lecture
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Sacred Heart University)
The world’s freshwater resources are in crisis and we need to find solid solutions soon to avert further extinction of native species, destruction from invasive creatures and needless death from water-related disease, according to Dr. Gary Lamberti, the featured speaker at the Hesburgh Alumni Lecture held at Sacred Heart University’s 5151 Park Avenue, Fairfield campus Thursday evening, October 27.
Lamberti is a professor and chair of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame, where he has been a member of the faculty since 1989, and is the author of over 120 publications related to his field. His work as an aquatic ecologist and environmental scientist has been focused on conserving wild salmon in Alaska, the ecology of invasive species and river restoration. He shared his insights at SHU’s Schine Auditorium to a full house of undergraduate science students in a presentation titled “The Global Freshwater Crisis: Challenges and Solutions.” This is the sixth consecutive annual lecture in an academic-led series hosted by SHU’s University College and the Notre Dame Alumni Club of Fairfield County.
“This crisis is not about having too little water to satisfy needs but managing it so badly,” Lamberti said. “Our freshwater resources have been inflicted by environmental alterations about whose long-term consequences we are blissfully ignorant.”
Noting that most of our planet is blue, Lamberti suggested that almost all environmental problems are tied into water, e.g. invasive species are transported by water, air pollution causes acid rain. “As Earth’s population grows, demand for water is increasing, and unless solutions are found, the result could be shortages, famine, even war,” he said. “Only 2% of the planet’s water is fresh, and mostly ice. Most of the accessible freshwater -- just .3% groundwater and less in freshwater lakes and rivers -- is underground and we’re depleting it.”
One major freshwater source in the United States is the Ogallala Aquifer, in the Midwest, which spans from Nebraska to Texas. Wells there, used to irrigate crops, are depleting resources. In fact, the lion’s share of the world’s accessible water is being used for agriculture to grow crops, then industry and municipal (taps, toilets), according to Lamberti, who added that there is also freshwater loss due to evaporation from reservoirs.
Another resource is the Great Lakes, which represents 20% of the world’s surface freshwater. “Everyone has their eye on it,” said Lamberti. “There have been discussions about taking from it, and creating an enormous aqueduct for distribution. Currently, however, it is prohibited to take more than a bottle of water from it.”
Concern about freshwater supplies was first shown in earnest in the 1960s. Congress recognized that U.S. rivers were being altered by dams and development. During that decade, five dams per day on average were being built. In the U.S. now, hardly any are being built, though the complete opposite is true in Asia. Lamberti said dams interrupt natural flow of water, fragmenting rivers.
Climate change is another factor likely to change the distribution of water. “Air temperatures are increasing, so there’s less snow cover,” Lamberti said. “As a result, the ground heats up more quickly, which drives more melting of ice.”
What does that mean for rivers? “River temperatures are increasing, which affects organisms,” he said. “The warm intolerant ones die, while toxins grow.”
On a planet that now holds seven billion people, one billion lack access to clean water. Three-and-a-half billion lack adequate water sanitation. In developing countries, over 90% of wastewater is discharged without even basic treatment. These statistics are startling but even more troubling is that there are 250 million cases of water-related disease each year, with 5-10 million deaths, including 4,000 children per day, from diarrhea and dysentery. Much of this inflicts the developing world, Lamberti related.
Equally disturbing is that most people don’t live where the accessible water is. Water shortages could lead to war, particularly in the Middle East, Egypt, Pakistan, India and China. The inland Aral Sea has shrunk by nearly 90% of its original size since 1989 due to exploitation, which has affected entire ways of life, said Lamberti.
Dramatically affected as well are the species that live in the freshwater ecosystems, half of which have been destroyed in the last 100 years. Forty percent of the world’s fish are freshwater, and one-fifth are threatened or endangered. In the U.S., mussels and crayfish top the list.
What’s being done? Specific to Notre Dame, the university’s Center for Aquatic Conservation is conducting research, education and outreach. Dr. David Lodge, who teaches Invasive Species Biology, is helping eliminate harmful species, like the Snakehead and Asian Carp, before they get a toehold. Dr. Jennifer Tank is focused on retaining nutrients along river flood plains.
“To solve our freshwater problems, we need to look at the causes, consequences and solutions,” Lamberti summarized.