Our planet, it turns out, is woefully misnamed – Earth harbors very little terra firma. Instead we are afloat in water. Approximately 71% of the surface of our rather diminutive orb is covered in the stuff. Hence, more fitting epithets for our home would be liquid, fluid, moist, aqueous or hydrous. 

As with all convincing illusions, the ubiquitousness of water belies the vanishing rareness of freshwater. As the old cliche goes, “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink!” Truer words were never spoken. Oceans and other saline water sources account for about 97.4% of all water on Earth. We cannot drink saltwater and desalinating it is cost and energy prohibitive almost everywhere it could hypothetically be done. 

The remaining 2.6% of Earth’s total account of water is freshwater, which comes as some relief given its unparalleled importance in our daily lives. Even this meager figure, however, is mostly smoke and mirrors. Of this 2.6% an astounding 68.7% is locked up in glaciers and ice caps, rendering it inconveniently unusable by humans. Another 30.1% of all freshwater is underground – groundwater – some of which is available and some not. Only a paltry 1.2% of all the Earth’s freshwater is found on the surface.

If we continue to peel the onion, this 1.2% is partitioned thusly: 69% ground ice and permafrost, 20.9% lakes, 3.8% soil moisture, 3% atmospheric moisture, 2.6% swamps and marshes, .49% rivers and streams, and .26% living things. Let’s focus now on the .49% allotted to rivers and other flowing water. 

What percentage of this is polluted? Astoundingly, about 80% of the world’s wastewater is dumped right back into various natural sources of water, including both fresh and saltwater bodies.

Once water is drawn from underground sources, as in mining, the aquifer begins to be depleted, as recharge rates are often insufficient to keep up with the overuse. Nor will releasing the used mine water at the surface recharge the aquifer. Once we have used water, it rarely sees the aquifer again.

Entire liquid ecosystems replete with a myriad of species are all dependent upon clean water. Varied vertebrates thrive in and near healthy freshwater in Arizona and beyond; Canadian beaver, North American otter, bald eagle, Apache trout, American dipper, to name but a few. Another real litmus test for the quality of freshwater is its populations of aquatic invertebrates. One of the first things that I do when I encounter a wild source of water is to look for water boatmen, backswimmers, diving beetles, whirligig beetles, caddisfly larvae, dragonflies, damselflies, and other species that depend upon a healthy watery domain. Most, if not all, wild water sources in Arizona should look like variations on an aquarium. Beware those that lack any visible life at all, as that may be a telltale sign of unseen pollution – often locally from older mines.

Need more reasons to worry about our local water supplies? Sydney, Australia recently made international news for all the wrong reasons. In addition to historic numbers of wildfires, the city of about 5 million people may well run out of freshwater. Rainwater supplies most of their drinking and municipal needs and the rains are increasingly fickle due to climate change. Reservoirs there are precipitously shrinking with no great solutions in sight. Are we in parched Arizona immune to such catastrophes? In short, we are not. 

Locally, Sonoita Creek and Patagonia Lake are irreplaceable freshwater treasures that offer a lifetime of sublime natural experiences, but only if we safeguard them from abuse. Come to your own conclusions, but please, don’t just consider local ‘economic benefits’ of mining. We are in the same proverbial boat as Sydney in terms of needing clean freshwater. Will we stay afloat?

Vincent Pinto and his wife, Claudia, run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS, their Nature Adventure & Conservation organization devoted to protecting the unique biodiversity of the Sky Islands region. Visit: www.ravensnatureschool.org