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On not taking water for granted

THE drought now evident in large parts of the Eastern United States -- from the South, north through the mid-Atlantic states, and up into New England -- reminds Americans of the importance of protecting and increasing the nation's water resources. The current US drought cannot be compared in severity to water shortages in parts of Africa during recent years. Drought in Africa has devastated large stretches of that continent and contributed to incalculable personal hardship and tragedy. Yet, it is precisely because the United States is such a wealthy nation, blessed with its natural bounty of land and water, that Americans would seem to have an extra obligation to take far better care of their water resources than they have so far.

Despite improvements in curbing pollutants in rivers, streams, and lakes, far too much of the nation's water resources continues to be contaminated. Many water delivery systems are outdated and in need of repair. And conservationists correctly note that as a people Americans continue to overuse water. Indeed, water use in the United States has more than doubled since the early 1950s, seriously depleting a number of underground aquifers. Much of that increased water usage has come from industry. But much of it also stems from excessive or inattentive water usage in homes.

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It would be unfair to suggest that there are easy or quick answers to the US water shortage. Some solutions, such as spending appropriate amounts of public funds on rebuilding water delivery systems, would require substantial dollar outlays at a time when public funds are already stretched to meet other commitments.

All the same, some steps would seem in order:

The longtime federal role in protecting drinking water needs to be zealously guarded -- and strengthened. Congress, for its part, should renew and update existing federal water laws to ensure that the nation's present water supplies are free of serious contamination. Moreover, Congress should vigorously resist efforts to turn regulation of water supplies back to the states, as has been discussed within the administration.

Industry and local water jurisdictions need to step up efforts aimed at recycling methods. Also, states and local water authorities need to be more aggressive in setting up coordinated regional approaches toward water conservation.

Individuals need to take stock of their own water usage, starting with just a simple inventory of household practices. The impression of abundance should not distract Americans from prudent management of their water resources.

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