Blessed with watery wealth

Peninsula lucky to be overflowing with world's most precious resource

Posted: Sunday, November 23, 2003

When my summertime guests visited Alaska for their first time last June, they were unsurprisingly taken by the long days, slightly enriched by finding a bit of color as we panned for gold and thoroughly enjoyed seeing all our critters from the black bears on Mt. Marathon to the orcas erupting from Resurrection Bay.

What made the greatest, most indelible mark, however, was the abundance of water everywhere we turned on the Kenai Peninsula.

"Send us some," they said more than once.

You see, they were visiting from Utah, one of many Western states once again suffering through a drought year.

Until their visit, I always looked at the many lakes around here as good places for my wife and I to take our canoe out for a peaceful Sunday float. And I saw the majestic Kenai River not only for its unusual glacial green beauty, but also for its seemingly never-ending supply of king salmon, reds and silvers not to mention the Dollys and rainbow trout.

I never really thought much about it as water.

I don't believe I'm the only one around here who takes water for granted, but the fact is, we cannot live without it.

For many years, we have looked at oil as the natural resource most likely to spark wars, but in truth, the world can find alternatives for petroleum products. Solar, nuclear and wind power come immediately to mind as substitutes for oil.

Not so with water. Without it we die.

Many states Outside are already engaging in court battles over water. Arizona and New Mexico have been suffering through multiple years of drought, even worse than that affecting Utah. California is facing federal mandates to cut diversions of imported Colorado River water, and rapid growth in the Southeast has Alabama, Florida and Georgia pitted against each other for the precious resource.

Those battles, though serious, pale in comparison to what's happening on the global scene.

Mikhail Gorbachev, who founded Green Cross International to improve the environment worldwide after he stepped down as the Soviet Union's last president, recently called the shortage of fresh water the most pressing issue facing the world today.

He is quoted as saying, "In the Middle East, the situation is so bad that we may see a conflict even worse than what we are seeing today over water."

When Lebanon installed a pumping station to divert water from the Wazzini River for its own use before the river flowed into Israel, for example, Israel called the act one of terrorism and threatened to knock out the pumping station and declare war against anyone who defended it.

Since Israel seized the Golan Heights 35 years ago, it controls the headwaters of the Jordan River, a prime source of water for Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians, who claim Israel is withholding water to drive them off their lands.

Relatively water-rich Turkey has agreed to sell water to Israel each year and said it is willing to talk to Jordan about similar sales, but those acts in themselves are not expected to solve the region's water woes.

Although Saudi Arabia controls a vast amount of the world's petroleum, it has no permanent lakes or perennial rivers and very limited underground sources of water.

It is estimated that the Saudis use three times as much water to support agriculture as they receive annually in rainfall. However, their oil riches also moved the country into a building boom 20 years ago that brought fountains, swimming pools and sprinkling systems to the sandy desert landscape.

Saudi Arabia derives much of its water by desalinating seawater, and pumps fresh water from underground sources. But neighboring Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan complain that the Saudis are sucking up their water.

For centuries, unrest has prevailed among nations in the Mideast, whether over religious and philosophical differences or due to economics, but when the issue switches to water in a life and death struggle to survive, war is certain to erupt.

Fortunately for us here on the Kenai Peninsula, water is readily available. Sure, some folks may not have a well or be on city water, and may have to haul their water, but for the most part, they can get all they want without cost.

As the Thanksgiving Day holiday approaches later this week, I know I won't be sending any of our abundant resource to my friends in Utah, and there isn't much I can do about the scarcity of water in the Mideast, but in my travels around the peninsula, I'll be viewing the Kenai River and all the creeks and streams draining into it in a different light.

In addition to being breeding grounds for next year's salmon, I'll give thanks that the river is there for us as a seemingly infinite source of fresh water.

Phil Hermanek is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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