Water Stuff

A riddle to start the week:

I was consumed by dinosaurs. They are extinct. I survived.

I was here before you. I will be here long after you are gone.

I can kill you. I can destroy your cities. You can’t survive without me. I can invade your property at any time and you can do nothing to stop me.

I can crack engine blocks. I can break diamonds.

I scoured your state flat and created your fields and your prairies.

I surround you, and I am in you. I make up 75% of your brain. And 75% of the trees too, by the way.

I seem permanent and unchanging, yet you cannot step into me twice.

What am I?

If you guessed “The Sangamon River”, then you win this week’s Fabulous Grand Prize!* (see note)

More generally the answer is “water”: One of the most amazing substances on our planet. Water is the Sangamon River and the Sangamon River is water.

The earth is a giant terrarium, rarely losing or gaining matter, including water. We can safely say that no water is ever added to our planet and no water ever escapes.

The waters of the Sangamon River are the same waters that have been here for billions of years and have most likely circulated throughout the planet many, many times over. The water you drink out of your tap may very well have been drunk by a pterodactyl or a tyrannosaurus rex; or by one of your close relatives: a prehistoric Neanderthal, perhaps (and no, I’m not referring to your brother­in­law).

Water is everywhere! It covers 70.9% of the Earth’s surface. You wouldn’t think thirst would be a problem on a planet such as ours. But you would be wrong.

Cruelly, 97% of the world’s water has far too much salt content to be consumed by humans in any quantity. Only 3% of the world’s water is fresh, like the Sangamon River.

But the waters of the Sangamon River are even more rare than that.

That’s because two thirds of our freshwater is frozen in ice caps and glaciers. That leaves just 1% of the planet’s water for all of humanity’s agricultural, residential, manufacturing, community, and personal needs.

And thirty percent of this fresh water is in underground aquifers. So only two thirds of 1% of the planet’s fresh water is found in freshwater rivers such as the Sangamon and in freshwater lakes.

So you’d think we’d take good care of it, right?

Well, you’d be wrong again. The average total home water use for each person in the U.S. is about 50 gallons a day. Americans use more water each day by flushing the toilet than in any other activity.

And then there’s the mocha brown Sangamon River. While a healthy river according to assessments of its mussels and invertebrate populations, and although it’s called “fresh water”, no one is going to drink down a cup of nice fresh Sangamon River water. And no one should.

The Sangamon’s biggest problem is excess “turbidity” which are suspended solids, or mud. Much of it runoff from fields. Mud deposits organic material in the water reducing available oxygen as organisms decompose it.

Nesting sites of fish are covered by suspended solids.  High turbidity allows less light penetration reducing photosynthesis by plants in the water, and it creates warmer water that holds less oxygen.

Not only that, but rivers in agricultural areas such as the Sangamon suffer from high concentrations of nitrates and phosphorous.

These fertilizers cause algae to grow; in itself, not a bad thing since algae begins long food chains. But fertilized algae continue to grow to a point where fish can’t keep pace and the algae covers the surface.

Surface algae blooms block sunlight and kill plants on the bottom, then as plants die, populations of biological decomposers expand, which uses up even greater amounts of dissolved oxygen. As oxygen is depleted, decomposition becomes anaerobic and ammonia and methane bubble out of the ooze on the bottom and more fish can die. Fish which could have consumed that excess algae.

Eventually only the fish most tolerant of warm, oxygen depleted waters, such as catfish, carp and suckers, remain.

Good quality fresh water is a precious thing, essential to all life on our planet, and we should take care of it.

So take some time to think about the waters of the Sangamon River.

Remind yourself that 75% of your brain is comprised of that same stuff that’s flowing down the Sangamon River. And think about the fact that 75% of the trees along the river are made of water. (Then you might try ramming your brain against the trunk of one and see if that fact surprises you a bit.)

Water literally runs through us, comprising 83% of our blood. Water connects all of us together; us and the Sangamon River.

To paraphrase Carl Sagan: We are all ‘water stuff’.

Let’s take good care of each other.

* Your Fabulous Grand Prize!: One Sangamon River running right through your town. Which, to be honest, has actually been there all along, waiting for you. So what are you waiting for? Get out there on it! 

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, May 30, 2013, by Scott Hays

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