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GCA Pamphlets: Addressing Water Issues for Garden Clubs: Scrollable Version

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Addressing Water Issues for Garden Clubs

Addressing Water Issues for Garden Clubs

  • Water is essential to life. It is a resource for which there is no substitute.
  • Water is both a renewable resource and a finite one. There is only so much water available in the hydrologic cycle of Earth. The 6 billion people on Earth today share the same amount of water that was available to one-sixth of the population at the turn of the nineteenth century.
  • Although water covers roughly 70% of the earth’s surface, 97.5% of the water is salt water, and much of the remaining fresh water is frozen in glaciers. Humans have access to less than 1% of the total water on the planet.
  • Of the available fresh water, individuals use less than 10%; agriculture uses 70%; the remainder goes to industry.

While theoretically there is sufficient fresh water on earth to support the growing population, distribution remains the looming problem. Often the ability to redistribute water from water-rich areas to water-poor areas is thwarted by social, political, and technological barriers. In addition, increasingly poorer water quality threatens the water sources that are available. Some former sources of potable water are now polluted beyond repair. Improper sanitation, agricultural and urban runoff, salt water intrusion, and industrial pollution all impact the supply of safe water. Groundwater is now being pumped faster than it can be replenished, thereby using tomorrow’s water to meet today’s needs. As governments struggle to meet water needs, the question arises of whether water is a commodity to be traded like oil and gas or whether it is a fundamental human right.

Historically, societies have viewed water sources, such as rivers, streams, and wetlands, as resources to be developed and used. The substantial rewards of water development (dam construction, channelization, and long-distance water transport) included the generation of hydroelectric power, expansion of irrigated agriculture, growth of trade on inland shipping routes, and urban and recreational advancement. Scientists now realize that this progress has come at an ecological price in terms of the loss of “ecosystem services." The crucial role played by the natural environment in water purification, moderation of floods and droughts, maintenance of habitat for wildlife, and processing of soil and nutrients has essentially gone unrecognized and unvalued.   

As gardeners we have always appreciated the value of clean, available water, but most of us have been able to take that resource for granted. Today, as daily news reports appear about droughts, water rationing, dead zones in the oceans, and pollution from run-off, we are aware that water problems abound. As leaders in our communities, our garden clubs need to educate ourselves so that we, in turn, can educate others. We can change from being part of the problem to being catalysts for solutions.

Where to Begin?

Identify Your Watershed     

No matter where we live or work, we are always in a watershed. Very simply, a watershed is a drainage system in which all the water above and below ground moves into a receptor body of water such as a lake, river, stream, bayou, or estuary. A small watershed is likely to be part of a larger one. Watersheds can be delineated for any water body, whether it is a creek flowing through your neighborhood or the Mississippi River.

As our population grows, so do the risks to our waterways from activities in the watershed. Understanding our role in watershed management is key to the protection of our waterways, floodplains and drinking water, plus our recreational and fishing areas.

The easiest way to learn the boundaries of a watershed is by using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) websites: verify and update these (Watershed Information Network),, and (Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds).   

replace diagram here: Diagram of a Watershed from    

Assess Local Watershed Issues    

Think about what is in your watershed – agriculture, industry, urban development? Consider the different factors and activities that impact your region’s water quality and quantity. It may help to organize your questions into general categories. Many more questions will come up in the course of your research.

  • Watershed: What are the threats to your watershed? Dam construction or removal? What kinds of pollution threaten it? Urban and agricultural run-offs? What happens to rain or snow when it reaches the ground? What does it carry with it? What is the composition of the soil? Sandy loam or dense gumbo?
  • Land Use: What are the current uses? Are they changing? Is development taking over rural land? If so, what is the effect? On run-offs, flooding? On the demands for water? Or replenishing the aquifer? How do agricultural uses affect water? Pollution? How do forestry practices affect water? How does industry?
  • Drinking Water: Who manages your local water agency? Is it a local organization or a subsidiary of a large global corporation? Where does the water come from? Are the water sources (lakes, rivers, aquifers) threatened? Are they adequate for now? What about after population growth? Are there chemicals present in the water?  
  • Sewage: Is your community meeting its treatment requirements? Are there issues of combined sewers?Decaying systems? How is sewage treated and how completely? Where does it go?
  • Habitats: How are habitats affected by water uses? Are invasive plants displacing native vegetation? Are wildlife, fish, or bird species disappearing? Are wetlands being lost to other uses? Do rivers run in concrete channels? Do they flow in their entire course or are they dry by the time they reach their end point?
  • Runoff: What flows into your water resources and away from your home and community? What is the “total maximum daily load” (TMDL) of any given pollutant allowed in the local river, lake, or coastal water? What happens to chemicals used on lawns and in gardens? On farms? In construction? What goes into storm sewers? Where does it end up?
  • Aquifers: Does your community depend on one or more? Is it clean or polluted? Is it being drawn down faster than it is replenished? Who has rights to use it? Are there activities such as oil and gas drilling that affect your aquifer?
  • Coastal Regions: Is the estuary, bay, or ocean in your area healthy? What waterways or drainage pipes empty into it? Is freshwater inflow sufficient to maintain proper salinity? Does it support a healthy fish population? Are your beaches monitored and safe for swimming? Is your coastline threatened by erosion?
  • Private Rights and Public Authorities: Who has the rights to use or sell water in your community? How does your state or community determine surface rights and groundwater rights? Who is responsible for maintaining water quality in your community? Water quantity? The city, the state, or the federal government? Are there fines for polluters?


There is so much information available that it is overwhelming.

  • GCA Website: The GCA website,, has numerous papers written by members of the Conservation and NAL Committees on water issues, as well as on related conservation issues. Your Zone Representative can help you track down information prepared by other GCA clubs. The Legislative Update provides regular and timely information about issues before Congress. ConWatch is published quarterly and offers articles about conservation issues.
  • Talk to People: Identify state, county and city agencies and non-profit organizations in your area that are already working on water issues.
  • Take Field Trips: Often public agencies, non-profit land trusts, and advocacy groups have sites they are anxious to show to interested groups.
  • Arrange for a Speaker: In addition to local resources, the GCA Program Committee publishes a speaker list each year, and other garden clubs may have recommendations, too.
  • Read widely: The following books provide good background information on water issues: (revise and/or update list?)

Water, A Natural History by Alice Outwater, Harper Collins, 1996. This very readable book talks about the interrelatedness of water, land, and natural processes from beavers to the clean-up of Boston Harbor. It establishes a foundation for understanding how water, forests, and animal life fit together.

Watersheds: A Practical Handbook for Healthy Water by Clive Dobson and Gregor Gilpin Beck, Firefly Books, 1999. This book is almost a primer in water ecology with excellent explanations and illustrations, a glossary of terms and suggested actions to take. Its simple presentations make the processes abundantly clear.

Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource by Marq de Villiers, Houghton Mifflin, 2000. It approaches dense and complex issues in an engaging and accessible way. I consider it to be fundamental in studying water issues.

every drop for sale, Jeffrey Rothfeder, Tarcher/Putnam, Penguin Putnam, 2001. Another overview of world water issues. Information is similar to de Villiers, but less in depth, though a faster read.

Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature, Sandra Postel, Island Press, 2003. A positive approach about balancing human water needs with the needs of healthy river systems.   

  • Explore Websites: (verify, update, and alphabetize)

National Association of Regional Councils (NARC)  

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)          

United States Geologic Survey (USGS)    

United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)   

Clean Water Network (CWN)   

American Rivers (AR)   

National Resources Defense Council (NRDC)   

National Wildlife Federation (NWF)

Additionally, many other organizations actively monitor and influence water issues such as the American Farm Bureau, American Farm-land Trust, Audubon Society, Ducks Unlimited, and so on. Let your imagination be your guide.     

Take Action     

After study, field trips and discussion, your club may want to take some action. It could be as simple as asking each member to make up her mind and be sure to vote on a critical issue in an up-coming election. Or it could as a dramatic as deciding to create a new organization to purchase a threatened streamside. Some actions could be to:

  • Educate your community on an issue by sponsoring a forum, creating a coalition, publishing a pamphlet, distributing GCA pamphlets and slide programs, developing a study guide, giving a tour, underwriting research, building a demonstration project.
  • Participate in established activities such as beach clean-up days, water monitoring events, water conservation workshops.
  • Work with public officials by attending and speaking at meetings, serving on community commissions or boards, writing reports, advocating for issues.
  • Create an organization to save a stream from development, restore a marsh, prevent clear cutting, remove a dam, sponsor educational programs and field trips.