Are You Thirsty? Conserving A Precious Resource for the Generations That Will Follow Us
When you are thirsty and nothing else will do but a long cool drink of water, do you walk into your kitchen and fill a glass with water from the tap? If you are like many Americans, getting a drink of water from the tap is a reflexive action, a no-brainer. How many of us, however, give thought to where our water originates, how much water we use, and whether water is a finite commodity? If you live in a drought-stricken area or in one of the states where dwindling water resources have made the news, then water issues and questions related to them assume a new importance.
In August 2012 we moved back to Maryland after about fifteen years away, the last nearly ten years in New Mexico, a state that has experienced droughts on and off throughout its history. We lived in a mountain community where groups of homeowners formed water-sharing groups, each with its own well and well master. It was a new experience for us, who had lived most of our lives on the East Coast and depended for the most part on municipal water systems. If we thought about water at all before moving to New Mexico, it was only when the water supply was cut off for repairs. Being without water was not something we thought about much at all.
In New Mexico, however, water, water delivery, and water conservation were foremost in the minds of most New Mexicans, including those of us who lived in our small community. Repairs to and maintenance of our water delivery systems were very costly, and vigilant monitoring of the infrastructure and cooperation with our water-sharing partners were crucial to ensuring water delivery for us all.
Although we are now living in Baltimore and water delivery is handled by the municipality and the management of our condominium association, water has been on my mind. More states are now reporting water shortages or predicting future shortages. In Ottawa County, Michigan, which is near Lake Michigan, dwindling groundwater resources have become an issue for rural homeowners and farmers. Michigan State University researchers report that one of Ottawa County’s aquifers is losing groundwater faster than it can be replenished. See Jeff Alexander’s October 12, 2013, comprehensive article in Bridge Magazine for details. The U.S. Geological Survey, Government Accountability Office, has reported sharp drops in groundwater levels across the U.S., and the Ogallala aquifer, the largest in our country supplying eight states, illustrates the drop off dramatically, according to Nathanael Massey and ClimateWire in Scientific American, May 30, 2013 . As explained in this co-attributed article, the aquifer’s rate of depletion rose rapidly between 2001 and 2008 and in many areas water table levels have fallen 160 feet since the middle of the twentieth century.
Dropoffs in groundwater and reservoir levels have been reported around the world. In When the Rivers Run Dry: Water–The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century author Fred Pearce explores in great detail the water crises facing the Middle East, China, India, Australia, and Russia, as well as the American Plains and the Southwest. He presents a well-researched argument that the great dams and reservoirs built with pride all over the world are the source of many of the crises, cutting off downstream farmers, municipalities, and individuals from a precious resource that if approached differently should be easily renewable. He points to evaporation rates peculiar to reservoirs as the source of avoidable water losses, including a quarter of the average flow of the Nile River into the Aswan High Dam, and more than six feet of water evaporation annually from Elephant Butte, which is fed by the Rio Grande River, as well as from Lakes Powell and Mead, which are fed by the Colorado River.
In India reservoirs lose five feet a year, and in Australia they can lose ten feet annually. Fortunately, for us and the planet, as Pearce explains, far-thinking individuals around the globe have taken up rainwater collection activities and turned to traditional water harvesting methods that return water to aquifers and terraced natural holding ponds to provide irrigation for farming.
What can we as individuals do to conserve water for our grandchildren and the generations that will follow us? Plenty. Here are some water-conserving tips and projects that individual homeowners, as well as far-thinking apartment managers and condominium dwellers can implement.
1. Investigate rainwater collection systems that are appropriate for your living arrangements. Whether you live in a single-family home or a high-rise building, systems can be put in place to collect rainwater for use in flushing toilets, watering trees and plants, and if sophisticated enough and built with the right materials, they can provide potable water as well. For information on what is needed to set up your own system, check out the website of The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Their rainwater harvesting group seeks to teach Texans, who live in one of the thirstiest states in our nation, to harvest rainwater, thus providing a renewable source of water to individuals and communities, as well as a means to control runoff after storms.
2. Implement water-saving strategies in your home or apartment. A few simple ways everyone in your family can contribute to saving water for future generations, as well as cutting down on costs, include the following.
Don’t let faucets run continuously. That means, and we’ve all heard this suggestion before, don’t let the faucet run when brushing teeth, clearing dishes to go into the dishwasher, or washing dishes by hand. Instead:
- when brushing teeth, fill a glass with enough water to rinse two or three times, instead of allowing the precious resource to run down the drain, joining the runoff returning to the water treatment facility to be reprocessed with your taxpayer dollars, as the Great Yogi would say, “all over again!”
- when clearing dishes to go into the dishwasher, fill a small cereal bowl with enough water to keep a sponge moist and after scraping plates, clear them further with a swipe from the moistened sponge
- when washing a few items by hand, use a sponge as a receptacle for liquid soap and water, squirting a very small amount of soap onto the sponge followed by a splash of water; wash the item to be cleaned with the soapy sponge, then run the water only long enough to clear the soap.
Look for leaks. If you live in a single-family home, check both inside and outside. We learned the hard way in Santa Fe when we were away from home during a period of sub-zero temperatures. Although we had left the heat on low, the unusually cold temperatures froze two areas of copper piping in the walls, and from two small leaks all of the water was drained from our holding tank. We returned to a house without water and had to wait until plumbers could get up the mountain road to find the leaks, tear out sections of the walls, and make repairs. We then had to wait until spring for our contractor to remediate for mold, restore the drywall, paint, and install new heaters in strategic areas within and under the house to prevent freezing in future. If you live in a condominium or apartment, leaks can affect not only your unit but also your neighbor’s. Check faucets and piping under sinks as well as runoff devices for HVAC units.
Attend to running toilets. A toilet is said to “run” when water leaks from the toilet tank into the bowl. A running toilet wastes many gallons of water every day. Simple fixes include adjusting the tank ball or freeing the flapper by jiggling the handle. Check home improvement sites on the Internet for detailed instructions. One site I found helpful was Don Vandervort’s Home Improvement Tips.
Turn off the water to your house or unit if you are going to be away for an extended period of time. We, again, learned the hard way to drain the water from the pipes in our Santa Fe guest house in the winter and shut off the water valve to avoid freezing pipes in winter. This step is equally important if you leave your condominium for a lengthy period.
The future does not have to look grim for our grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and the generations that will follow. If we all take steps, even the small ones outlined above, we can promise them perhaps not a thirsty rose garden but maybe a less water-dependent xeriscape that is pleasing to the eye.
My thanks to Google Images, Free Range, and Morguefile, all great sources of free images for bloggers, artists, and graphic designers, as well as the photographers who donated their work, for the images used in this blog.