Water: managing a precious resource

In North America, we take water availability for granted. This may not be our future.

One of our greatest challenges over the next several decades will be meeting our water needs, whether globally or in the USA. We can live with less oil or coal, find alternative fuels, or develop new technologies. Not so with water, an element vital to sustaining food production and keeping ourselves alive. Though as humans we can be a narcissistic lot, the truth is we’re composed of up to 90% water.

I was reminded of this fact several weeks ago after a three day bout with the stomach flu, with all its unpleasant symptoms. One of the first things you learn is to replace lost fluids quickly and amply. If you don’t, you risk dehydrating and its ultimate consequences, kidney damage and even shutdown.

When Americans think of drought, they probably think of Africa, certainly in the news lately and in past decades with its devastating water shortages. The reality is that what Africa is experiencing is becoming increasingly apropos for earth’s more prosperous regions as well. Take Australia, for example. Sydney draws its water primarily from capacious water storage facilities, drawn from rainfall and held in check by dams. In fact, Sydney’s reservoirs exceed New York’s storage capacity 4:1. Even so, the water flow into Sydney’s nine dams fell 45% between 1996 and 2003. The situation, even now, remains critical. It hasn’t rained plentifully in New South Wales for a very long time.

In the U. S, particularly California and the Southwest, water sufficiency, always a problem for essentially desert regions, has become a gnawing challenge. Southern California depends for much of its water on Northern California, to the latter’s consternation, since it’s also become plagued with serious water shortages. Normally dependent on melting snowpacks from the mountains, this source is proving unreliable, with snow melting earlier before it can consolidate in yet another link with rising global temperatures. Elsewhere, while Los Angeles is certainly under threat, one of America’s fastest growing cities, Las Vegas, may well run out of water, and very soon.

Consider the Midwest. Beneath America’s agricultural heartland lies the Ogallah aquifer, stretching through eight states, South Dakota to Texas. Used as a primary irrigation source, it’s now seriously depleted through over pumping. We are producing agricultural bounties drawing on tomorrow’s water.

If I had time, I could explore with you the causes for increasing drought and, ironically, for some areas like my native New England, unprecedented rain and snow with ensuing floods such as Vermont recently encountered. I wish I also had time to explore proposed solutions such as building more dams, which actually create other dilemmas. My focus here is on conservation, the wise use of water to make it go round and last longer.

1. Get rid of your lawn, or, reduce it sharply.

A 2008 NASA study concluded that grass lawns in the U. S. exceed the entire land area of New York state. In fact, one third of our water use is spent on our lawns or, shockingly, 200 gallons of water per person, per day. Lawns can be replaced or reduced with native, drought-resistant grasses of short height, needing little water. Attractive ground covers such as Irish moss or creeping thyme can help do the job. You’ll save on your water bill while reducing gas mower pollution and insecticide run off as well.  If you’re a garden keeper, plant varieties of flowers and vegetable with lesser water needs.

2.  Install water barrels.

Think about this: an inch of rain falling on a 1000 square foot roof generates 600 gallons of water, which can then be used for your flowers and vegetables. I installed one last summer with a eighty gallon capacity and found it filled up after a brief shower. More and more communities are imposing restrictions on water usage and water rates have been rising as new treatment plants become needed. I’m hoping to plant several raised garden beds accessed to this barrel through a hose.

3.  Be conservative in using water in the house.

In buying water products such as shower heads, faucets and toilets, look for the EPA’s WaterSense label. You can find such products online at

If you’re planning to build a new home, a family of four can save up to 50,000 gallons of water annually in a certified WaterSense installation. That’s sufficient to do 2000 laundry loads a year and a savings up to $600 on water bills. Savings can also be had by confining washer/dryer purchases to Energy Star products. (Tankless water heaters, by the way, can save up to 20% in energy costs per year and don’t require periodic flushing.)

Repair dripping faucets promptly.

4.  If a city dweller, opt for a green roof.

All of the applications I’ve mentioned have business and industrial applications as well. In Chicago, green roof gardens are catching on, with some 200 now in existence, including City Hall. Green roofs provide not only space for growing vegetables, but capture storm water while simultaneously cooling the urban landscape.

5.  Stop eating meat.

This recommendation may surprise you, sounds crazy, and is least likely to be adopted, given our cultural biases. But I mention it anyway, just for the record. A recent study by the Agricultural Water Management indicated that cutting animal product use by just half would result in a national reduction of dietary water requirements of 261 billion cubic meters annually by 2025. To put this in perspective, this is the equivalent of 14 times the annual flow of the Colorado River.e ample

The point in all of this is that you and I can take steps now to assure we have ample water at minimal costs in a world where this will be a decreasing reality.

Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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