Thursday, June 3, 2021

Doom and gloom about water

Nine years ago, I wrote a post about conserving water and said, "while potable water may seem a constant to us Midwesterners, it is scarce in many parts of the world." Well, guess what? Even here, in the land of public drinking fountains (most of which have been covered and unused for more than a year because of the pandemic), unlimited free water in restaurants, indoor and outdoor waterparks, and the great fun of jumping through sprinklers until the lawn is soggy, even here in the land plenty, clean water is less reliable than it used to be.

And most of us don't know it. Yet.

I've already had water usage on my mind lately. A few weeks ago, a city crew was digging a giant hole in the street, repairing a water main. We had our water shut off for about half a day, and then we were under a precautionary boil order for 24 hours. It was a minor inconvenience but a reminder of how fragile some conveniences--like a constant supply of fresh water--can be. Remember when Texas froze this winter? Some people were without a water supply for more than week.

CCF = centum cubic feet = 100 cubic feet of water = 748 gallons

Also, we've been re-seeding sections of our lawn, watering from the rain barrels whenever possible, not only to be eco-friendly but also because last fall, when we were watering the lawn regularly (because our previously neglected lawn is undergoing resuscitation), we saw our water usage double from 4 CCF (almost 3,000 gallons) in a 2-month billing cycle to 8 CCF (5,984 gallons). Wow! But, get this. Apparently, the average household in our area uses 13 CCF (about 9,700 gallons) every two months, according this 2019 Chicago Tribune article

After that shocker of a water bill, our usage returned to 4 CCF on the next couple of cycles. We wondered, is 4 CCF the lowest we can possibly go, or can we lower our water consumption even more? The latest water bill just arrived. 3 CCF! That means we managed to use several hundred gallons less in March and April than our average. That's still over 1,000 gallons per month -- it takes a lot of water to live modern!

And then, just a couple of weeks ago, Ginger Zee on Good Morning America showed us the ruins of an old church, previously hidden underwater in a reservoir in Mexico, now regularly revealed by receding water levels, indicative of the megadrought affecting the western hemisphere.

Megadrought! An intense drought that lasts decades.

Here's the thing. That church isn't emerging from the deep for the first time just now. A quick Google to find the recent story brought me a story from 2015 about this same thing. Water levels in the reservoir have been fluctuating for quite some time, occasionally revealing the church and allowing people to canoe through the ruins. Even in 2002, water was low enough that people could walk through the church.

But that's Mexico, you think. Not us. Well, check out the U.S. Drought Monitor, and you'll see the entire southwestern United States is in a drought, most of it an extreme or exceptional drought on a scale that goes None, Abnormally Dry, Moderate Drought, Severe Drought, Extreme Drought, Exceptional Drought. In fact, half our country is abnormally dry or worse. I inevitably think of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, or perhaps a future drought era as depicted in Interstellar.

So, what do we do?

Landscaping, for instance. Plant for your geography and climate so your garden will thrive in the natural amount of rain it gets. Supplement with collected rainwater. We easily use 12-20 gallons of water from the rain barrels daily just for our new-grass patches -- on days it doesn't rain, that is. You could also use rain barrel water for washing your car or your patio furniture or anything else outdoors.

According to the EPA, 70% of the average American's water usage happens indoors, though. Letting it mellow will save you, at most, a few gallons a day. It's better than nothing, but there are more impactful water conservation activities to consider. 

Get appliances that use water more efficiently, if you can -- whether it's a full-scale gray-water system, an HE washing machine, a WaterSense-labeled toilet, or a high-efficiency showerhead.

Working with the appliances you already have, number one priority: fix any leaks.

Then, just take shorter showers. My mom used to wash her hair at the kitchen sink instead of in the shower. Like at a salon, the water was off during the shampoo scrub and while the conditioner soaked in. So, think of those types of adjustments that might reduce your time standing under the running shower. 

Also, hand-washing. Shut the faucet off while you're soaping your hands for the recommended 20 seconds. And, for goodness' sake, don't let the water run while you're brushing your teeth -- that's two whole minutes if you're doing it right!

I'll also recommend paying attention to how companies use water, from the obvious (like water suppliers and the agricultural industry) to the less obvious but heavy hitters (like manufacturers of anything), and how the government regulates them. You have the power -- by how you purchase things and how you vote, to name just a couple of ways -- to influence how your community and we as a nation conserve (or waste) this precious resource.

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