Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

Ever since I accompanied my son’s youth group on a canoe trip in Ontario, Canada in the early 90’s, I have been passionate about rivers. While I don’t always make it out on the water as often as I would like, I always make it a point to canoe several times a year and, at the very least, stop to watch rivers in our area as often as I can.  There is something about the peacefulness, the solitude, the simpleness of dipping a paddle in the flowing water that helps to make the world make sense. There is something about the power, the roar, the magnitude of a river as it crashes and pounds its way through a canyon that creates a sense of awe and wonder. For years I have claimed a river to be my place of worship. In fact, for my mother’s 74th birthday I invited her to visit my “church”. We canoed for 10 miles on a perfect autumn day…and yes, she paddled the entire way.

It was through rivers and such organizations as American Rivers and Riverkeepers, that I first became involved in environmental issues so it seems fitting to begin with a discussion about water and rivers.

It has been said that water will be the next oil and that whomever controls the water, will control the money and power. Throughout history water and water rights have been the catalyst for disagreements, arguments, fights and even wars. You only have to look as far as Georgia and Tennessee to see the importance of water rights even today. Due to the recent droughts in the south eastern United States, water has become like gold and has prompted Georgia to lay claim to 150 square miles of Tennessee based on a border dispute dating back to the early 1800’s. Not so coincidentally, a portion of the Tennessee River flows through this territory. Having this piece of land and the water rights that would accompany it would be very beneficial to the state of Georgia. In another case, South Carolina has sued North Carolina over the amount of water the latter pulls from the Catawba River, a river which tops the American Rivers Most Endangered Rivers List.

As droughts grip portions of the country and perhaps become even more prevalent in the years to come, conservation of our water resources will become more and more important. I was very glad to see that the US Green Building Council increased its emphasis on Water Efficiency in the new LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Rating System for Existing Buildings. To me this validates an increased awareness.

Water conservation can have a positive impact on our rivers and streams in several different ways.

  • First, reducing the amount of water we use reduces the amount of water that needs to be drawn from our rivers and streams. You only need to look at the Colorado River and observe the trickle of water that now makes south into Mexico to see the impact of drawing too much water from a river.
  • Second, most of the water that is used is flushed back out into our rivers and streams adding pollution in the form of chemicals, garbage and human waste. A significant portion of our rivers are unsafe to drink from, fish from or swim in due in large part to this overflow.
  • Third, the embodied energy to pump and process this water adds to our overall energy usage which contributes to carbon emissions.
  • Fourth, we the consumers pay for the costs to pump, process, store and to building the infrastructure to support these activities in the form of utility, sewer and tax bills.
  • And last but not least, there is evidence that the continued draw of water followed by the flush of water back into the rivers is causing the them to “age” faster. The change in water flow is increasing erosion and sedimentation of the rivers which restricts the flow, may lead to increased flooding, and harms the wildlife that depend on the waters. Like the effect cholesterol has on our blood vessels, this sedimentation has the same effect on our rivers and streams.

A thought occurred to me while my wife and I were discussing ways to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle around our house. Several years ago my wife and I bought an RV so we could follow the Lewis and Clark Trail across the country. For those not familiar with RVing one of the great things about it is being “self contained”. You take your water and all your “facilities” with you. You can then park just about any where and camp. What you learn very quickly, is that you are limited in how long you can be “self contained” by, of all things, water.

An RV has three tanks (basically); the fresh water tank holds all your potable water for drinking, cooking, washing, showering and flushing; the gray water tank holds all of the waste water from the sinks and showers and the black water tank holds the flushed water. When either the fresh water runs out, or the gray or black tanks fill up you have to pack up, move the RV and dump the tanks and fill the fresh water. Because our RV and its takes are relatively small, we have learned to adapt.

When washing dishes for example, we get the dishes wet then turn off the water. We then scrub a sink full of dishes at a time before rinsing them. This method uses very little water. We use a similar concept when showering…get an area wet, turn off the water, soap it up, then rinse it. We find that even little things, like brushing our teeth are done with as little water as possible.

So, back to the thought I mentioned, I wonder if it would be possible to change our living habits to incorporate this minimalistic approach to using water in our day to day lives. I have started with turning the water off while brushing my teeth. Seems simple enough, yet a surprisingly difficult habit to break. Its a way to start, I think. Maybe we will try an “RV Week” and try use as little water as possible during the week. It will be interesting to measure the impact of just one week on our water consumption.

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