Water Is the New Energy

Gentle reader, you may have been scratching your head over that headline.

I mean that water is becoming as hot a topic as green energy and oil spills and energy use and all that stuff. And I say “becoming” for one simple reason: in the United States, most of us don’t have to worry about our water supply. It comes out of a tap. That’s it.

Unless you live on an Indian reservation. A few years ago I went regularly to the Navajo reservation, and I’ll never forget the kitchen of the tract home with its sink and the holes where a faucet and sprayer would go. Too bad no water lines had been laid to that house. Too bad they had to hoist a big plastic jug into the back of their truck, fill it with water somewhere, haul it home, and then get it into smaller containers by means of a plastic hose and their mouths.

Or unless you live in the developing world and don’t have easy access to water, let alone clean water.

In most of the world, water is already as important an issue as energy.

To illustrate the extent of water privilege in this country, I’ll describe my own water use: in a low-use month, my husband and I consume about 3,000 gallons of water. That’s in the winter, when we’re using water for taking showers, flushing toilets, cleaning the house and washing dishes, watering a few houseplants, and washing clothes. There have been a few months when we got it down to 2,000 gallons. And that 2,000–3,000 gallons per month is lower than it could be because I don’t flush the toilet every time I use it; I have shower heads with a metal bar I can flip up, reducing the flow to a drip while I wash my hair; and I have a fairly efficient dishwasher. If I weren’t doing all those things, my husband and I would probably use 6,000 gallons per month.

So, by practicing basic water conservation that doesn’t cost much, I have cut our water use in half, but we still use 36,000 gallons per year, or 18,000 gallons per person. And in the summer, when I’m watering the lawn and the xeriscape, our water use can go up to 15,000 gallons per month (that’s on the high end).

I still can’t believe I use 18,000 gallons of water per year, or more. That’s about 50 gallons per day. Just for me.

There are more expensive ways to reduce water use: collect water in rain barrels; install a gray-water system that recycles water from the kitchen and shower; buy new toilets that use less than 1.6 gallons per flush; buy more water-efficient appliances.

Even more expensive: do a real xeriscape on the yard, instead of the partial xeriscape I have. Or redesign neighborhoods so they have common areas that can be planted with native grasses and such.

The biggest water user in this country: agriculture. I wonder how much it would cost to give every farmer an efficient irrigation system.

As you can see, the United States has a lot of work to do to become a country that uses water efficiently.

Inspiration for this article came from “The Worth of Water” by Benjamin H. Grumbles, Water and Wastes Digest, July 2010. Grumbles is the director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and notes that Arizona governor Brewer is developing a statewide plan for water sustainability. Whatever you think of her policies on immigration, you have to give her kudos for water policy.