Sip, Sip: A Layman's Look at Our Fresh Water Problem

It is a most informative and interesting water bottle.

1%. That's all the fresh water on the planet for living things.

Letting the water run while you shave wastes 32 of these bottles.

A running toilet wastes 800 of these bottles a day.

It is not an insubstantial bottle that sits beside me. Currently full, it holds 24 ounces of water.

The water bottle was produced by an organization called Alliance For Water Efficiency, which works to conserve our planet's, as you now know, limited fresh water supply. The bottle is covered with scrawls relating other interesting tidbits and factoids; imagine a tagger who specializes in bowling pins. Most of the writing is black, but one phrase is, well, watery blue

Since the time of the dinosaur, the amount of water has never changed. Yet our population has increased exponentially. You do the math.

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I inherited my fine new water bottle and a new found appreciation for water at a gathering of Ventura city officials, dignitaries, and concerned water parties. I don't usually attend such meetings, but my friend Karen, who invited me, assured me that it didn't matter that I don't own a suit and write so sloppily that no one can read my name tag. The gathering was also held in conjunction with Annual Fix a Week Leak, which in fifty-three years has never been on my calendar, which in turn shows you something about how we cavalierly view water.

But I learned that you can learn many things when you attend a gathering. One is that your friends lie. Almost everyone was nattily dressed, their name tags neatly printed, and for some reason when we met, they all kept mispronouncing my name. But I liked the people I met anyhow, because they were all polite and nice and vitally concerned about water.

At the gathering we watched a series of short films (less than five minutes) submitted by creative filmmakers from around the globe. Being creative the films were vastly different, but they all creatively looked at how we use water and how we see it and what we might do to improve on both these categories. The films had names like "Water" (the creativity went into the film) and "Quotient" and "Don't Blow H2O." You can go to the city of Ventura's website and watch these films and others. I highly recommend it. The films were clever and funny and poignant and more than a little bit scary, both in terms of our ignorance and our waste. But I found them hopeful, too. There are people aware of the preciousness of water and they are working very, very hard to tell the rest of us.

As one of the nattily-dressed speakers rightly said, "The power of film is such an incredible tool."

I went home, placed my spiffy new environmentally friendly personal hydration device (that's what it says on the bottle) beside me, and, sipping away, proceeded to conduct some research.

Regarding water, I learned some attention-getting things.

By 2050, a third of the people on Earth may lack a clean, secure source of water.

By 2050, the Earth's population will be somewhere around nine billion. A third is a lot of people without reliable water.

We use trillions of gallons of "hidden" water to produce products. It takes 1,799 gallons of water to bring a one pound hamburger to your plate. It takes 713 gallons of water to make the t-shirt you are wearing; 689 gallons of water to make a gallon of beer (that might interest the most interesting man alive)

Some of what I read was hopeful and good. There is no shortage of water on our planet, just a shortage of fresh water. New desalinization technologies offer hopeful promise. Forward thinking cities are already making tremendous water saving inroads, revising water-use codes, paying homeowners to take classes on reducing outdoor watering, offering rebates to folks who install low-flow toilets and showers and remove their putting green lawns. Citizens are funneling rainwater into barrels and underground cisterns. Some folks are bathing twice a week, military style (wet body, turn off water, soap up, rinse, get out). I am inviting these people to accompany me to the next gathering I attend.

Some of the water news is not hopeful or good. On top of the Himalaya, glaciers whose meltwater sustains vast populations are dwindling. In Australia's Murray-Darling River Basin, once fertile farmland is dust dry. Water tables are plummeting in countries harboring half the world's population. Mankind has proliferated as if fresh water exists in boundless supply. One percent for the dinosaurs and all the other creatures scurrying to stay out from underfoot. One percent for seven billion people. And counting.

Sip, sip. The water in my personal hydration device is half gone. My own little plummeting water table.

As you might imagine, in my research I encountered reams of statistics and water saving tips, too. Most Americans use around a hundred gallons of water a day. A faucet leaking 60 drops a minute wastes 192 gallons per month, or if you're inclined to count for a very long time, 2,304 gallons a year. Wash your car at a car wash that recycles water. When you turn on the shower, collect the water that runs until the shower gets hot and use it to water your house plants. Once the shower is hot, cutting your time from 10 minutes to five saves some 13 gallons of water. If you do that every day for a year you save... well, you get the point.

I read the water saving tips with particular interest because they seemed to me a rare instance where I could instantly make myself heard (I have, after all, been married for 25 years). Some of the tips were things my mother had shouted up to me when I was a kid --- turn off the faucet while you're brushing your teeth and washing your hands (forward-thinking conservationist, I often skipped the hand washing entirely). Some of the other tips were similarly familiar: water in the morning to prevent water loss due to evaporation, avoid watering when it's windy, convert to native plants that require little water at all. Some tips made me wonder how we can consider ourselves Earth's most intelligent species (sweep outdoor surfaces with a broom instead of using a hose).

Yes, they were simple straightforward things. But it has been my experience that simple straightforward things work. It also helps greatly that people can do them.

The other day Ventura city water officials released a report (straightforwardly) titled "The Comprehensive Water Resource Report." I did not learn this at another gathering. I no longer trust my friend Karen. I learned this from our local newspaper. I read the newspaper article from start to finish, no doubt putting me in the minority (note to newspaper editors, the smallest change could alter reader behavior: "Ventura Updates Water Picture: Report aims for guidelines on development and includes bikini foldout at the end"). The article -- and the water resource report -- contained much mention of water usage in acre-feet per year which means about as much to the average citizen as quotidian physics. But one thing was clear. According to the report, our city's water supply could be over tapped by 2017. As my personal hydration device advises, you do the math.

Four years is not a long time.

When it comes to the importance of water, we don't have look far for a touchstone. Our bodies are a map of the world; both comprised of two-thirds water.

Sip, sip. Without conscious thought the 24 ounces in my personal hydration device are gone.

It is up to me to see to it that they are not sorely missed.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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