The majority of us give little thought to something in our everyday lives that makes life on this planet possible. We are made of it, we cannot live without it, our climate and planet are driven by it, about 3/4 of our planet is covered by it and life would never have existed on our planet without it. For something so necessary and basic to our existence, it seems that we would pay more attention to how we treat and use our most precious resource. Yet everyday, according to the U.S. GeologicalSurvey, Americans use on average 80-100 gallons of water, with only a few of those gallons actually being consumed. We seriously need to rethink our relationship with water not just as Americans, but as human beings.
The Water Cycle
Every aspect of life on our planet is made possible by water. We think of water as an infinitely available, renewable resource because it is constantly redistributed by the action of the sun, wind, and gravity through the water cycle. Water circulates around our planet by evaporating from land, bodies of water and organisms. It then enters the atmosphere where it travels across the globe via wind patterns and energy from the sun, which drives our climate. Once water vapor condenses into clouds and these clouds become over-saturated, water falls to Earth in the form of rain. This rain moves underground and into lakes while being filtered by ecosystem elements like porous soil and plants and then eventually makes it way to replenish groundwater and surface water supplies.
The increasing variation and unpredictability of our climate has disrupted this natural process of redistributing and filtering water. Areas with once heavy rainfall are now seeing long-standing droughts and areas of limited rain are seeing floods like never before. As the human population on our planet has increased dramatically, so has the demand on freshwater, as well as wasteful and extravagant uses. To make matters worse, pollution makes whatever water is available unfit for many uses, further exacerbating supply problems.
The amount of water on Earth is more or less set. The water (or hydrological) cycle just moves water around the planet within our atmosphere. The problem is not how much water is on Earth at any given time, it is how much fresh, potable (or drinkable) water is available for us to consume. To put it in perspective, 97% of all water on the planet is salt water. Of the remaining 3% of water (which is fresh water) on Earth, 3/4 of it is tied up in glaciers which is eventually going to drain into the oceans. The next greatest source of fresh water is mostly located in groundwater sources, which are extremely difficult to replenish, with less than 0.1% of fresh water located in rivers and lakes. To put it lightly, our freshwater supply on our planet is extremely limited.
The Human Sponge
Since the dawn of human civilization, we have relied on local water systems to sustain us and make domesticated living an actual possibility. Nearly every town and city was built on some type of water body like rivers or lakes to allow for daily consumption, waste removal, transportation, cooking and other forms of production like agriculture and eventually energy production. That reliance on water has not changed much in the last few thousand years. The thing is, our reliance has increased astronomically with unchecked human population growth, advances in technology and the overall demand increase that comes along with all our modern amenities, development and industry.
More so than any other form of water use, agriculture, especially modern industrial farming, consumes more water than any other aspect of current human enterprise. Just to put it in perspective:
Worldwide freshwater use:
70% for agricultural use
22% for industrial use
8% for domestic/household use
Current industrial agricultural irrigation techniques are about 30-40% efficient, meaning that for every 100 gallons of water used on a crop or field, only 30-40 gallons will actually be taken up and used by the crop. Most large industrial farms utilize large, wasteful irrigation tools like overhead sprayers or flooding techniques that allow for large amounts of water to be evaporated or run-off into local water systems (causing all kinds of other issues) rather than being absorbed by crops. Yet another reason to support local organic farms with much more controlled and efficient watering practices.
Buying Out the Common Wealth
The dilemma of inefficient and dramatic overuse of water is made possible and exacerbated by antiquated water rights and overall water regulation. This along with outdated water practices including where and how we allocate water, how it is distributed and used, and what we do with our waste water.
One of the greatest threats to fresh, clean water, is the concept of water rights. Much like “owning” land, individuals and organizations can “own” the rights to water. This is a giant topic but the basic idea is the same as owning and using land for a particular purpose. The major problem with applying this concept to water is that thanks to the hydrological cycle, water is never confined and does not stay cleanly within boundaries like land does. This makes regulating and oversight of water use next to impossible by nature. Add in century-old water rights with long outdated practices and the issues with water start to become very clear.
Recently this can be seen most dramatically in the privatization of water. Since the bottled water boom in the 1980s, large corporations have been buying up the water rights to public water supplies thanks to “political donations” and the easily manipulated systems of water rights that vary from state to state. There are some great documentaries out there that expand on this topic like Flow and Tapped.
The California Effect
The current drought in California is a perfect example of what will continue to happen across the U.S. and the rest of the world if we do not drastically change our approach on water sourcing, use and regulation. There is so much to talk about regarding this topic but instead of diving into all that I’ll just sum it up with the idea that California’s problems with water are the world’s problems. This is nothing new—it just so happens that people start to pay more attention when giant issues start to impact them directly. Especially when that impact hits your bank account and quality of life.
Most of the fruits and nuts that are produced in the U.S. are produced in California. These crops require a lot of water and the majority of the agricultural practices used are antiquated to say the least. Many practices, such as flooding fields and using overhead irrigation, are extremely inefficient and lose a lot of water to evaporation.
In California, about 80% of all water consumed is for agricultural use. Compare this to about 8% residential or household use and it becomes clear where the major problems lie. Most of the efforts to curb water use have been in mandatory residential restriction, not agricultural.
Couple that with corrupt and out-dated water rights, poor industrial and agricultural regulations, centuries of unsustainable water allocation and the looming presence of climate change and you have a recipe for water disaster. This is the “California effect” and it is happening across the globe.
Turning Off the Faucet
The answer to how we conserve the precious little fresh water that we have on this planet is a complex one. The deeper you dive into the background, science, and politics of water, the more diversified and challenging the solution seems to become. It quickly becomes a web of problems that all lead to one major result, an overwhelming lack of fresh, potable water.
A combination of individual conscious efforts on a daily basis coupled with a large unified push to stand up for improved water allocation, use and waste regulation is what we can all do to contribute to the solution. Aside from reducing your household water use, sourcing products from agricultural sources like local, small scale organic farms can drastically help shift demand from large scale industrial farms that use highly inefficient water practices. At Willy Street Co-op you can buy local produce from small organic farmers that are passionate about maximizing water efficiency. You can also start your own garden with our seeds from Seed Savers or our plant starts from West Star or Voss Organics.
Just like many of our societal issues, we must come together to be catalysts for change. We cannot passively stand by while precious resources like water are desecrated and mismanaged. Rain collection systems, brown water recycling systems, increased permeable surfaces, low-flow appliances and water fixtures, conscious water use, and personal gardens with soaker hoses are all viable ways we can all impact our personal water use right now. Most importantly, we need to share our knowledge on water issues and bring people together to help create large scale permanent change.