June 19, 2017
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Beyond the Drought: Building Water Conservation Consciousness

Water consciousness may spike during a period of drought, but the reasons for saving water extend far beyond times of shortages, writes Elizabeth Dougherty, executive director of Wholly H2O.

By Dr. Elizabeth Dougherty

IN CALIFORNIA, THE five-year drought had some stunning silver linings, notably a more acute personal awareness of water use. The impacts of drought and climate change yielded scarce water flows and depleted groundwater supplies that focused people’s attention on cutting back on water use.

During the drought, the media, water agency mailings and signs on the roadways all pointed over and over to the need to conserve. Local listserves (mailing lists) and cafes filled up with conversations about water costs, water quality, water failures and what water-saving programs were available through local water agencies.

Seemingly overnight, people started seeking out water reuse options of their own accord. Phones rang off the hook in the Wholly H2O office, with individuals seeking rainwater and gray-water systems. The drought began to give life to a conscious ethic of water conservation and reuse in California.

And it paid off. In February 2017, the statewide residential water use average was 57.5 gallons per person per day, the lowest ever reported for the state. Only two years ago, that number was rejected at a meeting with multiple California water agencies as a near-impossible target.

Now that the drought is over and the reservoirs are brimming, why should we continue to conserve? Is it primarily because we fear the impacts from droughts and climate change? Are those who live in water-rich areas off the hook when it comes to conservation and reuse?

My answer is, “No, absolutely not.” In my mind, we conserve water first and foremost because we deeply acknowledge and respect water for being a wildly unique molecule through which our lives, and all lives on the planet, emerge and are sustained. We conserve water from a basic gratitude for what it gives us every day.

We conserve water for the health of the natural water systems, which leads to the health of human beings and all the other members of the more than 8.7 million species on the planet.

We conserve water because our urban water often comes from remote rivers a hundred or more miles away from where we live – rivers from which we take up to 80 percent of the water for our use.

This begs the question: If we take up to 80 percent of the natural unimpaired flows out of the river for human use, what are the chances of the long-term survival of that watershed over a prolonged time? This question is highlighted by the State Water Resources Control Board’s current effort to increase the unimpaired flows in three Northern California rivers (Tuolumne, Merced, Stanislaus) through the Draft Substitute Environmental Document. Being respectful of water means not just being respectful of each drop of water, but also of the ecosystem supporting that part of the effective water cycle.

We also conserve water because we’ve been depleting the 20,000-year-old groundwater in the Central Valley to such a degree that some places have sunk as much as 2ft in the past 18 months. With or without droughts, the Central Valley’s groundwater storage has been overdrafted for more than a hundred years, and that trend upticks during times of drought.

That’s why we need conservation on every level – from farms to homes. Actively engaging in water conservation, whether it’s turning down the flow when washing dishes, recirculating industrial steam as recycled water, installing rainwater and gray-water systems or adopting a public storm drain to keep water clear of trash, tends to inspire further action. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California found that 70 percent of those who installed rainwater cisterns went on to make changes in their landscape to make the most of that captured water. Once you’re on the trail of actions taken out of respect for water, it’s damn hard to stop.

When I first looked at my water bill in 2010, I found we were using almost 100 gallons per person per day in my house. Within a few years, we were down to 20 gallons per person per day. We began to pay attention to the level of tap flow, adding aerators to each tap, using buckets in the shower and kitchen sink for heat-up and rinse water, adding a laundry-to-landscape gray-water system and washing only full loads of laundry. Outside, in the midst of the recent drought, I was digging up drought-tolerant gardens and replacing them with more water-intensive food-growing gardens because I have 2,000 gallons of rainwater storage. I can grow more food and not take a single drop more from the Mokelumne River, my water source.

We conserve water because it is so damn easy to capture rainwater, and with just 1,000 square ft of roof space and one inch of rain, you can harvest 550 gallons. We conserve water because up to 80 percent or more of our indoor potable water use can be reused as gray water. Capturing rain, infiltrating it on-site, reusing it as gray water on-site, reduces stormwater and reduces demands on rivers and groundwater.

California is, by some counts, the most hydrologically altered landscape in the country due to our history of building big dams and enormous water conveyance systems. We have a long way to go in achieving localized water reuse. But as we achieve a personal respect and awareness of water in our daily lives, as well as being aware of the added pressures from the fact that climate change and droughts are part of our present and future, both large-scale and decentralized approaches to water conservation and reuse will truly become a way of life. It’s time to walk more softly on our planet.

Originally appeared at newsdeeply.com

A version of this op-ed first appeared on on Wholly H2O.