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  Chapter 6: Rehydration  (return to Timeline Intro)

ONE WATER, INDIVISIBLE: Radical, Everyday Changes to Conserving Water

Although we tend to think of water as broken reservoirs of different quality and value, it’s time to think of all water as one.


By Matthew Power

Are we really entering “a new geologic age,” as 500 scientists proclaimed recently during a meeting about water in Bonn, Germany?

In our time, access to this basic life need is already restricted for many. If current usage and population trends continue, according to Maude Barlow, author of Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever, “global demand for water in 2030 will outstrip supply by 40 percent.

If you’re not convinced that “saving” our water supply is an urgent priority, you may want to catch up on some of the latest statistics from various water-monitoring organizations worldwide. When you do, you’ll find that the future we can expect from a “business as usual” approach to water management is terrifying, no matter where you live.

Broken Hydrology

When we were kids, we all learned about the hydrologic cycle. But that simple model of evaporation, condensation and replenishment simply can’t keep up with the pace of human activity in the form of mega-farm irrigation, thirsty lawns and cattle ranches. Consider just a few of the worst-case scenarios for our current trajectory, outlined in Blue Water:

Depleted Aquifers. We can expect a dry-up of some of the world’s major “fossil water” aquifers, including the Ogallala, which supplies irrigation for much of the large-scale farming in the Midwestern U.S., commonly known as the nation’s “breadbasket.” Farmers have been tapping it heavily in recent years to keep up with corn production for ethanol and to compensate for drought cycles.

Ghost Cities. China plans to build 500 new cities in the next 20 years. Where will the water to sustain them come from? Futurist Lester Brown warns that much of Asia may be “headed for a Dust Bowl.”

Desert Planet. Desertification of arable land is increasing rapidly in more than 100 places worldwide. Climate change is likely to accelerate the problem. Add to this list the pollution of fresh water from natural gas fracking, the rising global consumption of water-thirsty beef, the water waste associated with growing corn for biofuel and the devastating impacts of the cotton industry, and you can see why scientists are sounding the alarm.

It’s not that water is “disappearing.” We still have the same amount of water on earth as we ever did, but human activities are making drinkable versions of it less and less accessible. The desperate scenarios in our future are not inevitable. They assume the worst in human behavior—where current trends in water use (and misuse) continue unchecked, including population growth, meat consumption, consumerism, stormwater runoff and wasteful lifestyles. Add to this mix the certain uncertainty of climate change, and you can see why the mood among many scientists is generally bleak—and getting bleaker.

The Bottled Water Hoax

It's time to put severe restrictions on bottled water manufacturing and distribution.

stop bottled water

An analysis by Business Insider says it all. The price you pay for bottled water is up to 2,000 times higher than that of tap water. The irony is that in the U.S. especially, tap water has been shown to be of equal or better quality than many bottled water brands.

Does bottled water have its place? Certainly, as an emergency life-giver in drought-stricken parts of the world, or in regions hit by natural disasters, but not as a staple of board rooms, hotels and campsites.

Water as a Human Right

It may not be on your radar here in the U.S., but much of the world is engaged in what they rightly see as a life-or-death struggle to retain control of local water supplies. The power of giant corporations and their front organizations, including the deceptively named World Water Council, should not be underestimated. Multinationals such as Suez, Nestle and Pepsi hope to secure rights to fresh water resources worldwide, then sell them back to the world—at a profit. Until recently, this bizarre theft of essential regional resources for sustaining life seemed to be unstoppable. But consistent efforts, particularly by people in South America, are beginning to turn the tide.

According to Maude Barlow, at a recent U.N. Assembly, “One hundred and twenty-two countries, including China, Russia, Germany, France, Spain and Brazil, supported the [water is a human right] resolution, and many of those that abstained said they would revisit their opposition if the Human Rights Council were to weigh in with a similar resolution.” The support the resolution received that day demonstrated that the world was finally moving to address the issue.

The countries that voted in favor represent 5.4 billion people.

Barlow adds that in June 2012, the water as a human right argument took a major step forward: “After a strenuous campaign, the rights to water and sanitation were included in The Future We Want, the official statement of the summit. Even Canada, the last holdout, signed the document, signaling the end of the debate.”

What does such political wrangling mean in the real world of water access and conservation? It makes access to water a legal entitlement, not a “charity,” or commodity that can simply be sold off to the highest bidder. In principle, everyone who depends on a given water source is entitled to a say in how it’s used.

Now, carry that precedent into the American landscape, with its water-dependent “breadbasket” of farms and isolated desert cities such as Las Vegas, and you get a sense of the enormity of change on the horizon.

Impending H2O Shakedown

For decades, fresh water has been treated like an infinite resource, provided at almost no cost to farms and industry. The U.S. West has just suffered the worst drought in 800 years. In the Midwest’s heavy farming areas, the backup system of tapping groundwater is coming to an end. Water is about to get a lot more valuable.waterusedchart

Author Steve Maxwell (The Future of Water) explains: “Farmers generally pay almost nothing for their water, for one of three reasons: first, because in many regions that water simply falls out of the sky onto their fields; second, because they can pump the water out of an aquifer below their fields without paying for it, and they don’t have to replace it; or third, because they get their water from a government-built reservoir or other subsidized water project.” But those aquifers are running low. Once they’re dry, they may not refill for centuries (or longer).

Reusing Stormwater

Instead of removing or treating stormwater, localized “green stormwater” systems can return it to thirsty landscapes.

reusingstormwaterHidden Reservoir. Traditionally, stormwater is treated almost as a toxic waste, redirected to local sewer lines or directly discharged into nearby fresh-water bodies such as rivers. But the converging pressures of water scarcity and stricter rules about development have spurred interest in reuse. For example, this EPIC system from Firestone Specialty Products offers a “no moving parts” way to reuse stormwater. The installation involves excavation to about 36 inches, followed by placement of geotextile that will trap the stormwater underground. According to Firestone, a layer of sand provides all the filtration necessary to control nitrates or phosphates—especially the top four inches or so. Water trapped in the chamber area below grade returns to the surface for irrigation. The top sand will need to be replaced in approximately 10 years.

At the same time, the growth of the cattle and biofuels industries is guzzling ever-more water. Suddenly, blue is the new gold. The next couple of decades are likely to be contentious. Major issues will be decided around water rights, both globally and here in the U.S. Do citizens have the right to collect rainwater if aquifers are dry? How much water should go to farms versus cities? Do residents of Las Vegas have rights to water that originated in their state?

These are very emotional, tough questions. But what if they could be “softened” by dramatic changes in conservation?

Serious Action

In our view, impending debates about fresh water don’t have to become bitter. We have within easy reach a whole palette of conservation solutions that would not result in major societal disruption. Of course, the challenge will be to avoid the “efficiency trap.” As we’ve discussed in other chapters of The Celestia Project, people have a bad habit of using efficiency gains to justify additional consumption. Reductions in fresh water demand must be accompanied by ongoing attention to water’s true value.

Conservation as a path to water security is not a new idea, but in most places, it’s proceeding at a pace that’s glacial. In water-worried Las Vegas, for example, there’s a plan to reduce per capita water consumption to about 199 gallons per capita per day by 2035. That’s a gain of only about 120 gallons below the national household water-use average over a period of 20 years. These “baby steps” may be as far as utilities dare to project, but we’re under no such political restraints.

So let’s look at just five attainable behavior and industry changes that could solve most of our future water woes at a throw—some of them by themselves. What you begin to realize is that the dire condition of our water future has a lot to do with the way we have chosen to live. The fault, in other words, “lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Balancing the Water Budget

1. Skip the Burger. Whenever humans make something, it contains a certain amount of “virtual water.” This is an estimate of the amount of water required to produce this product. Recently, researchers have tried to estimate the virtual water footprint for various types of foods. Americans, on average, eat about half a pound of meat a day (eco-centric.com). Some estimates put producing a pound of beef at 1,800 gallons of water. So for the meat alone, we’re using 900 gallons of virtual water per day. That’s almost three times the total daily household water use for a U.S. family (320 gallons), according to the EPA. It’s no wonder that a study in Finland calculated that by switching to a vegetarian diet, enough water would be saved to feed an additional 1.8 billion people around the world.

2. Forego that T-Shirt. Some crops are more equal than others. WAY more equal. Cotton is one of the worst water guzzlers on the planet. According to WorldWildlife.org, producing a single cotton T-shirt can require up to 2,700 gallons of water. In addition, growing cotton usually involves vast amounts of water-polluting chemicals: “2.4 percent of the world’s crop land is planted with cotton, and yet it accounts for 24 percent and 11 percent of the global sales of insecticide and pesticides respectively.” Add to that the lifelong costs of washing and drying it, and a simple T-shirt becomes a virtual water Goliath. What are the alternatives? Innovations in nano-fabrics that are self-cleaning may hold the key. That 100-percent cotton T-shirt from Patagonia may seem like a green statement, but the world’s water supply might be far better served if we all wore permanent press synthetics. The challenge for manufacturers is to create synthetics that feel like cotton, and for fashion leaders to embrace a new age of synthetic clothing. We’ve done it before. In World War II, the military sold us on the benefits of rayon and nylon. Even polyester seemed sexy when John Travolta was wearing it in Saturday Night Fever. Fashion is flexible, whereas the need for fresh drinking water is not.

3. Go Net Zero (Preferably Solar). Most U.S. power plants deliver electricity at 30 percent efficiency. Beyond that sobering fact, however, is their water cost. Cooling thermoelectric plants demands vast quantities of our nation’s fresh water resources (albeit returning much of that to the hydrologic cycle). Renewable energy such as solar photovoltaic requires water to manufacture the panels—but not continuous cooling over their lifespan. This is little considered advantage to standalone and small, decentralized solar plants. As we build our homes and multifamily projects to net-zero standards, we are automatically making major strides in fresh water conservation.

4. Embrace the Bidet. As I detailed in my Editor’s Note in this issue of Green Builder magazine, a simple lifestyle change in our bathrooms could save millions of gallons of water and untold acres of biodiverse forests. Toilet tissue is a real water guzzler, using almost as much “virtual water” per flush as the most efficient low-flow toilet. By switching to water-based sanitation, we could halve the impact of every flush.

5. Invest in Drip Irrigation. Switching from traditional sprinkler irrigation to drip and other “advanced” watering systems can reduce water use by 60 percent. The potential water savings for large-scale farms is almost incalculable. Why not redirect subsidies from water-wasting biofuels to irrigation systems for food farmers? This is one farm subsidy that could yield many layers of “downstream” benefits. For residential properties, homeowners can achieve similar efficiency gains by installing drip irrigation systems when landscaping. GB


The nightmare scenario of global water wars, drought and human suffering is not inevitable. As urban planners and citizens awaken to the real sources of water waste, they will seize upon opportunities to reduce it. Systemic changes will restore vast fresh water resources to the world portfolio. Innovations in farm irrigation, reuse of stormwater, decoupling from thermoelectric cooling (for fossil fuel-powered electric plants) will join with behavioral shifts. As citizens reduce consumption of meats, cotton, toilet tissue and other water-guzzling commodities, the Earth’s hydrologic cycles will stabilize, allowing ancient aquifers to refill, even during long drought periods.


Irrigation: Draining Our Fossil Waters for Eons to Come


What’s Wrong with Texas? The impacts of agricultural irrigation can be seen clearly in this map of projected per capita water use for the year 2030. Many of these large agri-farms rely on sources such as “fossil water” aquifers that may take many years to replenish. But the map also highlights just how big an impact localized irrigation has. Note the low water use in the New England states, which are just as lawn-crazy as other states. But annual rainfall in the Northeast greatly reduces irrigation needs. Along with other major shifts in water consciousness, the use of water-thirsty lawns in regions that can’t support them with natural rainfall must be curtailed.


celestia museum of the future water waste

Archaic Systems: By 2050, free-flow sprinklers could be found only in antique shops, and advanced septic transport and filter systems made scenes like the annual visit from “the pump man” a distant memory.

"Fit for Purpose" Water Comes of Age

Do we really need drinking water in our toilets? In the U.S., we drink about one percent of the drinking water quality water piped into our homes. The other 99 percent of this high-quality H2O is used to flush toilets, wash laundry, water lawns and take showers.

fit for purpose water pipes

This inefficient use of water treatment has begun to get more scrutiny, now that water availability has become an issue. So-called “fit for purpose” water supplies (separate pipes carrying differently treated water) are being taken more seriously. In fact, the new 2012 International Residential Code includes a non-prescriptive section encouraging graywater reuse in homes.

waterwithdrawalsRising Per Capita Water Consumption

Despite the advent of low-flow toilets, faucets and smarter irrigation, water use per capita in the U.S. keeps rising. Why?

The answer, according to the USDA, is multi-fold. First, household size overall has been shrinking, which results in rising per-capita water use. As the agency notes, “A minimum level of water use per household, especially for lawn and garden watering, is largely unrelated to household size, causing per-capita use to rise as household size drops.”

Other factors include “the use of appliances such dishwashers, washing machines, swimming pools and lawn sprinkler systems. These changes are consistent with the increasing real incomes experienced in many areas of the U.S. over the past 30 years.”