This week is part two of my conversation with Charles Fishman, author of the compelling book, The Big Thirst. He’s a powerhouse of fascinating facts about our planet’s water – including some thought-provoking details on our infrastructure and our water spending. Now may be just the time we should be reshaping how we think about water and why paying more might not be so bad. Is the price of water simply so cheap that we take it for granted? This episode is a good reminder that we each make choices every day involving water, and they’re often not good choices. The good news is that we all have the power to effect change once we set our minds to it.
Before you continue here, be sure to check out last week’s episode. Charles and I had a lot to discuss, and it all starts there.
At What Cost?
Charles says that we have a “water opulence” problem in America. Even in areas of drought, we have easy and abundant access to clean, drinkable water. We are privileged to be able to walk into any convenience store, gas station or even a hardware store and find bottled water on at least one shelf.
The sobering reality is that our toilets are fed by water that is cleaner than approximately one-quarter of the world’s population can access. Rather than being thoughtful with this precious resource, we tend to assume there will always be an abundance.
Charles was inspired to write The Big Thirst by a single (and expensive) water bottle. His wife was feeling parched after a long day of travel and purchased a bottle of Fiji brand water. The $7 price tag stung Charles’ practical sensibilities, but it also made him curious. He found that, while bottles of Fiji water were in just about every market of the U.S., over half of the residents of the Fiji islands didn’t have access to safe drinking water themselves
American demand for luxuriously expensive bottles of water created a culture that sanctified shipping this resource thousands of miles from where it was critically needed.
Charles calls bottled water an elitist product. We buy it, not out of necessity, but for its convenience. Five bottles of water are consumed per person per week in this country, on average. It’s now one of the most popular products on the market, and last year, consumption of bottled water surpassed that of soda.
Sadly, the plastic used in the production of those bottles is one of our most recyclable products, yet only about one-third of them actually wind up in the recycling system. That means two-thirds are winding up in our landfills (or worse) where they never decompose.
Sales of bottled water continue to rise, in spite of there being nothing particularly special about the water in those bottles. Products from Dasani, Aquafina and Nestle Pure Life – some of the most popular brands – are processed and bottled in the middle of major urban centers. What they bottle and sell is simply publicly-available utility water that has been purified to a higher standard and dosed with a minuscule recipe of minerals.
Bottled water is so nondescript to our taste buds that even the CEOs of the producers can’t identify their own product. According to Charles’ research, no CEO has ever been able to identify their own product during a blind taste test. The products taste too similar.
There’s no denying how handy it is to throw a bottle of water into a gym bag or to grab one while you’re on the go, but the accumulated cost should cause us to rethink. Charles explains that he could refill a water bottle from his tap every day for eight years before the cost would reach $1.29 – the price of some of the least expensive bottled water on the market.
Each year, the water system infrastructure across the entire U.S. costs us $50 billion a year. That sounds like an enormous amount, right? Well, consider that Americans also spend $26 billion a year on bottled water alone. How can we justify funneling half of our entire infrastructure spending simply for bottled convenience? Imagine the change that could take place if we invested back into the water systems that we rely on every day instead.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Most of our water systems have been in place for generations, operating quietly and largely without fail under the surfaces of our streets and homes. Now, stop for a minute, and think about the condition of our roads and bridges. Much of that infrastructure has been in place for far less time, but they are out in the open where we can visibly see their deterioration.
Roads are in a constant state of being replaced and repaired, and there is increasing alarm about the dilapidating condition of bridges which are decades old. Collapses take place every year, and experts report that more are inevitable unless serious repairs – or even complete reconstruction – are undertaken.
So, what about our water systems? For the most part, they work so well that they tend to be invisible. They take a backseat to the prospective problems we can see with our own eyes. The fact that our water systems have worked so well – and for so long – is a testament to the engineers who designed them.
Without the benefit of the technology used in modern-day design, engineers in the early part of the 20th century were able to figure out, not just how to purify water for drinking, but how to move it long distances across varying elevations and geology and through intricate networks of metropolitan spaces.
In Washington D.C. for example, water moves through the entire sewer system using gravity. Engineers of the day were able to determine how deep to dig so that the water would flow on its own – without power. Genius like theirs is remarkable, but it seems to have led us to be indifferent to their enduring – but aging – legacy.
The area known as “K Street” was installed as early as the mid-1800s. Before Abraham Lincoln had moved into the White House, this system was already operating almost seamlessly underground! That area is now one of the ritzier areas of D.C. and is home to some of the nation’s richest lobbyist organizations. It’s all fed by the same pre-Lincoln water system.
Although city workers have replaced sections of this and other areas of the water network, it’s only those areas in critical condition which have gotten the attention. In other words, many of the pipes transporting water to homes and businesses throughout Washington D.C. are over 150 years old. Can you imagine what the insides of those pipes must look like?
It’s only a matter of time until huge spans of the water system – and equally aged systems across the country – fail. When they do, you can bet the people affected will suddenly be thinking a whole lot more about their water.
Replacement is expensive, but the cost of continuing to take the reliability of our water systems for granted is certainly much higher. The billions we, as consumers, spend on all those water bottles demonstrates how much money is already going to water. It’s just not being utilized in a productive and thoughtful way.
How confident are you that your power will always turn on? We experience power failures so often that manufacturers of some of our appliances are designed with battery backup. When was the last time you had to reset the clock on one of your kitchen appliances due to a power failure? Odds are good that’s been your experience at least once this year. Your appliances might even feature some type of feature to alert you of a power failure.
Now, ask yourself when was the last time you turned on the faucet and experienced a water failure? The vast majority of us don’t know what that feels like, but it’s a mistake to assume that will always be the case.
All of this is why Charles is a big proponent that we should be paying more for our community water. Whether we like it or not, money talks, and we place more value on the things that carry a higher price tag.
Rethinking the Flow of the Almighty Dollar
The average water bill for a family of four is $32 per month. That’s a pretty good bargain considering it provides, essentially, unlimited access to water. Unfortunately, that low cost has made water a low priority in our awareness too.
When we pay more, we tend to change our behavior. Charles isn’t advocating for people of modest means to have their water shut off. He’s simply calling attention to how much we take water for granted.
To illustrate that point, he notes that large-scale farms in California don’t pay for their water. They get all the water they want at zero cost. That’s intended to support the agricultural industry, but these farms aren’t even required to keep track of how much water they use. No doubt some of these operations are keenly aware of their responsibility for efficient use. However with no budgetary restraints or regulation in place, what is the motivation for continued improvement or for those who abuse the system to change their ways?
In an effort to promote their agricultural industry, the government of India made both water and power freely available to farmers in the northern region of the country. Farmers could use as much of both resources as they chose. As a result, many of them turned the irrigation pumps on and never turned them off. The water and power ran continuously whether it benefited the crops or not, because there was no motivation to monitor use.
It’s just human nature to be motivated by money. A homeowner who pays for water on a metered system will be more mindful of how much he or she uses to keep the lawn green than a homeowner who pays a flat monthly fee. Every day, we make choices based on our budget. Money is always on our minds.
These days, we pay more for our smartphones than we do for our water. How much is your monthly data bill? Odds are pretty good it’s significantly more than your monthly water bill. Up until a decade or so ago, we were all making do without the convenience of a handheld computer (a.k.a. smartphone), but none of us can live without water.
A Carnation Evaporated Milk factory in Modesto, CA knew it would shut down without water. It takes in raw milk from farmers and, then, pasteurizes and evaporates off half of the water content before canning the end result for shipment.
For 25 years, the company was evaporating a quarter of a million gallons of water and letting it run down the drain every single day as part of this process. At the same time, Carnation was also purchasing a quarter of a million gallons of water daily to run the facility.
It wasn’t until California was in the midst of a record drought that someone realized the problem with that picture. The facility’s chief engineer recognized the opportunity to put the evaporated water to use – saving enormous costs and protecting the plant against being shut down should the local water supply became unavailable. It took two years to engineer a system to run the facility using the water evaporated from milk, but the plant is now well on its way to becoming a zero water facility.
As soon as the company started to think about its water, it found a solution for significant change. The more we all think about these issues, the greater the power for change becomes.
Are you old enough to remember when people were allowed to smoke on commercial airlines or in public restaurants? It wasn’t that long ago, but think how far our culture has shifted from that mindset. Our society is now resolute that the air in our public spaces should be smoke-free. If someone lit a cigarette on a flight, every other passenger would be shocked. Imagine if we shifted culturally to a mindset that was equally water conscious.
Your voice matters, so find out how your community is using water and what steps they are taking for the future. The powerful changes made in Orlando (that Charles describes in Part One of this conversation) could be accomplished anywhere in our country. Each region just needs to be paying attention and implementing efforts toward improvement.
Yes, the necessary changes will probably be expensive, but the time to invest in our future is now. These problems aren’t going away. They will simply become more challenging – and expensive – to solve, as we continue to ignore them. We all need to be paying attention to what’s going on in our community – and in our own homes.
As you become educated about your city’s approach to water, you can start to make some immediate changes in your own water usage, and you can encourage friends and neighbors to do the same. Using water efficiently doesn’t need to be hard, and it will save money.
Do you let the water run until it gets hot – or cold? Capture it in a pitcher, and reuse it for your houseplants or in your landscape. Install a rain barrel system to trap and use rainfall.
Rethink how you irrigate your landscape. Timing is everything. Avoid watering during the heat of the day or when it’s windy. The best time to water is in the early morning hours, and it’s the healthiest time for your plants’ sake too. Use drip irrigation systems or emitter tubing whenever possible to reduce evaporation.
Keep tabs on the duration too. Don’t just water until you remember to turn the spigot off. Set the timer on your watch or purchase battery-operated timers which will switch the spigot off for you.
As gardeners, we have a deeper sensitivity to and appreciation for how the steps we take will impact the world at large. That’s why I felt strongly that you would appreciate this message – even though it isn’t the usual garden-specific topic.
There aren’t any technical or even financial barriers to solving the world’s water problems. The biggest challenge we face is in getting our society on board to find and implement the changes that are necessary. After all, there was a time when we didn’t know how to land on the moon, but eight years later, there we were.
Remember too that we don’t have to wait for our country, as a whole, to change direction. The unique issues each of our regions face must be solved locally. Smart communities can look ahead – now – and take steps for a more water-efficient future.
When we do think about it, we all recognize that water is a precious resource. It’s also awe-inspiring. You and I don’t have the ability to carve rock without tools, but the power of water sculpted the Grand Canyon.
Water is used to sustain life, and it’s inside every single cell of our bodies. It’s used for everything in our society, from the spiritual reverence of baptizing a child to the practicality of flushing a toilet.
Water gives and protects life in so many ways. So, let’s all breath some new life into the way we approach our use of water.
Don’t miss my conversation with Charles. I really enjoyed it, and I believe you will too. He has a lot of fascinating water facts and history to share. You can listen in by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the title of this page.
What is one change that you can make, starting today, in your own home to be more mindful of your water usage? I’d love for you to share your thoughts or plan for change in the Comments section below.
Links & Resources
joegardener Online Academy: Master Pests, Diseases and Weeds – Just $47 for lifetime access! Watch for my new course on seed starting coming soon!
The Big Thirst – The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, by Charles Fishman
One Giant Leap – The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon, by Charles Fishman