Today’s podcast is just a little bit off-topic. Well, not too far off-topic. After all, the subject of today’s discussion is fundamental to our gardens. It’s fundamental to our very existence. Today, we’re talking about water. More specifically, can we, and how are we conserving water’s finite supply in a very thirsty world?
How often do you think about water – really think about it? My guest today, Charles Fishman, believes that many of our modern-day water issues are due to our collective lack of thinking about it. Across America, our water systems are so invisible and tend to work so seamlessly that we expect this vital resource to flow from our tap as intuitively we expect to wake up in the morning.
Life is busy, so we focus on the problems immediately in front of us and overlook what works. As far as our water is concerned, that needs to change.
Several years ago, I read Charles’ book, The Big Thirst, and its message left a deep and permanent imprint on me. I refer back to its insight and statistical details often.
Charles is an award-winning author with a number of books on a wide variety of topics and articles in the likes of the Washington Post. He refers to himself as a historian, journalist and author. His most recent release, One Giant Leap, examines the race to land on the moon during the 1960s.
The moon landing definitely feels like old news to us these days, but in its time, a moon landing seemed as likely to the general public as time travel. Yet, teams across the globe were working to achieve this feat. Did they think it couldn’t be done? No – they devoted their careers to the belief that it could. The only question on their minds was, “Which country would accomplish it first?”
Charles was inspired by the ability of humanity to come together to solve problems – no matter how immense they are.
The Constancy of Our Planet’s Water
Water is a big problem. Our access to water might seem automatic, but it’s actually tenuous. Climate watchdogs have been sounding the alarm that we are experiencing or approaching a water crisis all across the planet. Yet, the crisis isn’t global at all. Water issues are actually very regional or local to specific needs. For some, drought is reaching historic levels. For others, epic flooding is the problem.
Have you ever thought about the fact that water can’t be used up? Water never goes away. It just relocates. All of the water on our planet right now has been on the Earth since the point of its creation. Charles points out that every time you drink a bottle of water, it was – at one time – in the kidneys of a Tyrannosaurus rex. That’s because there is no mechanism or process for creating or destroying water.
Our other resources – like fossil fuel – can be used up. They are a finite source. The miracle of water is its infinite reusability and its indestructibility. It might evaporate, but it will re-condense somewhere at some point. When it moves to an area where access doesn’t match need, water (or lack thereof) creates crisis.
The environment on the space station is so isolated and contained that it’s a good illustration of the cycles of water on our planet. Scientists have designed systems on the station to collect every form of water. It’s processed and reused throughout the station. The moisture in the breath of the astronauts, their pee, even their perspiration is collected and recycled – cleaned and purified into water that can be consumed or used to run other mechanisms on board.
Like on our planet, the water on the space station can’t be used up. Out of necessity, scientists have discovered how to make the most efficient use of every drop.
The Unpredictability of Our Planet’s Water
Across this country, many of our cities were built in proximity to a water source. Much of our farmland, too, has been developed near where water was easily available.
So, what happens when a shift in our climate causes the rainfall, which typically fell in an agricultural area, to fall a few hundred miles to the north instead? When a change like this happens occasionally, the impact is minimal, but when the shifts are long-term, devastating drought is the result.
That’s not just a hypothetical. Many areas are experiencing significantly different annual rainfall than what has been historically recorded. The area where I live – Atlanta, GA – is an example. Our region is receiving less rain annually than it used to. A few years ago, Atlanta came within 80 days of having its public water supply, sourced from Lake Lanier, run dry.
Fortunately, the rain did finally come – just in the nick of time. Good thing too, because the city didn’t have a backup plan. Had the rain not fallen where we needed it millions of residents (yours truly included!) would have turned on the tap and gotten nothing.
The Atlanta area has experienced two more droughts since we nearly ran out of water, but the situation hasn’t become as extreme. Georgia has traditionally been considered a lush region, but the shift in rainfall is changing that reality.
Earth is sometimes called the Water Planet because 70% of its surface is covered by water. Yet, about 70% of our global rainfall lands on those water surfaces. When it lands in saltwater, it becomes unavailable for use.
The 8 million or so residents of New York City live on the Atlantic Coast, but they rely on reservoirs in the Catskills of upstate New York for their water supply. The system delivers water that is so clean it’s one of the only metropolitan areas in the country not required to purify it before piping it out to the populace.
Consider what happens if the average rainfall landing in the Catskills shifts a few hundred miles to the east. If that rain falls into the Atlantic Ocean rather than into the reservoirs, the pure water being delivered throughout New York City runs dry. The Big Apple can’t simply be relocated, so another solution will become necessary, and it will probably be expensive.
The lessons of Charles’ book aren’t intended to instill a sense of climate-change gloom and doom. His message – and the reason I asked him to join me for this discussion – is that we all have the potential to create positive change when it comes to water availability.
There are three primary issues undermining our water security:
- Population growth – more people relying on water supplies which have been serving communities for decades.
- Economic growth – as society develops economically, more water is used for manufacturing, technology, recreation, etc.
- Climate change – where water falls, or the form it falls in, has been changing across the globe
These three issues will be ongoing, but when we pay attention to how we use water and really think about where we need it, we can continue to grow as a society without having to find, clean and deliver more and more water.
Do you know where your water comes from? Is that resource sustainable? Do you use water wisely in and around your home? What happens to it once you’ve put it to use?
The government of Orlando, FL began asking those questions a few decades ago. In the early 1980s, the Orlando area was one of the fastest growing in the country. In 1985, county planners began to take a look at the relationship between population increase and the decline of the area’s water resources. They began to think about their water.
They invested in a water reuse facility which could clean waste water almost to the point that it was drinkable. Then, they passed a law requiring all new development to install two water systems – one for fresh, potable water and the other for water from the reuse facility. Purple pipes were installed to indicate which system carried the reuse water.
In any area developed after the mid-1980s, all the water used outdoors (irrigating landscapes, washing cars, etc.) must be the purple pipe water, by law. Nearly 30 years later, generations in Orlando have grown up thinking about their water choices. It has created a reuse culture.
The Orlando area has doubled in size, but it doesn’t use a single gallon more of potable water now than was being used in the mid-1980s. In fact, the program cleans every gallon of waste water and transforms it for use in the purple pipe system, generating more than can be used.
During the winter rainy season, there is an abundance of cleaned water which is piped back into the ground to recharge the aquifer. The aquifer further purifies the water to generate additional fresh, portable water.
Orlando is a bona fide water success story – proof that our society can find solutions to these types of problems. It’s all a matter of recognizing the trouble ahead and taking steps now to build a more secure future.
As Charles says, “When you notice a problem, that is the moment to try to address the problem.”
Depending on where you live, a water shortage might not be the problem. Stories of dangerous flooding are more and more common on the national news. Some of these events aren’t sudden or impactful enough to be newsworthy, but their increased frequency is a real concern. For example, Charleston, SC used to experience a flood about five times each year. Now, the area struggles with flooding ten times as often.
In areas of California, it’s not how much moisture they receive annually. The greater problem is how that moisture falls. About 40% of California’s public water supply comes from area mountain ranges. There, snowfall used to accumulate all winter and slowly melt through the year to provide a steady water supply.
During the past five years, it hasn’t been snowing in those mountains. More often than not, moisture has fallen in the form of rain. Since there’s not a system in place for capturing rain, the water is landing in the same geographic area, but it’s moving more rapidly down into the ocean. The precipitation isn’t remaining in place to be available as gradual melt throughout the warmer months.
It’s another example of Charles’ point. Our water issues are regional, and they need to be solved locally. We each face unique changes and challenges, so we need to pay attention to find the best solution.
Charles lives in the Washington, DC area where rain events tend to be a deluge. There, heavy rain often overwhelms the drainage system, so the city opted to invest two million dollars to construct an enormous tunnel to hold all that storm water.
Recently, the city has taken a new approach. They’re installing a greenwater infrastructure. In every neighborhood, curbs are being removed every few blocks to make way for rain gardens. The permeable materials in the gardens slow the water down. Instead of rushing into the sewer system, water can be absorbed into the ground.
The city is also installing permeable pavement and planting more trees. All in all, these efforts create the opportunity for as much water to be absorbed back into the aquifer as the two million dollar tunnel can contain.
We use more water in our nation in a single day than we consume oil in a year. That’s a staggering fact, especially considering that a significant amount of the water used is wasted. Running sprinklers during the heat of the day. Letting the water run to get hot before we jump into the shower. Little actions we take all the time without giving them a second thought.
On a positive note, Americans consume 25% less water than we did in 1980 – in spite of significant population growth. Through community efforts like those of Orlando and changes in technology, progress is being made. Gallons saved from those water efficient toilets and washing machines are adding up, America!
But we still have a long way to go.
Another way to facilitate change is through our landscaping choices. I’ve shared that recommendation many times throughout episodes of my show, Growing a Greener World®, and through these podcasts. Choosing plants that are conducive to your climate will result in healthier plants, less maintenance time for you, and more efficient use of your area water supply.
Case in point – the sprawling metropolis of Las Vegas, NV. When Charles points out that most cities grew up in proximity to a water source, Las Vegas is an exception, to say the least. There aren’t many areas of the country with less access to water than the dusty backwater strip of casinos which transformed into today’s Las Vegas.
In the 1980s, residents there were using 250 gallons of water per person every day – twice the national average. Half of that amount was being used outdoors, as homeowners and businesses watered their traditional lawns and other iconic American landscape plantings. Las Vegas’ water was being transported from Lake Mead, but it became clear a few decades ago that the amount they were using wasn’t sustainable.
The water utility established a program to compensate residents for replacing lawn with native plantings. During the past 10 years, installing a new front lawn was actually banned. It’s also illegal for residents to allow water from an irrigation system or sprinkler to land on sidewalks or pavement.
There are even “water cops” who patrol and issue citations for infractions of local water laws, but a culture of water awareness means the neighbors are just as likely to call out an offender. All of this may seem harsh to some, but it has had an important impact. The population of Las Vegas has grown by 30% since a decade ago, but the city doesn’t consume any more water. These days, residents are using the national average of 125 gallons of water per person each day.
All these changes created a culture of mindfulness. Las Vegas residents still get to enjoy gardens and beautiful landscapes, but their planting selections are now more appropriate to the hot and dry conditions. Most importantly, people there are thinking about their water and making smarter choices.
Even the golf courses use water more efficiently, without sacrificing quality. Each course is allowed a water budget. Much of what they use is recycled, like the purple pipe water of Orlando. They’ve changed the look and feel of their fairways and greens, but they haven’t sacrificed the golf experience. As a result, the golf industry there continues to boom, but they are using half the amount of water of a decade ago.
These days, the city water infrastructure recycles 94% of the water being consumed. Every gallon that hits a drain in Las Vegas is collected, cleaned and put back into Lake Mead – cleaner than when it came out. If every city across the country recycled nearly that much, many of our water insecurities would be eliminated.
Next week, my conversation with Charles continues, as we discuss what he calls our culture of “water opulence.” In the meantime, do you know of any efforts being made in your area to increase water awareness or adopt more efficient systems? I hope you’ll share those in the Comments section below.
As always, I recommend that you listen in to my talk with Charles. Scroll to the top of the page and press the Play icon in the green bar under the page title to hear more anecdotes from Charles and interesting notes from his research on the race to the moon. See you right back here next week.
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