Did you know that we use lots of water when we turn on the lights or fire up the toaster at home? The nation’s coal, gas and nuclear electric utilities consume almost half of the 400,000 million gallons or so of fresh water the country uses each day. Direct household consumption is much smaller, with toilet flushing accounting for a surprising large 30% of residential water use. Bottom line, conservationists should think of turning off electric lights and household appliances, as well as being aware of direct water use in bathrooms and kitchens.
Most of us take for granted that clean fresh water will flow whenever we twist a faucet handle. It’s not that easy in most of the world, and climate change will increase water insecurity even in the United States. Fortunately we have a large cushion; we use about twice as much water per capita as other developed countries, and there is room for conservation. I don’t propose going back to a 1940s lifestyle, but I spent happy times as a child on a farm where water for drinking, cooking, and bathing came from a well holding rain water drained off the house roof. You got H2O for all personal needs by lowering a bucket down that well and pulling it up full. When there wasn’t enough rainwater in the well, you hauled water from somewhere else. Obviously daily water use was a very small fraction of what we have in 2012.
One of state and national water planners’ failures is projecting high per capita water use into the distant future. We are rapidly depleting fossil water in aquifers that millions of Americans depend on, and there are large financial and environmental barriers against building new dams for lakes. Water molecules recycle themselves in an endless dance between the ocean, clouds, rain, and runoff back to the sea, but they do so in times and places we don’t control. It’s reality that growing populations and new conveniences increase demands for fresh water and, like Will Rogers said, they aren’t making any more of it. So conservation in power generation, agriculture, industry and residential water use is a wiser path to a healthy future, instead of expecting to sustain present water consumption habits. To spur us to do the right thing, our country should create pricing mechanisms designed to encourage more careful, respectful use of the Water Planet’s signature resource.
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