WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE WATER
Have you ever taken the time to pause and think about how much water you use in your everyday life? How about the amount of water we use on a global scale? If you said no, you are not alone. I never used to think about it myself, until I started focusing all my energy on creating a self-sustainable, low waste lifestyle. Needless to say, we use a baffling and unsustainable amount of water every second of every day.
If you are not interested in our current water issues and only care about how YOU can be part of the solution, skip to the bottom of this article. But be warned you’re skipping over some EYE-OPENING STUFF!
In case you didn’t know, we need freshwater to survive. You are probably thinking, “Yeah, no kidding Captain Obvious!” But stay with me here! Out of all the water in the world it is estimated that only 3% of it is freshwater and 2.5% of that estimate is unavailable due to being frozen in ice caps and glaciers or being too far below the surface for extraction (1). That means only .5% is available for immediate use. Half of a percent for our entire population! Isn’t that mind blowing? The remaining 97% makes up our oceans.
Sources of available freshwater include groundwater (underground aquifers) and surface water (surface runoffs, rivers, wetlands, reservoirs, lakes and streams). Taking too much from either source can have disastrous effects which are already beginning to rear their ugly heads.
There is a process called desalination, which in simple terms means turning saltwater into freshwater. Now, you may think, “Oh, what wonderful news. We never have to worry again since we have 97% salt water at our fingertips.” But you would be wrong. The amount of energy this process requires is far too intensive and usually requires large amounts of non-renewable resources like fossil fuels. Therefore, desalination at this time is not considered a sustainable option.
Desalination has the potential to cause a lot of environmental damage. All the leftover brine or highly concentrated salt solution is put back into the oceans. Ocean ecosystems are in no way equipped to handle these high levels of salinity. There is so much life that is lost during the salt water collection as well. I personally don’t even view desalination as being humane. As Forest Gump would say, “That is all I have to say about that!”
Desalination surface water intakes are a huge threat to marine life. Mature fish, larvae and other marine life can be significantly injured or killed when they become trapped or sucked into open water surface intake pipesHealTheBay.org
SUSTAINABILITY ISSUES WITH OUR FRESHWATER SUPPLY
A major issue that needs to be at the center of discussion is contaminated stormwater runoff. AKA rain and snow runoff. When rain falls or snow melts, all the pollutants like toxic chemicals and salts, fertilizers, pesticides, human and animal waste, oils, trash, and everything else gets swept away with the water, down the storm drains and flows right back into our water sources without ever being treated. Do you know happens as a result of this? Extremely polluted freshwater that is dangerous to our health and planet.
We need to shift our focus to utilize stormwater harvesting and treatment systems also referred to as recycled water, reclaimed water or water reuse. So, rather than allowing our runoff to just flow right back into our water supplies, we intervene and harvest the water, treat the water and then use the water! This eliminates the need to tap into surface and groundwater sources and allows us to not only make use of rain and snow but will decrease the contamination that would otherwise flow right back into our fresh water supplies over and over again. I like the idea of that! This can provide natural resources time to replenish themselves and sustain their supply. (2)
But why isn’t there a major focus on this? I had no idea this was even a problem until I came across it during my research and started uncovering all of the real life issues that are happening right now! Check out this great site from EPA.GOV
Another sustainable implementation would be to add natural buffers to cut down on how much water runs off in the first place. For example, incorporating absorbent vegetation along roads that could capture, filter and slow down any storm water. Plants, trees and soil would not only turn water runoff into a valuable resource, but they increase the overall health and vitality of an ecosystem in general. I don’t see any downfalls to that!
THINK ABOUT THIS
If it rained over a field of grass, would the rainwater run off or would it be absorbed, used by the plants and then naturally evaporated back into the air?
Now picture that same rainfall on a cement road with no vegetation. The water is going to run off picking up all kinds of pollutants and trash along the way until it finds a drain that leads right back into our “not so fresh” water supply.
Which scenario sounds like the better option?
An estimated 10 trillion gallons of untreated stormwater runoff, containing everything from raw sewage to trash to toxins, enters U.S. waterways from city sewer systems every year, polluting the environment and drinking water supplies.NRDC.ORG (SOURCE)
GROUND WATER EXTRACTION
Let’s move onto another unsustainable process that is taking place as we speak. Groundwater aquifers are being extracted faster than they can replenish themselves in many areas (see below image for visual). This leads to drawdowns and sinkholes. When water is no longer present in an aquifer, the area starts to collapse. This is also known as land subsidence. This is happening right now! Land is literally sinking because we are extracting too much groundwater.
Let’s look at California. California is one of the most drought-stricken states, yet they are known for being the number one producer of almond crops which takes an enormous amount of water! So, they tap into their groundwater aquifers, which 85% of their population rely on in some way, shape or form. California’s towns are literally sinking. (3)
It is possible to sustainably use groundwater extraction methods. But this requires strict guidelines and monitoring and the awareness of the aquifers ability to recharge and replenish itself. We need to use a methodical combination of different water sources. Including recycled water, surface water and monitored ground water extraction.
We need to protect, respect, and preserve our water sources. Even if we maintain the water levels at a manageable rate we are dealing with another rising crisis, contamination. Once stormwater runoff is contaminated it can be near impossible to catch it and treat it in time. Anything that gets spilled or swept away by rain or snow ends up in surface or groundwater and these two sources feed into one another. This unsustainable cycle will lead to a major crisis unless we move to the recycled/stormwater harvesting methods. Eliminating and avoiding contamination and uncontrolled runoffs are key topics that need major attention.
Let us not forget that fossil fuel pollution among all other forms of pollution also have direct effects on our water supply. Think about it, pollution flows into the atmosphere every second. The pollutants end up in our rain and snowfall which land on earth and either seep into the ground or fall right into our surface waters and oceans. Spills of any kind seep into the ground and end up in our water sources as well. EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED and the more pollution we put out, the more polluted our water gets. Does this sound sustainable to you? (4)
💧AGRICULTURAL WATER USE (Production and maintenance of Produce and Livestock) – CONTRIBUTES TO 70% OF OUR FRESHWATER USE. The projected increase in population by 2050 shows that this rate of water consumption for agriculture is not sustainable. There is no way we can keep up with the growing population if we don’t start implementing more sustainable solutions for agricultural water usage. The number one thing we can do as a consumer is reduce or eliminate our consumption of meat and dairy. The amount of water it takes to raise, feed, maintain, slaughter, process and package livestock and poultry is RIDICULOUS. Never mind what goes into the dairy industry and their processes.
👉I won’t go into the inhumane practices of industrial farming and the dairy industry but if you need motivation to reduce your meat and dairy consumption, I recommend doing a little research. You will easily find more than enough incentive to make the change.
💧INDUSTRIAL WATER USE (fabricating, processing, washing, diluting, cooling, or transporting a product; incorporating water into a product; or for sanitation needs within the manufacturing facility) (5) – CONTRIBUTES TO 19% OF OUR FRESHWATER USE. This is all part of virtual water use AKA indirect water use. When you buy something, you are supporting whatever amount of water usage it took to make that product whether you know it or not. Check this site out for some eye-opening examples.
💧MUNICIPAL WATER USE (A public water supply system or water supply network including water treatment facilities, water storage facilities, reservoirs, water tanks and water towers and a pipe network for distributing the treated water to customers including residential, industrial, commercial or institutional establishments )(6)- CONTRIBUTES TO 11% OF OUR FRESHWATER USE. When you shower, water your lawn, wash the dishes and do laundry; you are impacting the municipal water use percentage. Be mindful!
WATER FOOTPRINT 👣
Something that you may not have heard about yet is a water footprint. Like a carbon footprint but …with water. This calculation shows you just how much freshwater is used for a particular product, company, or industry overall. That almond milk you are drinking has a higher water footprint than oat milk. Of course, dairy milk has a higher water footprint than both!
Water footprints are made up of three different calculations. Green water use, Blue water use and Grey water use. These represent the direct and indirect usages of water for any given subject. (7)
GREEN WATER– The amount of rainwater or water stored in soil that is used (this represents how much natural occurring water something UTILIZES. It would not be considered water consumption since the water is naturally occurring as opposed to being drawn out of an underground aquifer or introduced via irrigation)
BLUE WATER– The amount of surface and groundwater that is used (This IS considered water consumption. A high percentage rating on this calculation means whatever product your buying is not a very sustainable option.)
GREY WATER– The amount of freshwater it takes to dilute the contaminated wastewater (that is left after production) to meet quality standards before being disposed of. (Once again this would fall under water consumption since we are pulling freshwater from surface or groundwater sources to dilute the polluted water we have created as a byproduct.)
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP?
- Research the water footprints of your favorite products, foods and fabrics. See what you can eliminate or substitute with a more sustainable option!
- Educate others with your knowledge. We need to inspire others to BE THE CHANGE.
- Turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth, washing dishes, etc. It may seem annoying at first but I promise you in a week it will become a positive mindless habit!
- Purchase a shower head that has a low flow or water saving option like this one.
- Only run the washing machine and dishwasher when you have a full load.
- Buy laundry detergent sheets and other products that don’t contain water!
- Buy concentrates! Eliminate unnecessary water in products. They have a concentrate for almost any cleaning product now.
- Fix any leaks you have in your home.
- Support waterless processes like waterless car washes instead of regular car washes.
- Use a low flow toilet or a toilet that has the #1 or #2 flushing options. Or purchase a conversion kit for your toilet like this one.
- Don’t overwater your lawn or water during peak periods, and install rain sensors on irrigation systems.
- Install a rain barrel for outdoor watering like this one.
- Plant a rain garden for catching stormwater runoff from your roof, driveway, and other hard surfaces.
- Monitor your water usage on your water bill. Make it a game to see how low you can get it!
- Time your showers! We use this timer. I couldn’t believe what I was able to do in 8 minutes!
- Switch off the shower or change the pressure to low flow while shaving. This is a huge water saver!
- Don’t let your water run period. If not using it, shut it off! Same with your hose!
- For people with well water, we should follow all of these same rules
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- USBR.GOV Worldwide water facts – https://www.usbr.gov/mp/arwec/water-facts-ww-water-sup.html#:~:text=3%25%20of%20the%20earth’s%20water,water%20is%20available%20fresh%20water
- NGWA.ORG What is groundwater– https://www.ngwa.org/what-is-groundwater/About-groundwater/information-on-earths-water
- CA.WATER.USGS.GOV– https://ca.water.usgs.gov/land_subsidence/california-subsidence-areas.html
- MYSTICRIVER.ORG Pollution– https://mysticriver.org/pollution?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIn52M9aLW8AIVJv7jBx1mwQ4BEAAYASAAEgKef_D_BwE
- USGS.GOV Industrial water use– https://www.usgs.gov/mission-areas/water-resources/science/industrial-water-use?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects
- WWDMAG.COM Municipal Water– https://www.wwdmag.com/municipal-water#:~:text=A%20public%20water%20supply%20system,industrial%2C%20commercial%20or%20institutional%20establishments
- WATERCALCULATOR.ORG Water footprints– https://www.watercalculator.org/footprint/what-is-a-water-footprint/
- Here is a great source to learn more about water reuse/reclamation– https://www.epa.gov/waterreuse/basic-information-about-water-reuse
Until next time!