Op-Ed: Do You Really Know Where Your Tap Water Comes From?

And—be honest now—do you know your water footprint?

Water pours from river outlet tubes during an experimental high-flow release from the Glen Canyon Dam in Page, Arizona, on November 19, 2012. (Photo: Bob Strong/Reuters)

is CEO of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.

When I visit new places, I always ask people where their water comes from and whether there is any risk of running out. Most folks seem to know something about their water—it comes from up in the mountains. And, typically, they have some idea about water availability—there is a lot of water up there.

Instead of hiding our head in the sand and continuing to use water carelessly, perhaps we can be proactive and leverage the fact that our cavalier use of water in the past provides us with the ideal platform to reduce water use in the future.

For the most part, we don’t have much motivation to think about where our water comes from—it always comes out of our tap when we turn it on, and most of us have never experienced (or really even thought about) shortage.

And while fresh water is vital to most everything we do, it is surprising to realize that most of us are not aware that water supplies have limits: Every gallon of water used in my home may ultimately result in one less gallon of water available for my family’s future use.

Increasingly, however, nature is showing us that water shortages will soon be commonplace.

For example, over the past decade unprecedented low water levels were recorded in massive reservoirs like Lake Lanier, Georgia, and Lake Mead, Nevada— threatening to disrupt fresh water supplies to major U.S. cities like Atlanta and Las Vegas. Also, for the first time, our annual demand for Colorado River water exceeded the total supply of water provided by the river, making clear that we do not have much time to alter our behavior.

And by some estimates, the Ogallala aquifer—the great underground reservoir that provides water for thousands of farms and communities across the high plains—may only have 25 years or so of water left.

With this evidence, it is safe to assume that our water supplies will not keep pace with our current and unchecked use of water. Yet it is not clear what happens when groundwater supplies and reservoirs can no longer provide adequate water to meet our needs. And recent spats between cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles make me wonder who will be asked to give up their water when a shortage does occur?

While climate change, a growing population, and increasingly frequent drought ensure that shortages are on their way, one thing gives me great hope: For years we have been incredibly careless in our use of water. We have used water to make deserts green; our cities leak copious amounts of water from antiquated pipe systems; we still rely on very inefficient irrigation practices in many places; and for the most part we haven’t even begun to install the most water efficient appliances (or practices) in our homes.

While this is nothing to brag about, in many ways I think this could be the ace up our sleeve as we move into an era of water scarcity: opportunities abound for us to implement changes that can stretch our water supplies, and perhaps avert a looming crisis.

In my experience, humans don’t like change. However, as soon as crisis or change is upon us, we typically adapt and don’t look back. Thus, pending water shortages may provide one of the great opportunities of our age. Instead of hiding our head in the sand and continuing to use water carelessly, perhaps we can be proactive and leverage the fact that our cavalier use of water in the past provides us with the ideal platform to reduce water use in the future.

Already, people are tearing out their lawns in Las Vegas, industries are investing in state-of-the-art water conservation systems, and farmers are exploring satellite mapping and hi-tech systems to irrigate lands in the most efficient way possible. However, it seems there is still a long way to go when it comes to reducing our own personal water use footprint, and I think it’s because we are just beginning to understand that our decisions and actions at home can actually play a big part in a grand solution.

One recent development that holds much promise is the Change the Course Campaign—a first of its kind initiative that seeks to engage millions of people to create an expanding cycle of water education, conservation, and restoration

The campaign promotes simple actions at home that can have a big impact on water savings, and for every pledge made to conserve water, the campaign invests real corporate dollars in innovative projects that restore stream flows to depleted rivers across the Colorado basin.

This seems like a great first step towards being proactive—and maybe in the end we won’t have to decide who gives up their water when the shortages come. 

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