Water, to some, is rarely thought of. For me, I feel one with this fluid. Later in life I learned that scientifically, we are “mostly water”, but sensually, essentially, I recognized the fact long before learning that intellectually. Drinking it, bathing in it, knowing that it was either in or gave rise to every bite of food that I had ever eaten, gave me a deep sense of reverence for this fluid. Living, as I do in the land of long-cold winters, it is common to see the clouds of water vapor leaving one’s lungs fairly routinely. Our relationship with water is extensive. It lends itself to many magnitudes of scale. Atomically, microscopically, macroscopically, it is essential in culinary amounts, or in zymurgy (brewing), and as we expand scale further, agricultural use can kick us into quantities that exceed what a single human can use in an entire lifetime. Recreation accounts for vast quantities as well & topography would lost all meaning if not for the watercourses and lakes, we must always find a balance, a way to co-exist with this essential fluid in every undertaking that we develop.
Yet, we often forget to ask the simple question: “What is our water footprint?” We find easy ways to identify our “carbon footprint” or our “ecological footprint”, but water is often more difficult to assess. My water is pumped to me from Lake Michigan. After it makes it to the high point, it is filtered and treated and then, runs by it’s own volition down into the municipal system that serves me. I have had the luxury of drinking from artesian sources as well, similarly, these sources are generated far away, are brought to the surface by their own pressure. They are only filtered by the earth itself and are often considered “live” water.
Water has the ability to absorb and adsorb both substances and energy, so too the human body, made of water does much the same. Quality and quantity of this sacred fluid has everything to do with who we are, how healthy we become, our societies and culture and in fact, quite literally, our very survival depends on access to clean and pure water. More people die each year from tainted water than any other cause. Regrettably, we continue to treat it with disregard and almost no respect. My pet peve is when you see someone paid to be a groundskeeper, running a mower with the discharge chute pointing out into the street. Returning later you often find the clippings lying on the road and the landscaper is long gone, probably enjoying a corporately produced beverage with his feet up. The next rainstorm is sure to wash it into the public storm sewer system and contaminate the local river, with loads of phosphorus. Likewise, those who wash their cars on the road, might as well just take their soap bottle to their favorite lake and squirt away.
I used to think that others, living along the Great Lakes like me, would be open and aware of these basic truths, but as I grew up and learned bit by bit, it is truly not so. One of my greatest epiphanies was when I was old enough to get a mask and flippers, allowing me to glide across the surface of my Grandfather’s Lake “Up North”. I could see down ten feet, twenty, twenty-five. The bottom was pockmarked with bars of soap. Not one or two, not twenty or thirty, I can say conservatively, that there were several hundred bars of soap down there. With immediacy I realized the plight of people bathing in the lake and trying to keep control of a slippery bar of soap. On the one hand it made me laugh, but then the child’s mind kicked in and I remembered how bad that stuff tastes. No life could thrive on a bar and for some reason the leaves never accumulate over the top of them either. They lie there like so many skeletal remains of baths long forgotten.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel this way about water. Certainly it is different than the ways some feel, but if I had known that I would have been a much more rabid environmentalist than I have been. My Grandfather considered himself to have a strong environmental ethic. In spite of that, when he worked at Ansul, as a safety inspector, anything that could hurt people, if it were kept around, was dumped routinely in the river. He never let on to his daughters that the river might not be a good place to fish either. My Mom was also of the age that thought themselves environmentalists. She still thinks that it is better to be poisoned by using too much cleaning compound than to ever confront a single germ. When she worked as an Art Program Coordinator at a regional church camp, she took several hundred pounds of toxic compounds to her camp to use in her well-loved tie-dying projects. She couldn’t fathom how it could be bad. Even after explaining the physics of where their water comes from and where the waste flows in the remote and idyllic area, she was confounded. She was sure that her tiny little bit couldn’t possibly cause any problem. She admitted that only a tiny fraction of the ink went into the garments and that the vast majority of the chemicals were washed down the drain, but the fact that something that goes into a tiny little hole could ever make it back to the groundwater, or the lake was incomprehensible to her.
We have to do the basic, boring. B.S. of finding out where our water comes from, the real costs of doing that, and where the water goes after it disappears down the drain to realize and respect the nature and size of our water footprint. Once again, permaculture solves some of the most pressing issues confronting us. Landscaping for food production reduces water use, mowing,(which keeps those clippings off the road) and the need for large scale agribusiness that kicks our water use into the exponential use area. I learned when I was a child that to grow a pound of beans requires ten gallons of water during the course of the bean’s life. Similarly, a pound of beef requires over 10,000 gallons, not only do the cattle consume water directly, but the feed & processing needs to be considered as well. Now I realize that the large scale feedlot style of meeting America’s appetite for beef contaminates many millions of gallons more with cattle, poultry and pig waste as well.
We can all take steps to protect our water resources. By exploring our own relationships with this unique fluid, we can find ways to better manage our own behavior. When we make positive changes on our own for the betterment of this precious gift of our creator, we can then ask others to do a better job in the way they handle their own relationship with water.