Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 4.17.08



Not Enough Drops We’re Wasting Our Fresh Water. How Do We Stop?

Welcome to Your Watershed Eugene’s Water Flows from the Cascades

Devastation in the Legislature Climate Change in our Rivers and Oceans

High-Octane Compost Fueling Biodegradation with a bit of Caffeine

Climate For the Rest of Us Rough Guide tackles “the most important challenge of our time”

The Great Whiteaker Cleanup Parade


Not Enough Drops
By Suzi Steffen

We emerge from a watery world, oxygen coursing through the umbilical cord. We wake to lights and air, screaming for breath, the fluid that supported us turned to harsh gravity and the ground beneath our feet. Yet we remain liquid animals, our brains 70 percent water, our blood at 83 percent, our lungs topping the charts at 90 percent.

Then there’s our planet: Oceans cover more than 70 percent of our planet and make up 98 percent of all of the water in the world. Fresh water, in the form of glaciers, rivers, underground aquifers and lakes, forms the other 2 percent. Because most of that lies in the polar ice caps and other glaciers, the fresh water available to every living thing on the planet comes from a few hundreths of a percent of all the water in the world.

So why do we destroy and betray our precious water?

According to Maude Barlow, author of Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water, “The world is running out of freshwater.” She explains the consequences of irrigation, industrialization and many other human activities: “Every eight seconds, a child dies from drinking dirty water.”

More uplifting news: Lakes Mead and Powell may run dry by the quarter-century mark, a February report in the Christian Science Monitor noted. That’s according to scientists at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, who say that the U.S. Southwest’s sources of water can’t last. Southeastern Australia may remain permanently dry and parched, a climate expert in Sydney said earlier this year. Australians have gotten used to timing shorter showers — under four minutes — and xeriscaping their yards. Melting glaciers in Peru endanger the livelihoods of rural farmers, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says all of the glaciers in Latin America will likely be gone by 2030.

Maybe in Eugene, where warm breaks from rain have gardeners scrambling and everyone hopping into summer clothes, it doesn’t seem like the water supply could possibly be threatened. In April, we forget the desert that is August. But with climate change, our winter water sources may well decrease — and more “water refugees” may find their way to the green valleys of Oregon. If we get in the habits of conservation now, that day won’t be as hard.

Though there are a variety of steps we can take to minimize our water waste, here are five simple ways (plus one bonus!) to make every day Water Day:


GO TO AND CALCULATE YOUR WATER USE. This calculator doesn’t simply consider how long your showers take or how many times a year you wash your car. Instead, it adds in the cost of water to grow and process food, the amounts of water necessary to create electricity and process petroleum — and a variety of other variables. Find your “water footprint” and figure out how to make it smaller. (More tips, links and education abound at this helpful site.)

CLOTHING: STOP BUYING SO MUCH. No, seriously. Sure, we like cotton — it seems more Earth-friendly than petroleum-based clothing — but cotton’s demands on water are second to none. The World Wildlife Fund says that more than half of the irrigated land in the world goes to grow cotton. And the chemicals necessary for cotton? The WWF says that even though cotton grows on less than 3 percent of the world’s arable land, the pesticides for it come to 11 percent of the total agricultural pesticide use (and, within that stat, 25 percent of the world’s total insecticides sprayed each year go to keep cotton bug-free). Then there are dye factories; the sweatshops; the contaminated runoff … Yuck. The U.S. imports at least 70 new pieces of clothing each year for every man, woman and child in the country, according to John Bowe’s 2007 book Nobodies: Modern American Labor and the Dark Side of the Global Economy. Whether that’s for cotton T-shirts or petroleum-based plastic flip-flops, let’s dial that number down.

REUSE WATER. Yep. Used bathwater — or water in a bucket from that first 30 seconds as the shower warms up — can help indoor plants live through the winter and make for crispy snap peas, luscious tomatoes and plump pumpkins. If you install a rainwater catchment system now — even a one or two barrel operation — you can ease your demands on water this summer. Hint: Plants love dishwater, especially if you’re using eco-friendly soap. For the more adventurous, graywater reclamation systems (see among others) can serve almost all of your outdoor water needs, create garden “water features” and cut waaaaay down on that water bill.

SLOW DOWN ON THE BURGER, HOSS. If you eat meat, scale it down — and the dairy as well. Estimates range from 1,500 to 2,500 gallons of water for each pound of beef, and h2oconserve adds that it takes about 600 gallons of water for every pound of cheese. Corn and soybeans require twice the amount of water that wheat does, but any vegetable and most grains will be less water-intensive than meat. Plus? Cows end up being somewhat dirtier than turnips, and it takes a lot more time to clean cattle farms than to clean vegetable-producing areas.

TAKE A LOAD OFF THE ROAD. Every gallon of gasoline requires 1.5 to 2 gallons of water to process, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Oh, and refining petroleum in 2006, the latest year for which stats are available, the U.S. used somewhere between 1 and 2 billion gallons of water. True, driving can’t rival eating a cheeseburger in water consumption terms, but there’s also the embodied energy in the metal and plastic of the car (39.090 gallons per car, according to the U.S. Geological Survey), the water it takes to, process the rubber for the tires (2,072 gallons) and on and on. In our area, LTD, shanks’ mare (aka walking) and biking all help with the water conservation.


One final note: Kick the bottled water habit. The Container Recycling Institute estimates that 83 percent of those bottles (which each take gallons of water to produce) head straight for the landfill — and the water in them often isn’t regulated or tested. In a world where thousands of children die each day from unsafe water, invest your money in water infrastructure instead of bulk boxes of plastic bottles.

Check for links to international water resources and a variety of videos about water.