Thursday, February 13, 2014
The Price of Water
What is the price of water? At my house recently, it was $2,400—a rather large sum of money to deal with a rather small problem (tiny iron bacteria in my 340 foot deep well, which while harmless to humans, makes the water smell and taste bad, and builds up gunk inside pipes and appliances, all while staining everything it touches a charming reddish-brown). The money was to treat the water and then filter it.
It wasn’t fun to hand over all that cash, but it got me thinking about the price of water. Most of us, me included, tend to think that water is free. After all, it can be found just lying around in lakes, streams, and oceans, and falls from the sky as rain. If you turn on your faucet, water comes out. What could be easier?
True, if you own a house in a city or town, you will probably pay some kind of water tax; essentially paying the city to take make sure that the water is clean and safe to drink, and doesn’t have nasty little critters like iron bacteria in it. Folks like me who live in the country sometimes have to pay to have a well dug, if there isn’t one on the property, or the one you have runs dry.
But that’s not the real cost of water. When I started really thinking about it, I realized that in our modern world, there are all sorts of hidden costs, many of which our ancestors never dealt with.
Not that water came without a price for them—on the contrary, they were well aware of how precious it was. If they wanted water to drink, they carried it by hand from wells, or used pumps that required actual muscle. If the rains were scarce, they irrigated their fields by hand, dragging water from nearby sources if they had them. And there was no guarantee that there would be water for crops, or even to drink. Little wonder that they prayed to gods who controlled the weather, and prized water as one of the four great elements.
These days, we don’t have to work nearly as hard for our water, but that very fact has led us to disconnect ourselves from the price we pay to have our modern lifestyle. We have polluted many of our precious sources of water with runoff from chemicals from manufacturing, as well as chemical fertilizers (not just from huge factory farms, but also smaller farms, and regular folks who want perfect lawns).
And then there are the manufacturing plants. According to the World Wildlife Federation, “It can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton; equivalent to a single T-shirt and pair of jeans.” That’s a pretty pricy outfit.
One of the hot-button topics these days, especially in upstate New York where I live, is fracking—hydraulic fracturing, which is a technique which is used to access natural gas in shale deposits under the surface of the land. Fracking uses many poisonous chemicals, and the natural gas itself can end up breaking through and contaminating the groundwater in a huge area surrounding the wells. Most people know that, and either think it is plenty safe, or very dangerous, depending on which side of the argument they come down on. But what you hardly hear anyone talk about is the fact that the process uses thousands of gallons of water—which is then too contaminated to be used again for drinking or crops.
Much of the United States is currently in the middle of an ongoing drought which shows no sign of ending anytime soon. Farmers and ranchers in the Midwest are at risk of losing everything, and the loss of corn crops and cattle have already driven up the cost of food. There’s a price to that water as well. Droughts have decimated other countries too, especially those of third world countries. It is estimated that over a billion people across the world don’t have access to clean, drinkable water.
Human beings have built huge cities in what was previously uninhabitable desert land. My parents and sister live in San Diego, a beautiful city where fifty percent of their water is brought in from the Colorado River, another thirty percent comes from the Bay-Delta in Northern California, and a mere twenty percent comes from local supplies. According to the San Diego County Water Authority, “Local surface water runoff from rainfall is an important part of the San Diego region’s water supply, but it hasn’t provided enough water to meet all of the region’s needs since 1947.”
There are plenty of other examples for how human beings are using and abusing this precious natural resource, but I think you see my point. Water isn’t really free after all. There is a price in water attached to every action we take, every decision we make in our day-to-day life.
The point of all this musing, brought on by my own unexpected confrontation with the hidden realities of dealing with water, was not to depress you. It’s not a political statement of any kind, or even an environmental rant. (Although believe me, I could give you one of those if you wanted it.)
It’s nothing more than a gentle reminder that in our own way, we are as dependent on the precious element of water as our ancestors were. And although we may have easier access and the ability to move water to the places where we want it—some of the time, within serious limitations—this only increases our need to use it wisely.
We can all do this in little ways every day, with very little sacrifice. Buy your produce from organic farmers who don’t use chemical fertilizers. Instead of getting new clothes each time you want a new outfit, pick up something gently used from a consignment store. Keep your own water sources as clean and protected as possible. Don’t try to grown the perfect lawn, and focus on plants that grow naturally in your area, since they are usually designed to work in that particular ecosystem. Do a little research and become better educated about the price of water in the modern world.
As Pagans, I believe we have a responsibility to be mindful of the planet we live on, and how we treat its gifts—earth, air, fire, and water among them. We can’t always change the big picture issues (although we can certainly try), but we can be more conscious about our own patterns and choices.
Yes, there are many ways in which water is free and readily accessible, and that is a wonderful thing. But in some ways, it also comes with a cost, and not just if you happen to have iron-eating parasites in your damn well.