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.”[1] 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.”[2]

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.


  1. I've lived in the Desert Southwest for more than 30 years. We've been in a vicious drought for more than 20 of those. Water is NOT free. Whenever I go anywhere, I'm always checking out "where does the water come from." A while back, I was visiting Mt. Vernon, outside of DC, and touring the gardens. It's on the Potomac, but the river is way on the other side of a HUGE hill. I finally asked the guide where the water source was - I didn't see a well anywhere. She looked at me as if I had two heads, and looked up at the puffy white clouds. "Oh, nevermind. I forgot - the water comes to you." Where I live, the water does NOT come to you - you have to get it, and you have to know where to find it. It didn't take long for me to adapt to "the water doesn't come to you!"

    1. Susan, I wish more people were as aware as you are! That drought just gets scarier and scarier.

  2. In the Pacific Northwest, the water has always come to us in the form of rain in the lowlands and snowpacks and glaciers in the mountains. This year we have had very little rain and the mountains are nearly bare: I foresee a drought. In Seattle. I've been through one before and it's not pretty. In addition, our power comes from water and when that water is in short supply, it's going to have an impact on the power.

    I think that any endeavor that requires far more resources put in to the system than product that comes out is a burden and unsustainable. As much as I adore cotton clothing, I think we should take away the cotton lobby's power and allow things like ramie, hemp, and other similar crops to be grown in our country. Yes, this could be death of the cotton industry, but the birth of more sustainable industries; less expensive to produce means more profitable. How is this not obvious?

    And population pileup in deserts: yikes! Can you say Southern California? And Arizona? It just seems weird to me to want to live somewhere that has gone past the potential to support the population living there.

    Sigh. Rant over. Water is important and undervalued in the developed world.

    1. I couldn't have said it better myself, Skye. You have a really good point about hemp--that one is so ridiculous, since the plant that hemp is made out of, despite being related to the cannabis plant pot comes from, has no ability to get people high. The fact that it is illegal is just nuts. (Hemp seed oil is also highly nutritious.)

  3. The best way to get people to appreciate the price of water is to take it away from them for, oh, even six hours might do the trick. My parents have had to turn the water off numerous times to deal with problems and, of course, at that moment you suddenly have to wash dishes, do laundry, shower, etc etc. It can be quite frustrating.

    Tied with our world of water is sewage, yet another behind the scenes thing that we really take for granted until it's suddenly gone, and I'm sure everyone's got horror stories about that at least!

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    2. Too true! I don't realize how much of my life revolves around electricity until the power goes out...
      And a few years ago we had major flooding (the evil twin brother of drought). My house was fine, except the basement, where the sump pump worked overtime and still the water rose to within an inch of the electrical box. But I have a septic system, out here in the country, and when the water table is high enough, the septic tank becomes so filled with water, you can't flush the toilet. The water simply has no place to go. After 3 days of that, I REALLY appreciated a working system.

  4. I live in South Florida where we pay for our water based on the amount we use. We also have watering restrictions limiting how often and on what days we can water our grass. For me, it's twice a week before 10:00 a.m. and after 4:00 p.m. to minimize evaporation. This includes watering using well as opposed to city water.

    The water in our house is city water and we also have a well to water our grass. This saves not just the cost of the water but sewage rates as sewage is assessed based on the amount of water drawn from the municipality.

    I grew up in western PA in the country with a well. We didn't wash the car on the same day as doing laundry to be sure we didn't draw too much water at the same time.

    I've lived with the well situation and also with not being able to use my city water if a boil water alert is issued. I grew up being very aware that water can become a limited commodity and was not to be wasted or taken for granted. I was taught not to waste anything, water included. That idea is one I still believe in.

    I feel your pain about the water treatment bill. Last year we had to replace our pump and the equipment needed for our sprinkler system. Luckily we didn't have to redrill the well.

  5. The pump was replaced three years ago--it died on a Thanksgiving night, when I had a couple of friends staying with me. Thank goodness for a decent plumber, who actually came out on the Friday after T-day and (with the help of his nephew) pulled up all 340 feet to get to the actual pump. The good thing about a deep well is that I rarely have to worry about running out of water. There has only been one summer in the 12 years I've lived here where it was dry enough that I had to worry. But the deep ones are also likely to be full of mineral (hard water), and tricky to deal with when something goes wrong.)

    It sounds like you have your water use down to a science!

  6. Hey, we have your missing water over here in the UK - please, come and reclaim it! Our ground is saturated, our coasts are washing away, and thousands of people's homes are up to chest deep in water.
    We also had a massive anti-fracking campaign locally, but the news guys were way more interested in the protests and the celebrities who got involved, than they were in the basic debate about the refusal of the government to acknowledge the potential harm the process can cause to the environment. If it makes money, it must be safe...
    Oh, and the urban fantasy novel I released recently has environmental and ecological themes, with the main character being a water elemental - because I think water is a precious resource taken too much for granted.

    1. Yoinks! The only thing worse than no water is too much water. We've had two major floods here since 2006, and there is one local town which has literally been wiped off the map--too much damage to rebuild most of it.
      My 1st Baba Yaga novel, WIckedly Dangerous, actually has fracking in it. Great minds...