One morning, when I was only 5 years old I walked into the bathroom to brush my teeth. Immediately my mom came in and told me not to use the water. Indeed, when the tap was turned on nothing came out, except for a little bit of brown, icky water.
We lived in a small town then, so it was easy for my dad to walk me over to the local water treatment plant and showed me how the river it was on had flooded and wiped out the drinking water plant. It was at that you age that I had the unique experience of seeing how water infrastructure in the U.S. worked, and how it was vulnerable.
Drinking water is one of those things that many people in the United States take for granted. One of the amazing things I love about people in the Great Lakes region is that they have an acute sense for the value of clean water – likely instilled by their love of the Lakes upon which they live. However, it’s that very abundance of water that makes people in this region wonder why water conservation should be an issue. In actuality, water conservation and Great Lakes restoration go hand in hand; the less water we take out of the Great Lakes and consume, the more there is to support this amazing ecosystem. The Lakes are at some of the lowest levels in decades and look to continue that trend this summer. Every drop counts.
However, the question really isn’t about how much water we have, but how we use it. As my childhood example illustrates, our water infrastructure is vulnerable – to natural disasters and, unfortunately, to neglect. Leaky water pipes, for example, are common, particularly in the older cities of the Great Lakes. And just because water is plentiful and cheap, doesn’t mean it always will be. It’s also not an excuse for squandering money.
Drinking water takes money to treat and pump to our houses, apartments and offices. For every leaking pipe, for every unnecessary gallon flushed, that’s money down the drain. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 1.7 trillion gallons of water are lost from water distribution systems every year at a cost of $2.6 billion.
By reducing demand for water through efficiency, we (rate payers and taxpayers) save money by extending the life of our water infrastructure. We also save money by grating, piping and pumping less water – using fewer chemicals for treatment and less electricity for pumping. And in our country today, we need to be focused on making sure we have the infrastructure to make our lives and our natural resources sustainable into the 21st century.
So how do we do that? The Great Lakes compact requires each state to develop water management plans, and it’s important that each state incorporate effective water conservation into these plans. American Rivers produced a report for the Southeast on why water efficiency was the most economical approach to water supply. Many principles in the report are applicable to the Great Lakes. Additionally the Chicago-based Alliance for Water Efficiency recently released a primer to assist Great Lakes utilities in how to appropriately set water rates for the region. Most importantly, we need to start having a broader conversation about water conservation in the Great Lakes. By talking about water conservation, and how that concept applies to the Great Lakes, we can start to move toward a cost effective and sustainable solution.