Wet Dreams: Water Consumption in America
A new water ethic is not only essential—it’s possible.
Children play at the Wisconsin Dells, where more than 20 water parks hold about 20 million gallons of water.
MCT VIA GETTY IMAGES
During America’s retreat to the suburbs in the 1950s, large home lots and disposable incomes allowed for a new marker of success: the backyard swimming pool. For the rest of the 20th century, residential pools symbolized upward mobility and offered a sense of seclusion not possible at city pools. The following decades redefined our relationship with water itself—from essence of life to emblem of luxury. By the time of the 21st-century housing run-up, even the plain blue pool had lost its luster. Adornments were needed: floating fire pits, glass portholes, and vanishing edges.
The amenity to envy was no longer the diving board. The must-have, now, was the waterfall. No community glorified the trend like Granite Bay, California, nestled on the north shores of Folsom Lake, near Sacramento.
In Granite Bay’s best backyards, rocky waterfalls cascade into swimming pools with grottoes and swim-up bars. Thick bushes and trees bearing flowers and fruit adorn the watery wonders, making a place naturally dominated by needlegrass and sedge look more like Fiji. Groomed lawns, a quarter acre and larger, complete the unnatural tableau and help push average water consumption in Granite Bay to among the highest on Earth, nearly 500 gallons a person each day. Even when drought conditions cut federal water deliveries to California farmers, Granite Bay residents continued to consume water as if it were as plentiful as air.
Spectacular squander in the middle of a water crisis is not much of a shock in the United States, where we use about half our daily household water bounty outdoors. What is surprising, however, is to find some of the world’s worst waste in the Sacramento metropolitan area, since Greater Sacramento has become a national leader in finding solutions to America’s energy and climate challenges. Landing regularly on lists of top green and livable cities, Sacramento also has earned this startling ranking: It squanders more water than anywhere else in California. Residents of the metro region use nearly 300 gallons of water per person every day. By comparison, the equally affluent residents of Perth, Australia, use about 75 gallons per day. Londoners tap about 42 gallons per day. The water-rich Dutch use about 33 gallons daily.
Somehow, America’s green craze missed the blue.
Sacramento is by no means unique. Even as our green consciousness evolves, we often manage to ignore water. Across the United States, we give little thought to our water consumption even as we replace incandescent bulbs with LEDs.
How is that?
One part of the answer is the illusion of water abundance. When we twist the tap, we’re rewarded with fresh, clean water. Water is also our cheapest necessity. Four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline helped drive consumers to more efficient cars, while our water is so subsidized that many Americans pay less than a tenth of a penny a gallon for clean freshwater delivered right into our homes.
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