A new water ethic is not only essential—it’s possible.
People gather around a well in India.
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.
“Water is just too easy to take for granted,” says Tom Gohring, executive director of the Sacramento Water Forum, which works to find solutions to the region’s water woes. “It’s always there.”
This is true in Sustainable Sacramento, and it’s true in the scorched Southwest. The most conspicuous water consumption in America is often found in those parts of the country where water shortages are most serious. Nationwide, we use an average of 147 gallons each day. In Las Vegas, it’s 227 gallons per person—in one of the most water-scarce metro areas of the United States.
Vegas swimming pools make Granite Bay’s look like they came from the Kmart garden department. But in both locales the extreme illusion of abundance makes it all but impossible for people who live and play there to notice their personal connection to the nation’s water crisis—to understand how wasteful water consumption in one house, in one backyard, multiplied by 310 million Americans, equals trouble for the generations to come.
Profligate water use today will imperil future generations, the same as profligate use of oil. But water is much more important to our future than oil. That’s because there are no alternatives to water, no new substitute for life’s essential ingredient being cooked from corn, french fry grease, or algae.
Towering above the Colorado River, Hoover Dam stands as a breathtaking marvel of U.S. engineering. Its reservoir, Lake Mead, supplies water to millions of Americans and another million acres of farmland. The dam’s iconic symbolism makes a study by the University of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography that much more unsettling. In a grim paper titled “When Will Lake Mead Go Dry?” marine physicist Tim Barnett (no relation to this article’s author) and climate scientist David Pierce say there’s a 50-50 chance it will happen by 2021. The Scripps scientists say they were “stunned at the magnitude of the problem and how fast it was coming at us.”
A dried-up Lake Mead is only the most dramatically visible of the collapses that scientists say could play out in the seven states that rely on the Colorado River and its tributaries as ever-increasing water use, ever-growing population, and a changing climate shrink its flow. Scientists say that the 20th century, when America built its grand waterworks and divvied up its rivers, was the wettest in a thousand years. Now, the wet period is over and the Southwest is expected to become dryer. Trees are already showing the strain, dying off and burning at unprecedented rates. People must adjust, conclude Barnett and Pierce, to forestall “a major societal and economic disruption in the desert Southwest.”
This dry, dusty American future is not confined to the desert. In the Great Plains, farmers are depleting the enormous High Plains Aquifer, which underlies 225,000 square miles from Wyoming to Texas, far faster than it can recharge. And Florida has so overpumped its once abundant groundwater that the hundred-thousand-square-mile sponge known as the Floridan Aquifer, one of the most productive aquifers in the world, can no longer supply the state’s drinking-water needs.
But here’s the confounding thing: Practically every scientific study that describes these catastrophes also concludes that it doesn’t have to be this way. In the Southeast, the Great Plains, and even in the arid states of the Southwest, it’s possible to reverse this parched path.
America needs nothing less than a revolution in how we use water. We must change not only the wasteful ways we consume water in our homes, businesses, farms, and energy plants but also the inefficient ways we move water to and away from them. This revolution will bring about the ethical use of water in every sector. A water ethic is as essential—and as possible—as past awakenings to threats against our environment and ourselves, from the large scale (the way we halted use of DDT and other deadly chemicals) to the family level (the way we got used to setting out recycling bins).
In all, America guzzles about 410 billion gallons of water per day. That’s more than the daily flow of the entire Mississippi River. Power plants and agriculture top the list in water consumption, with agricultural irrigation accounting for about 40 percent of all freshwater sucked up in the United States each day.
Many Americans seem resigned to the notion that agriculture and big industries require a ton of water, and there’s not much we can do to change that. But this is like throwing up our hands and concluding that because coal plants are the nation’s top emitters of greenhouse gases, there’s nothing we can do about climate change.
It is time, now, to turn our attention to water. The overtapping of nearly every major river and aquifer in the nation, and the inability of our political institutions to change course, call for our involvement. Citizens were ahead of politicians when it came to green living. The same will be true of water. A water ethic means deliberately different choices and the political backbone to make them: No wasted water in agriculture. Water-efficient power plants. Restoring floodplains rather than building taller and taller levees. Reusing water and harvesting rain to irrigate our lawns and cool commercial air conditioners. It’s a turn from the vast waterworks of the 20th century toward local solutions. It’s an appreciation for “local water” in the same way we’re embracing local produce.
In that spirit, the blue revolution begins in our own backyards. Coming in third after power plants and agriculture, at about 43 billion gallons a day, are public and private utilities. That’s where the majority of us get our household water. Moving, filtering, and treating all of this water takes a remarkable amount of energy. And then the lion’s share of this painstakingly purified drinking water is used on grass. Waterfalls and grottoes aside, the distance between Americans and their global neighbors who use less than 50 gallons of water per person each day is about one-third of an acre: the average size of the American lawn. Using satellite analysis in the early 2000s, research scientist Cristina Milesi found that, between our homes, highway medians, golf greens, and grassy sports fields, lawns are America’s largest crop, with 63,240 square miles in turfgrass nationwide. That’s larger than most individual American states.
To irrigate this “51st state,” Milesi estimates that we use as much as 19 trillion gallons of water per year. That’s more than it takes to irrigate all the feed grain in the nation. “People don’t believe their water use makes a difference, especially because agricultural consumption is so high,” Milesi says. “But water is probably the most important issue facing urban areas in the future—and the primary pressure point on urban water use is the lawn.”
It’s not that we don’t have enough water. It’s that we don’t have enough water to waste by pouring off 19 trillion gallons a year, most of it drinking water. Sure, some of our lawn water, spiked with pesticides and fertilizers, percolates back underground. But much of it becomes so-called stormwater that never makes its way back to streams and rivers; in the coastal United States, hundreds of millions of gallons of freshwater shoot out to sea every day. All of this despite multimillion-dollar public-education programs to convince Americans that they need not water their grass every day—or even every other day—to keep it green.
But grass is not the root of our country’s water problems; it’s a 63,240-square-mile symptom of the real ailment—our lack of an ethic for water in America. The illusion of abundance gives us a false sense of security that there’s enough water for anything, anytime. New subdivision in the desert? We’ll find the water. Kids bugging you to take them to the nation’s largest water park, with its 1.2 million–gallon wave pool that holds more than 20,000 bathtubs full of water?
Jump right in.
The sand-plain region of Wisconsin was both muse and refuge for Aldo Leopold, whose A Sand County Almanac has inspired our evolving ecological awareness ever since it was published posthumously in 1949.
If people could see how closely their children’s and grandchildren’s well-being is tied to the health of the land, Leopold believed, personal ethics would drive them to cooperate not only on behalf of their families and communities but also for the natural world they inhabit. This land ethic, wrote Leopold, “enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” By land, he meant the entire web of life, from climate to water, says his biographer, Curt Meine.
I started my search for a water ethic at Leopold’s famous “humble shack” near the Wisconsin River, preserved in quiet posterity by the Aldo Leopold Foundation. Visitors to central Wisconsin can walk through the forest and prairie, and along the sandy banks of the river.
Visitors can, but not many do. Thousands a day, though, flock to a tourist strip that lies 10 miles from the spot where Leopold wrote. They come to worship water, although not the sort in the river. For here is the largest concentration of water parks on the planet.
The red sandstone bluffs of Wisconsin began drawing nature-loving tourists in the mid-1800s to see “the dells”—from the French dalles, or flagstone. The town bisected by the Wisconsin River and the dells changed its name in 1931 to the Wisconsin Dells to capitalize on its scenic draw. In the ensuing decades, one attraction after another opened along the tourist strip. Then, in 1994, Stan Anderson, a resort owner, decided to shore up foul-weather business by building an indoor kids’ water park. Children went nuts, and so did their parents.
Fifteen years later, the Wisconsin Dells are no longer the main attraction in the Wisconsin Dells.
Today, the Wisconsin Dells overflow with 20 water parks—including the biggest indoor and outdoor water parks in the world—that slosh around about 20 million gallons of water. The biggest attraction in the biggest park is called—what else?—the Big Kahuna, a 1.2 million–gallon wave pool.
During operating hours, the 20 parks constantly pump groundwater from an aquifer that scientists say is robust. But the wave pool is an homage to America’s illusion of water abundance—particularly to the children exposed solely to its chlorinated wonders. Most American kids no longer know about the watershed they live in, where their house water comes from, or where it goes when they flush. If children’s love for water is cradled only within the bright-colored resin sides of a thrill ride, never the wondrous red sides of a sandstone bluff, future Americans will have ever less understanding of, and value for, our freshwater resources.
The overwhelming popularity of the Dells proves that humans love water. We begin life in water, and we’re drawn to it from the day we’re born. Somehow, we have to harness that natural affinity to create a shared water ethic: an aquatic revival of Leopold’s land ethic that would help Americans see that our future ecological—and economic—prosperity depends on how well we take care of the water around us.
Sixty years after Leopold’s call for a land ethic, most of us take some personal responsibility for the planet. But when it comes to water, we’ve gone in the opposite direction. Today, we use four times the amount of water, per person, that we did in 1950. The nation’s illusion of water abundance blinds us to how our own backyard garden hose connects to the bigger picture.
With a shared water ethic, we would live well, with much less water. Not just less in our own backyards, but also less across industries. It doesn’t make sense for local government to require citizens to lay off the lawn sprinklers, then approve a new subdivision atop the community’s most important water-recharge area. The fundamental belief in water as a national treasure to be preserved has to catch on at every level of society.
The American illusion of water abundance follows a long and peculiar tradition. Throughout history, humans flaunted water as a symbol of power, wealth, and control of nature.
In 17th-century France, Louis XIV built some of the greatest water features in the world at the gardens of Versailles. The colossal fountains, pools, and waterfalls were positioned so that the sovereign and his visitors would never lose sight of water during garden tours that lasted from morning until night.
But here’s what the royal visitors didn’t know: There wasn’t enough water at Versailles to keep all those fountain jets soaring, pools overflowing, and waterfalls cascading. A secret palace staff would scurry ahead of the king’s touring parties, signaling their whereabouts with an elaborate system of flags and whistles to convey when it was safe to shut down one group of fountains and turn on the next one.
The American illusion of abundance is likewise carefully maintained. We have gotten so good at harnessing water and moving it around cities and regions that Americans, like the visitors to Versailles, have never had to think about how it all works. The constant reengineering of natural systems bolsters the illusion of abundance. Two mighty rivers, the American and the Sacramento, run through the middle of California’s capital city. How can it be water stressed? The same can be said of south Florida, surrounded by the Everglades and pummeled regularly by rains that flood the streets. Yet these watersheds on opposite coasts of America have been manipulated to the point of near ruin. The Everglades of Florida and California’s Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta were two of the most water-abundant ecosystems on one of the most water-abundant continents. Today, they are among the best arguments for a blue revolution: They’re both dying of thirst.
Cynthia Barnett is a longtime journalist who has reported on freshwater issues from the Suwannee River to Singapore. In addition to Blue Revolution, she is the author of Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S. Excerpted from Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis by Cynthia Barnett (Beacon, 2011). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.