It used to be that only people in the dry western part of our country had to worry about drought, and the rest of us could enjoy our lush lawns and long showers, believing that our water supply was endless.
Well, guess again. The extreme drought in the Southeast shows that no region of our country is immune to severe water shortages.
We've all seen the TV footage of the dry lake beds, and every day we hear about cities like Raleigh, NC that have less than 100 days of water left in their dwindling supplies.
As our country's population grows, so do the demands on our rivers and lakes — where most of our drinking water comes from. Paving over watersheds with sprawl is paving our way to water shortages. Water runs off pavement rapidly, instead of soaking into the ground to replenish groundwater supplies. And, global warming is putting an added strain on communities' water supplies.
Hoping for rain is not the solution. Building expensive new dams and engineering massive transfers of water from one watershed to another won't solve our problems either.We need a solution that will ensure sustainable water supplies for our communities, and keep our rivers, lakes and streams — the source of our drinking water — clean and healthy.
So it is time to call for a new era of water conservation in our country. We need to start treating water like the most precious resource we have — wherever we live. We need to realize that the more we waste water, the less water is available for our neighbors as well as the fish and wildlife in our local streams. Ultimately, wasting water hurts not only the environment but our local economies, recreation opportunities and our quality of life.
The director of one North Carolina water system told the Herald-Sun newspaper, "We should use water for essential uses only, because the water we don't use for discretionary purposes, like watering your lawn, may be needed to drink or cook or shower next year."
Cities and states must step up and do their part. They should encourage water conservation through measures like tiered water pricing and by developing comprehensive water plans. And yes, they need to impose common sense restrictions. Austin, Texas is a good example — there, the city bans outdoor watering during the hottest part of the day, between 10am and 7pm, when water just evaporates rather than soaking in.
We as individuals can really make a difference in our daily actions. Here are five things you can do to save water, save money, and ensure that we have sustainable water supplies and healthy rivers in our future:
Hold your elected officials accountable: Has your city taken steps to encourage water conservation? If not, urge your elected officials to take action. Cities should provide incentives for low-impact development and water-saving plumbing fixtures; improve pricing systems for water; implement appropriate guidelines for water use; and, develop sustainable long-term water plans.
Be water-wise around the house: Simple things, like running the dishwasher only when it's full, washing only full loads of clothes, and taking shorter showers can save hundreds of gallons over the course of a week. And don't forget to fix those leaky faucets -- this can save you up to 100 gallons a day!
Install water-saving plumbing fixtures: The Environmental Protection Agency has launched its WaterSense program and some cities — like Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, New York, and many others — are providing rebates for installing high-efficiency toilets, low-flow faucets and shower heads.
Make your brown lawn a source of pride: How about we start a new trend —making a brown lawn a source of pride? A badge of honor that says, "Protecting my community's drinking water supply and the health of our rivers is more important than a little patch of grass." We must come to grips with the fact that watering the lawn wastes a lot of water. As Sally Bethea with the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in Atlanta, has pointed out, outdoor watering may account for at least 20 percent of the Atlanta region's total water usage.
Use attractive, drought-friendly landscaping: If a brown lawn isn't your thing, consider getting rid of your lawn altogether and creating a drought-friendly landscape. There are many beautiful plants that don't require a lot of water. When you do need to water, turn to rain barrels — these simple containers collect the water from your gutters and downspouts.
With the combined realities of population growth, paved-over watersheds, and global warming, we are facing, and will continue to face, unprecedented water challenges. But the future doesn't need to be bleak. I'm actually quite hopeful -- I believe we are going to see more and more communities across the country embracing a new era of water conservation, ensuring their citizens — and their rivers — are healthy and thriving for years to come.