If you are not local to Boston, you probably are unaware a large water main broke west of the city this weekend. The result of this is that the city and several surrounding communities are on a “boil water” alert. This means – don’t do anything with the water unless it has been boiled for over a minute. Don’t drink it, don’t cook with it, don’t wash dishes with it – only shower with it while making sure you don’t swallow any.
Needless to say – the stores are running out or have run out of bottled water. When I went to the store today, most of the paper plates were gone, and I got the last pack of plastic forks left on the shelf. Luckily, they are repairing the pipe at this moment, and we should have water we can use in a few days (or so the Governor says). It will be a pain and inconvenience till then – but it should be a wake up call as well.
When I first moved East, I was shocked by the blatant water consumption I saw. My roommates took showers that lasted 45 minutes. Friends ran a load of laundry with three pieces of clothing. Lawns were over-watered in the middle of the day. I was appalled. But that is because I grew up in L.A., and when I was young we went through a really tough drought (the 76-77 drought). People were fined for wasteful lawn watering. We were encouraged to take showers where we turned off the water while we soaped up, then turned it back on to quickly rinse. This is when low-flow toilets became big, but if you couldn’t replace your toilets, you could put a brick or two in the back tank so that you used less water when you flush. So needless to say, I grew up very aware of my water consumption. This continued even when my family moved up North to Sonoma County, since we lived outside the main town and got our water from a well system on our street. And of course, being outside of town, we weren’t on the sewer system but had our own septic tank. Anyone who was raised like this on a system where water wasn’t “unlimited” has a greater appreciation of what an important limited resource it is.
People treat water as though we will never run out – but that isn’t so – and we have seen the effects even within our grandparents lifetimes. The drought that caused the Great Dust Bowl in the thirties (as famously chronicled by Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath) shows the effects on community and society when readily available water goes away. Many have posited that we might be headed towards another dust bowl situation. And the West has been in a state of drought for several years. People out there are trying to come to grips with conservation measures, most notably in Nevada where they are giving people rebates for replacing their lawns with desert landscaping. And in San Diego they have put out a challenge for residents and businesses to usage by 20 gallons per person per day.
Back East, people still treat water as an endless resource. And in general, with the climate, drought conditions are not like out West. But the issue the East is facing is one faced by many third world countries, but for different reasons – the issue of clean water. It doesn’t help if water is available but contaminated. And that is just what has happened to the ground water in many places. Here in Massachusetts, the issue of linking groundwater contamination with leukemia and cancer was the subject of a high-profile civil suit chronicled in the book (and subsequent movie) A Civil Action. So we don’t need to look far to see what happens if we don’t take care of this resource.
So, even if you are not currently under a “boil water” edict – take a few minutes to think about how much water you use – and how much water you waste. And maybe you can make some minor adjustments to your routine and life that will use less water and help to conserve this most vital and precious of our resources – one we can not do without and which is not unlimited.