Drink, Drank, Drought

The other day I read a Facebook post from a girl I’m not even sure I knew in high school. She was a student of my dad’s and we shared the same alma mater. Nicole Banister posted a picture holding a dirty water filter and a clean one – the message was long. Fact: I’m a sucker for a long facebook post. The longer the post, the more likely I am to read it; the antithesis of everyone else’s experience.  The post explained how she found worms growing in the bottom of a bucket she used to store water. Nicole lives in a South African community which does not have consistent access to running water, and her exposure to contaminated water likely rendered her sick with cholera. She asked what we had all done to save water that day.

That night I tried to wash my dishes conserving water. Standing over my cream colored sink, I realized I didn’t know shit about conservation and my vegetarian exploits and self-righteous ‘recycled’ items were nothing but flack. Flack! Meat and pollution.

Maybe that was a bit harsh. After all, I really thought I had tried. I remember when I used to visit my oldest high school friend at Berkeley (again with high school — why the mantra?). She cleaned her neck, shoulder and back with witch hazel and practically dry brushed her teeth. I thought all this to be odd but I was young and impressionable and I loved Berkeley. We sat amongst the ghosts in the Free Pile room at her co-op and talked about water conservation, sustainability, community allocation and cooperation. These were large concepts for me but I listened and absorbed, and still believe I was grasping conservation.

I thought to give myself another chance. I’d wash my face and brush my teeth. Again, I failed miserably at conserving water. I failed at cleaning my teeth. I am too unresourceful, rather too fortunate to effectively conserve. And in the United States, most of us are. We have built an infrastructure that is dependent on our immediate and plentiful access to clean water: multiple sinks, multiple showers, outdoor hoses, sprinklers, swimming pools and washers. Our population is doubling and we have fridge water and a Britta filter.

The average citizen in the United States uses 176 gallons of water a day, including indoor and outdoor water consumption. An average South African uses only 40 gallons of fresh water a day. If we consume more water then we should be able to supply more than we consume, or at least replenish. The United States is the third largest consumer of water, yet we house the fourth largest supply of renewable freshwater underneath Canada, Russia and Brazil.  We consume water at a more voluminous rate than can be replenished, and our direct and uninhibited access to clean water makes us short-sighted consumers. Currently, 14% of the United States falls within the category of moderate to extreme drought, and about 90% of California is categorized as extreme or exceptional drought.  In California, the amount of water used per capita ranges from 98 gallons-345 gallons, with the dryest, least water-sustainable areas of California like the Central Valley and the high and low deserts, accessing the largest amount. Simply put, we do not have the natural water resources to sustain the water-sourced infrastructure we are accustomed to. We consider conservation to be an effort, not a fact of life. We put heavy emphasis on reusable water bottles, reclaimed water or not washing our cars, but these are still privileged ideas of water conservation. For many countries and in many communities, water conservation is a necessity to have substantial water for survival and “eco-friendly” is not a qualifier, it is standard. When I read Nicole Banister’s Facebook post, my initial reaction was that in the United States we don’t have to consider water a precious resource because it has always been readily available out of our tap. But the disparate drought-state of California and the southwestern United States advances the notion that we are no different from countries with limited access to water. We have tragically been conditioned by our immediate access to believe we are special snowflakes with anti-melt, anti-drought properties.

At this rate in California and the United States, we can no longer feel comforted by small efforts to conserve water; we must rewire our understanding of the water infrastructure that enables our unsustainable reliance on mass consumption. We need to think long-term of global, proprietary proportions. It is not because of our easy-access infrastructure that we can sustain our consumption –– it is whether we have the water resources.

Tess Andrea is a fourth-year literary journalism and French double-major. She can be reached at tandrea@uci.edu.