Let’s Talk About Water
Water is one of the few things absolutely necessary and with no substitutes for life. We need it for our bodies to function and we need it to grow food. Interestingly enough, both abundance and lack of water can be devastating. A quick look at this week’s news exemplifies this as the Mississippi watershed struggles with record water levels and Texas is facing serious, long-term drought conditions.
I grew up in the desert – Vegas to be exact. In that school district, water conservation has been integrated into elementary school curriculum for years. We had ‘turn off the water while you brush your teeth’ pounded into our heads long before local and state government became serious about measures such as restricting landscaping to force conservation.
So imagine my surprise when I showed up for grad school in Portland, Oregon to see water conservation on everyone’s radar. I was sitting in on a Masters of Planning course where each sub-specialty group was asked to adopt a plan. I chose to join the environmental sub-specialty group and was genuinely surprised to find they wanted to adopt a watershed plan filled with advice on water conservation. How could this be? There was water EVERYWHERE and it was raining all the time!
It turns out that urbanization (and suburbanization) destroys mother earth’s way of dealing with water in two ways. The first is to eliminate natural channeling of water with development of fertile farmland (primarily in wetlands) and with buildings on wetlands and dry riverbeds. When record rains fall, the man-made replacement channels tend to not be enough and thus property and lives are destroyed with floods.
The second thing that urbanization does to destroy watersheds is by placing impervious surface everywhere in the form of houses, concrete, and asphalt. Rain that hits an impervious surface cannot recharge (sink into) the ground and thus runs (faster) down the street into storm drains – picking up surface pollutants on the way – to overwhelm the water channels. Think of this as mini flash-floods during wet weather.
For most of the US northwest and northeast, storm drains are combined with sewage systems. These ‘combined sewage’ systems can lead to of ‘combined sewage overflow (CSO)’ in heavy rains. For obvious reasons, the EPA regulates the amount of CSO days allowed; being out of compliance results in hefty fines. Hence Portland is incentivized to be on the cutting edge of slowing down that water reaching the storm drainage system and maximizing water recharge on site.
While I find the techniques used to do this very interesting (and will be sharing them over the next month or two), what is most interesting to me is the social aspect. How is it that a place with water everywhere is far more conscious about water conservation than an area like SLC or Vegas? There is much to be learned in the Mormon-belt from places like Portland because while some techniques won’t transfer well, many will. Further, many that have become standard in Portland (rain barrels for instance), might actually be more effective in arid climates where the distribution of the rain is more even across the year. As someone who has spent significant time in both regions, I hope to start this conversation.
Do you do anything to capture rain on site at your house? What do you wish you knew more about in order to do so?