Water is special—and The River Network, among a slew of other organizations and nonprofits, is working to preserve it on a local and global level. It sustains life and our bodies. It flows through our homes, brings us electricity, informs where we live, and supports what we eat and drink.
In the arid West, we know water is precious. Most of us do what we can to reduce home water consumption, including installing water-smart devices in our sinks and faucets, converting landscapes to less thirsty species, and other measures. Indeed, household water use is continuing to go down across the United States. Yet, our personal water footprints are actually much larger than just the water inside our homes. Because water is bound up in everything we touch and interact with on a daily basis, virtual water expands our individual water footprints exponentially.
The premise behind the concept of virtual water is to consider how much water is in any product, article, or service you rely upon. For example, instead of looking at your morning cup of coffee as containing 8 ounces of water, the true amount of water in your beverage is closer to 37 gallons, once you consider growing and processing the coffee beans, market access, and transportation. Your cell phone? Over 3,000 gallons. Your favorite pair of jeans? Over 2,000 gallons. A hamburger? 660 gallons. An orange? 55 gallons. Taking into consideration virtual water, the average person uses about 2,000 gallons of water a day.
Your Water Journey
As the saying goes, the first step toward change is awareness. While none of us need to carry a calculator around and weigh every decision, adding inquiry and curiosity into our daily decisions can help us move toward reducing our water footprint and living in a more sustainable manner.
Once we become aware of the water in our lives and daily routines, the next step is to figure out where your water comes from—particularly the water that flows into your home—and what sustains and threatens it.
For example, for people who live in Phoenix, their drinking water may come from as far away as Colorado or Wyoming, or as near as the hills outside of Flagstaff, carried to their home through a complex weave of canals, pipelines, and exchanges. Learning where our water comes from gives us a direct connection to these local water sources and features, including opportunities to explore what you can do to protect, restore, and improve these areas. These places are also an oasis for a myriad of species seeking refuge; a critical habitat for their various life stages; and sustenance, too. In short, these water sources are treasures for both people and nature.
In the Southwest, water is perpetually out of balance and typically over-allocated (this means more water is being withdrawn than brought to the river from precipitation and return flows).
Much of the water that is withdrawn from rivers for our use in cities and on farms is returned to the river after use. In short, we are consumptively using water faster than it can be naturally replenished with rain or snow, or artificially refilled with imported water or desalted ocean water. We never seem to quite balance our water account, resulting in a gradual dewatering of many Southwestern rivers.
What we know for certain is that these systems are infinitely complex. Not only do they connect different ecosystems, but they also cross into and out of a wide variety of legal jurisdictions and regulatory authorities as well as public and private lands. They literally connect us to cities, farms, forests, and grasslands hundreds of miles in each direction. These systems are also the tip of the spear for climate change. As precipitation patterns become increasingly erratic, dynamic, and unpredictable, these systems receive the brunt of that impact, carrying too much water too fast downstream, or depriving people and fish of the water necessary for survival.
We also know some neighborhoods and populations are disproportionately impacted by too much or too little water, resulting in economic hardship and consequences to personal health. The challenge is this: how do we do a better job, investing in both social and ecological resiliency, to support more sustainable and equitable solutions that do not sacrifice ecological health or human well-being? For example, equitable solutions in the water arena are those that do not result in fees and assessments that disproportionately harm those who can least afford the impact of such expenses, do not result in property damage to low-income and black and brown neighborhoods, and do not reduce access to outdoor spaces and experiences that help us remain healthy.
Solutions that are more equitable are, by their nature, more durable, since they address the needs of more people, particularly when combined with agreements, regulations, and other protections.
Let’s Get Local
Fortunately, local engagement is on the rise across the Southwest and around the country to safeguard these precious resources and work toward a future that includes healthy rivers and clean water for all. Today, this effort includes over 8,500 nonprofit organizations, tribal entities, and local government agencies. These efforts exist in every state, region, basin, and political and regulatory jurisdiction from coast to coast, and mobilize tens of thousands of people to take a stand.
If you are curious about who this includes, visit www.rivernetwork.org for an interactive map and you will have a sense of the potential power of this network.
This map reveals who is making a difference at the local level. Other organizations focus more on regional and national efforts. One organization exists to connect all these efforts, delivering training, tools, resources, and mentoring to help local leaders thrive: River Network. It is also important to note, female leadership is strong throughout this community as explained by this year’s trends report. This is particularly true in the West.
Take time to discover who is protecting your water locally and leading change nationally.
Where do you go if you want to get involved? Consider volunteering for a local clean-up effort or contact your local utility or a local nonprofit organization to explore your options. For example, a river clean-up event is planned for the Tempe area on Sat., April 24, in collaboration with local organizations, Arizona State University, and the City of Phoenix, among others. To receive more information about how to sign up to volunteer at this event, visit www.rivernetwork.org. If the timing of this event does not work for you, look for other options that fit your schedule, or consider learning more through River Network.