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Jeffrey Shaffer Headshot

The Liquid We Can't Live Without

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Water is my favorite natural resource. I find it endlessly fascinating from a scientific and historical perspective. Having lived through the California drought of 1976-77, I can say without hesitation the best way to appreciate easy access to safe, clean water is to have the supply become so scarce that you're forced to put strict limits on daily use. Millions of Americans are facing that situation right now as severe drought conditions persist across large areas of the south and west.

I remember how the rationing went into effect step by step. In restaurants, the tradition of bringing each new patron a glass of water slowed down and then stopped completely. Conservation measures were part of every drought-related news story. Lawns turned brown. I got used to taking four-minute showers. The dry spell finally ended but during the past few decades a simple and harsh truth has remained. Year after year there are more and more people on this planet but the amount of water stays the same. As the population increases, so does the intense competition for every drop.

Right now is a good time to be talking about this subject because March 22 is World Water Day, an annual event started by the UN in 1993 to focus attention on the crucial role water plays in politics, economic development, public health and numerous other issues in every hemisphere. The focus this year is Water and Energy. Back in 2011 it was Water for Cities, a theme that resonates with me every day.

For nearly all of us who grew up in the US during the past 60 years, a reliable flow of safe water has been available at the nearest household faucet. I think municipal water systems are wonders of the modern world but one drawback of their efficiency and reliability is that, as time goes by, what once seemed remarkable becomes routine. Familiarity breeds complacency. People get accustomed to having water flow out of the tap and assume it always will. As one small step away from that complacency, here's a simple question for anyone reading this: When you take a sip from a drinking fountain or fill a glass at the kitchen sink, do you know where the local water is coming from? And just because the flow has been steady in the past doesn't mean it'll stay that way forever.

If you trace the rise and fall of past societies, water often plays a big part in the story. The history of the American west is filled with battles over water rights. During dry periods towns might hire a rainmaker or a diviner who would probe for underground sources with a forked stick. As the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. Towns, cities, and civilizations can't sustain themselves without water.

Historians in the future may look back on the latter part of the 20th century as a period of aquatic luxury in the US. In our daily lives the easy availability of ample clean water for personal and recreational use seems almost beyond belief to people in other countries where supplies are scarce and delivery systems unreliable or non-existent.

Indoor plumbing is the delivery system most Americans use and my appreciation of it intensified enormously during my California drought experience. Cutting back on daily use wasn't a simple task, but each time I turned on a faucet one thought came to mind immediately: at least this is still flowing directly into my house and I don't have to spend hours hauling every pint up from some muddy riverbed. That 's a huge benefit that most people in history have never enjoyed. Rationing also forced me to look beyond my own needs and think about where else water is used every day. Walk into any supermarket and consider the fact that all those food items on the shelves took enormous amounts of water to produce. Drive around your city and think about the water flowing into schools, hotels, hospitals, and restaurants. How much is enough for each consumer user and who should get priority if supplies run short? Questions like these need to be part of a national conversation as the 21st century rolls on.

We need to manage the resource wisely and maintain our delivery systems, for ourselves and for Americans in the future. Think about it this way: Our water is also their water.