Water, Water Everywhere, but Not a Drop to Drink

03/31/2015 04:39 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2015

Regular readers will know that I have been in the midst of a multi-part series on "Planning With Water," looking at the concept of water management and evaluation as a focus for the necessary shift in values and organizing principles for a future dependent on the ocean for fresh water, food, energy, health, security, and community development.

The past posts have been both abstract and specific, suggesting water as a center around which a new system of individual behavior and societal organization can be envisioned, constructed, managed, and implemented as the revolutionary change required to move from an exhausted ocean to a sustainable ocean for the benefit of all mankind. I have been arguing for an ambitious shift from the realities of the industrial age to the potentialities of a new ecological age wherein humans and nature mutually, sustainably, and peacefully coexist. Lofty intent. Hypothetical business.

But here at home in Maine, U.S.A., I have also been surrounded by water, not just by encompassing views of Penobscot Bay but by the piles and drifts of snow from storm after storm that has enveloped our world in walls of snow, and colder and windier and wetter conditions than we have seen for years along this stretch of ocean coast. It has indeed been "water, water everywhere...."

Until this week, when without warning, our well ran dry. Consider the irony. Water everywhere, but suddenly not a drop to drink, nor to bathe in, flush with, cook with or clean with. Consider that I had just finished writing about São Paulo, Brazil, where 20 million people are faced with a similar catastrophe as a result of indifference, outmoded design, neglected maintenance, corrupt management, increased population, urban sprawl, destruction of the regional rivers and watershed, clear-cutting of the rainforest systems of the Amazon River valley, and reduced glacial melt and run-off from the surrounding mountains -- further exacerbated by extreme climate conditions of record rains and floods and record drought. That's 20 million people with their water supply reduced to one or two days a week, eventually to be reduced to nothing at all unless otherwise transported from other distant sources to the city. My concern for them was genuine. How could this be? How would that community survive without its most precious water?

Consider the irony, yes; consider then my own concern faced here with dry faucets and toilets that could not flush. Why and how did my water source run dry? What could I do about it? Would I too need to import water? Melt snow? Go without? Move away? Like São Paulo, I considered myself "water-rich" with a seemingly inexhaustible supply. Suddenly, it was not so. What to do?

The search for an explanation required action and analysis. Was the well really dry, or was the pump broken or the pipes frozen? Had the extreme weather conditions somehow modified the recovery rate of our well? Had our consumption patterns changed in some dramatic fashion? Had we allowed our conservation mentality to diminish into some unquestioned, wasteful pattern of use or awareness?

We examined the system from both directions, from well to spigot, spigot to well, and found a workable pump, no broken pipes, no evident leaks. We did, however, discover that an outside faucet, buried in snow, had somehow worked open to allow a small but constant flow of water, quietly and almost invisibly drawing down what was stored in the well pipe.

Further analysis led also to the fact that we had a welcome third party now living in the house, adding normal but nonetheless additional demand on the laundry, plumbing, dish-washing, drinking and cooking needs of the household. And then further still we had house guests the days immediately prior who had increased showers and other water demand to now five persons consuming without restraint. It was a confluence of small circumstance that incrementally grew to the critical point where demand exceeded supply until that supply was exhausted.

The guests departed. The partial physical cause was revealed and corrected. But most importantly our water consciousness was raised exponentially from complacency to crisis, our habits dramatically revised, and austerity applied to allow the well to regenerate and fill. Which it did, to a level of immense relief. In those few days, however, we lived through the cycle of disruption that is being faced around the world by so many others as our global water sources are diminished, destroyed, and overwhelmed. We learned the lesson first hand, and none of us will ever think about water theoretically again.