04/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Day Without Water?

Since March 22 was World Water Day, let's conduct a thought experiment: Imagine a day without water. Brush your teeth in the morning with toothpaste and saliva (No rinsing!). No shower, no bath, no washing your face. No flushing the toilet. No coffee or tea. No pop, no milk, no juice (the largest ingredient in all these? Water). No chats by the water cooler. No shampoo at the gym. No rocks for the Scotch, no dip in the pool. You get my drift?

Our dependence on water links us -- happily, mysteriously -- with much of the rest of creation. The very fiber of our being is, in fact, liquid - we humans are approximately 60 percent water by weight. Regarded this way, we are ambulatory water vessels! While we can live for a month or so without food, we can survive a mere five-to-seven days without water. And unlike oil and other fossil fuels, there are no substitutes for freshwater.

So why are we so cavalier about the single element upon which our lives utterly depend? I had a friend who lived for a time in Santa Fe. She kept a bucket in the shower and captured the water as she waited for it to warm up enough to shower, then used this to water her garden. A perfectly reasonable practice - and one that seems entirely foreign to most of us. (I began doing this and discovered I am capturing 15 gallons a week in just that minute it takes for the shower to warm up. If you live in an apartment, you can use this water to flush your toilet.)

U.S. residents use more water than people in any other part of the world -- about 151 gallons per day on average for domestic and municipal purposes. (Quick test: what is the number one irrigated crop in America? The American lawn.) In Britain, people use water more efficiently, consuming just 31 gallons per day. In Ethiopia, people make do with just three gallons per person per day.

We who live near one of the world's great lakes are truly fortunate. Most of us have access to ample fresh water. But this may not always be the case. Even in our region, some communities dependent on groundwater are experiencing localized water shortages. And in fast-developing areas on the fringes of the metropolis, the problems of water supply will only grow.

Our use of Lake Michigan water in the Chicago region is capped by a Supreme Court decree. We can withdraw no more than 3,200 cubic feet per second for residential, industrial use and to ensure adequate levels for navigation in the Chicago area waterways. Fortunately, that is plenty of water - especially if we undertake simple conservation measures.

Today, for instance, Chicago loses approximately 70 million gallons a day of water from old, leaky pipes, open fire hydrants, and other unaccounted-for flows. That's enough water - at current usage rates - to supply 700,000 more people. The city has an aggressive program to reline and replace these leaky older pipes, one of the best measures we can take to conserve water. This is important because conserving water also conserves energy. When we lose water through leaking pipes, we have wasted the energy used to pump water to the filtration plant, to treat and filter it, and to pump it towards our faucets. Only it doesn't get to the faucet - it leaks out underground!

Rain barrels are another nifty conservation tool. By attaching a barrel (often a recycled vegetable oil, juice, or pickle container) to your downspout, not only are you able to capture rainwater for use on your lawn or garden, but you also reduce the amount of water flowing into the storm sewers. Rain barrels save money - you don't use as much potable water for gardening - and they allow more water to recharge our underground water supplies. (Cook County residents can purchase rain barrels - limit two - for $40 apiece from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.)

I submit that we who live near the Great Lakes are blessed by the accident of geography, at least with respect to freshwater. With efforts to conserve, we can enhance our supply and meet future needs. Chicago is poised to have a robust economy for the rest of this century due to its access to freshwater and transportation infrastructure.

But the rest of the world will be watching. Will we in the Chicago region be responsible stewards of this irreplaceable resource - or will we be wasteful?

Some handy resources for water conservation and efficiency:
This exhibit will come to Chicago's Field Museum June 12 - Sept. 20, 2009
Alliance for Water Efficiency (now based in Chicago)
Water Saver Home

Great Lakes Forever

Calculating Your Water Footprint