In Addition to Climate Change and Our Natural Resources, Think About Water

By George P. Nassos

I have talked about the increasing problem with climate change and our natural resources, but another major environmental issue is the decline in quality and quantity of fresh water in the world.  Roughly, 97% of the water on the planet is saltwater while only 3% is freshwater, what is needed for human consumption, industrial use, and agricultural use.  But how much of this freshwater is truly available for use?  Not very much.  According to the Bureau of Reclamation, only 5% of all the freshwater on the earth is available which is only 0.15% of all the water on earth.  The rest of the freshwater is in icecaps, glaciers, and groundwater.  And how does this freshwater use break down: roughly, 60% is for agricultural use, 30% for industrial use, and only 10% of the freshwater is for human consumption.  That means that the available water for human consumption is only 0.015% of the water on this earth.  And as the population continues to grow, the amount of available water per person will continue to decrease. 

The biggest consumers of freshwater are the agricultural fields around the world.  According to an estimate in National Geographic, the agricultural demand for water is expected to increase by 50% by 2050.  Here in the United States the biggest decline in water for agriculture is probably in the west, mostly affecting Arizona, California, Colorado, Neveda, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.  This decline is primarily due to the droughts affecting the Colorado River which supplies water to these seven states.  They are currently trying to decide how to reduce water consumption.  Some of these states have already imposed laws against the installation of lawns for new homes.  

One way of reducing agricultural water consumption is to move quickly to urban farming, also known as vertical farming.  This refers to growing fruits and vegetables in some high-rise buildings using hydroponics.  The major benefits of urban farms include the use of at least 90% less water than in agricultural fields.  In hydroponics the water is fed directly to the roots of the plants and not spread over agricultural fields where only 5-10% of the water reaches the plant. In addition, you can grow crops 365 days per year and transportation costs go way down because the building can be in the middle of the market demand.  Another benefit is the much lower requirement for fertilizers and pesticides.  Since the plants are all indoors, there is a need for artificial lighting, but this can be supplied by renewable energy to keep the cost down.  Now is the best time to add more urban farming with the availability of empty office buildings, thanks to more people working from home.

Water for industrial use is primarily needed for manufacturing such as fabricating, processing, washing, diluting, or cooling.  A large amount of freshwater is also used for power generation in coal-fired and gas-fired power plants as well as nuclear energy plants.  In these cases, the water is heated to produce steam which is needed for the electrical generators.  With a continued increase in solar and wind energy, the demand for these other forms of power generation should decrease.   

Although human consumption of water is the smallest portion of the use of freshwater, we each have a personal requirement to manage it as best as possible.  We have relied on groundwater for many years, but this source of fresh water is depleting quickly.  One example is when Nestle, the world’s largest bottled water company, was filling bottles with freshwater in Michigan until the groundwater source was completely depleted.  The company received approval from Washington to switch to Lake Michigan for its bottled water. Now, the Nestle plant consumes water from the lake and ships most of this bottled water to Asia.  On top of that, we really shouldn’t be consuming bottled water as it takes almost twice the content of the bottle in water just to produce the plastic bottle.  In addition, only 10% of these plastic bottles are currently recycled.

Something else to think about is that the water we use to flush a toilet is of the same quality as the water we drink.  Does it have to be that clean?  When remodeling, we should consider installing a toilet with a sink above it.  This way disposed water from washing our hands or face will go into the toilet tank and used for the next flush.  There are even urinals for men’s restrooms that have a small sink above each urinal.  When the person is through using the urinal, he can remain there to wash his hands and have the wash water be used to clean the urinal.  Again, using water for multiple applications.  

As mentioned earlier, several states are preventing new homes from being built with lawns on the property.  The reason is obvious because of the quantity of water that most people feel is necessary to maintain a nice lawn.  I have not watered my lawn in over 20 years, and it doesn’t look any worse than some of my neighbor’s who do water their lawns.  One of the reasons is best explained in this story of St. Francis talking to God about lawns.  God and St Francis discuss lawns – ABC (none) – Australian Broadcasting Corporation  If you have been watering your lawn, I am somewhat confident that you won’t do it anymore after reading this conversation.  

Let’s all be cognizant of the value of this critically important resource that is so limited.