Among the many comforts we rely on in our daily life, water is one of the few that we cannot do without. And yet, very few of us actually stop to consider the process involved in getting water from the environment to our glass. In the United States, most of our drinking water comes either from surface water sources, like rivers and lakes, or from groundwater. This water is then pumped to a treatment facility where the water is sanitized and distributed to communities within a certain radius.
Although some of us can afford the luxury of not knowing our water’s journey, it is fast becoming a luxury that few can afford. Many drinking water supplies around the globe face an uncertain future from the effects of climate change, unsustainable use, pollution, and shifts in human population distribution. To understand how these issues affect our drinking water it is important to know that many of our water resources replenish themselves slowly. For example, it can take groundwater sources 300 to 3,500 years to completely replace all of the water stored there. This means that, although water is technically a renewable resource, many of the sources that we rely on cannot keep up with the demand and are quickly being depleted.
Climate change also plays a role in water availability by altering precipitation patterns and raising annual temperatures. In some regions, this appears as unusually intense droughts and in others as massive rain events that cause flooding and contaminate existing water sources. In areas where droughts are becoming more common, particularly areas of the southern United States, water demands for agriculture and other operations will increase. However, without significant input, water resources in the region risk being overdrawn and could make it difficult for farmers and other professionals to earn a living. Conversely, some areas will receive more intense rainstorms. Through flooding and increased runoff, these storms could cause greater contamination of water resources by increasing pollution and sediment accumulation. In coastal areas, flooding and sea level rise can cause freshwater resources to be infiltrated by saltwater. Contamination makes extraction more difficult and, in some cases, impossible, thus ruining affected resources.
Despite our water infrastructure’s uncertain future, individuals can make changes in their own lives to reduce their water footprint. The practices of permaculture provide excellent techniques for addressing one’s water usage. Permaculture operates under the assumption that water scarcity will always be an issue and thus has developed many techniques that assist people in conserving water. There are countless ways to capture, filter, and store water in a permaculture system, so to keep things simple this article will provide a brief overview of two common methods.
Many people may overlook rainwater as a viable source of irrigation, however collecting rainfall can help meet water needs, reduce the stress on urban drainage systems, and save water for periods of drought. This is best done by capturing the water that runs off a roof or other impermeable structure. The amount of rain captured using this system varies based on the roofing materials and the roof’s surface area, and can be calculated using simple equations or online resources. It is best if the roof is made out of a non-toxic metal, as many plastic shingles can potentially leach harmful chemicals over time. A gutter captures the water running off of the roof and directs it towards the catchment container. Like the roof, it is ideal if the gutter is made from a non-toxic material, such as metal or, in some cases, bamboo. The catchment container can be anything from a plastic drum to a cement chamber, based on climate, budget, and intended use. The container should have a spout or a place to connect a hose or plumbing. This should be located a few inches up from the bottom of the container to avoid clogging it with collected sediment. Overall, these systems are fairly easy to install and many instructional resources exist both online and in books to facilitate the process.
Grey water systems provide another excellent method for water conservation. Every day, appliances like washing machines, dishwashers, and showers use significant amounts of water. In most cases, this water gets piped into the sewer or septic system, however it can also be reused in on-site irrigation systems. When using greywater for irrigation, it is important to avoid using toilet water and that no harmful chemicals be present, like certain salts, boron, and chlorine bleach as they can build up in the soil and harm plants and animals. This means that only products that are safe to ingest should be used in the water. It is also important avoid storing greywater or leaving it sitting for too long, as this can degrade nutrients and provide a breeding ground for mosquitos. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the water must be as clean as possible before releasing it to the greater environment; otherwise it can become another pollution source. There are many different designs and levels of filtration available depending on how dirty the water is, its intended use, and its source. In many cases, the washing machine can be the easiest appliance to start with, since water can usually be diverted to the system without cutting existing plumbing. Like with rain catchment systems, many great sources exist (such as greywateraction.org) to help in planning a greywater system.
Although you may believe that you live in a water resilient area and therefore do not need to worry about your usage, it remains in your best interest to take simple measures to conserve water. As the climate warms, weather patterns around the world will become increasingly erratic and previously stable regions will become more unpredictable. Growing populations also place more pressure on our water resources and overuse can jeopardize their future. By increasing your self-sufficiency, you will help address these issues and create a more secure water future.
If you are interested in learning more ways to live a greener and more sustainable life,