Monday, July 01, 2013

Consuming An Olympic-Size Swimming Pool

In its annual report on water quality, Durham, North Carolina where I live included the EPA’s breakdown of how Americans use water in their households (shown in the image below,) but that represents only 4% of our per capita water footprint.

The strategic approach Durham has taken to water supply since the 1920s sets it apart from other urban communities in the state, an approach found lacking in other areas of local stewardship such as urban forests and maintenance of local roadsides.

I have enjoyed reading an excellent book published this last spring by Mark Tercek, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, managing director and partner, co-written by science writer Jonathan Adams and entitled Nature’s Fortune – How Business And Society Thrive By Investing In Nature.

The thesis of the book is that nature, including resources such as water are a form of capital and infrastructure that must be accounted as a factor of market production.  Noted is that overall in 2004 Americans used over 655,000 gallons of water per person on average, “nearly enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Durham residents use 23,688 gallons of that in their homes (64.9 gallons per day,) about 11% less than the national average and nearly 20% less per capita than in the year 2000. But that isn’t how we consume 96% of the water use for which we are responsible.

The authors of Nature’s Fortune note that:

“…a liter of Coke in a plastic bottle requires a liter of water for the drink itself,

a liter for production and washing,

10 liters to make the bottle and

a whopping 200 liters to grow the sugar

– a total of 212 liters (56 gallons) of water for every liter of Coke.

This is applicable, I’m sure, to other soft drink brands.

Additionally – “Many other products have surprising footprints:  660 gallons for a cotton shirt, about 120 gallons for one pound of wheat and nearly 2,000 gallons for one pound of beef.  A typical American breakfast of two eggs, toast and coffee requires 120 gallons of water…”

In another report, entitled Wasted, scientists document that getting food to our tables swallows 80% of the freshwater consumed in the United States while using 50 percent of land and eating up 10% of the nation’s energy budget and yet 40% goes uneaten, wasted at various points in the supply chain, including our homes.

Through the way we handle food, we waste 25% of all freshwater in the United States.

Soon Mugsy, my English Bulldog and I will set out on our fifth, east-west, cross-country road-trip since I retired 3 1/2 years ago.  On thing that always stands out are the mighty rivers we crisscross including the Mississippi, Missouri, Colorado and Snake and often the Ohio and Columbia.

Iowa is one of those states that always over-delivers, not just because as a native of Idaho, I am partial to “I” states.  Iowa is dotted with streams and lakes but it is bordered on each side by the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, both of which often visit that state with devastating floods.

It also rests at the center of a watershed that drains 41% of the United States.

Like my adopted North Carolina and native Idaho, the state of Iowa is conservative in make up, although where I’ve lived, I’ve always found a spot of “blue” or “purple” where a moderate Independent can thrive and there are one or two of those in Iowa as well.

In November 2010, by a two-thirds majority, voters in Iowa rose up in the midst of the Great Recession to amend the state constitution and approved the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund endowed with a portion of a 1% sales tax.

It stands in stark contrast to the zaniness of North Carolina’s legislature which has turned instead to trying to ripping out any conservation it can and in my opinion desecrating an amendment passed here to the state constitution in 1972:

“It shall be the policy of this State to conserve and protect its lands and waters for the benefit of all its citizenry, and to this end it shall be a proper function of the State of North Carolina and its political subdivisions to acquire and preserve park, recreational, and scenic areas, to control and limit the pollution of our air and water, to control excessive noise, and in every other appropriate way to preserve as a part of the common heritage of this State its forests, wetlands, estuaries, beaches, historical sites, openlands, and places of beauty.”

Instead of trying to redeem a reputation for being backward, as North Carolina’s current lawmakers are doing, the new progressive measure in equally conservative Iowa is being used to perpetually guarantee and increase funding for:

  • lake restoration (7%),
  • trails (ensuring Iowa stays first in the nation in multi-use trail-miles 10%),
  • augmentation of grants to enhance and protect natural and cultural resources (13%),
  • local conservation partnerships (13%),
  • watershed protection (14%),
  • soil conservation and water protection (20%) and,
  • to ensure funding of its department of natural resources (23%.)

You can already see the difference, including tile and drainage on farmland to capture and slow storm run-off, trees, and most of all in floodplains along the two huge rivers bordering each side of the state.

A study published in 2010 by researchers at Duke University here in Durham, calculated that public investments in wetland restoration along the Mississippi River’s alluvial plain, including a portion Mugs and I will traverse later this summer, pay for themselves in just two years.

These critical lands when left as or restored as wetlands are worth two and a half times what they are when converted to crops such as soybeans or cotton.  The study also found that restoration of wetlands can also be lucrative to landowners.

My Idaho-rancher dad would always mutter at what he felt was an unfair burden to taxpayers nationwide when people would rebuild after floods along these two rivers.  Very conservative for his time, he was hypocritical as many holding that ideology are because he didn’t complain when the same was done to control forest fires in Idaho.

But my dad was right about something.  We must learn to let floodplains be floodplains.

They are nature’s way of controlling flooding and ensuring water quality.  Instead, an analysis conducted for Federal Emergency Management Agency is estimating that by 2100, the number of homes in special flood hazard zones is set to double from 5.5 million today to 11.2 million,

The increased risk is not all coastal.  Check out the maps in the report showing the geographic increase every 20 years.

Proving that not all conservatives are alike, in North Carolina, Republicans controlling all three branches of government talk about the virtues of local control when it comes to shunning federal programs, but then try to lord it over truly local governments by trying their best to over-ride democratically adopted standards in cities, towns and countries.

A few years ago in Durham, where I live, developers, land owners, neighborhoods and citizens met for over a year to devise and adopt a measure to create 150’ buffers along waterways.  State lawmakers are passing a law to force Durham and any other community to reduce its buffers to the state standard of 50’.

They also want to force Durham to run water and sewer to a development that is deliberately trying to intrude where residents believe it will violate floodplain and threaten a water supply.

“I” states like Idaho, Iowa, Indiana and the vast part of Illinois may be as conservative or more conservative than North Carolina but they aren’t being stupid when it comes to water quality.

They can’t afford to be, nor can North Carolina afford the arrogance of the majority of its current lawmakers.  Iowa’s humility when it comes to nature was earned the hard way. We should follow its lead.


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