Every morning, many of us put water in the coffee maker, take a shower, flush the toilet, or turn on the faucet, without ever thinking about the water being there. Modern plumbing makes it easy to forget how precious water is.
We rely on water to drink and to grow our food, and yet we also play in it.
We wash the dog and car with water, and we bathe ourselves in it.
We water lawns, golf courses, and playing fields. Water also is used to manufacture our clothing and household goods, and for cooling the power plants that give us electricity.
Except for the air we breathe, there is nothing we depend on more each day than water. We can go weeks without food, but only a few days without water.
Pope Francis, in paragraph 30 of his famous encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, declares, “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights.” Emphasis is his.
Water is essential to life as we know it; so much so, that scientists look for water as an indicator of potential life on other planets and moons. It’s also why water is central to many of the sacred stories in scripture.
The book of Genesis starts with God’s presence sweeping “over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2), and from there, the story of creation and all life on Earth begins. During the exodus of the ancient Israelites from Egypt, God gives them water out of a rock, “so that the people may drink” (Ex 17:6) and know both God’s presence and God as the source of all they need.
All the water on Earth is part of the water cycle, sometimes called the hydrologic cycle. Water is in a continuous loop of being evaporated and transpired into the atmosphere by the sun, and then falling back to Earth as rain or snow. This cycle has always been part of life on Earth. In the ancient book of Job, we hear of God “drawing up the drops of water; he distills his mist in rain, which the skies pour down and drop upon mortals abundantly.” (Job 36:27-28)
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us God sends rain to fall “on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Mt 5:45) Water is a sacred gift of God’s creation, intended for all. Psalm 104 reminds us this gift of water is not just for people. The psalmist proclaims God gives “drink to every wild animal” and waters the land (Ps 104:10-13).
A problem I have with most water cycle diagrams is that they don’t show people. We live our lives within the cycle, and our actions disrupt the cycle. Almost everyone in the U.S. gets their water from a freshwater source. It may be a surface source, such as a river or a lake, or a groundwater source, called an aquifer. When we pump water from a source, we divert the water from the natural water cycle into a human-made, water use cycle.
Water pumped into the use cycle becomes part of our water supply. It’s typically treated before we use it, except when the intended use is agriculture. After the water is treated, it’s pumped to our homes, work, school, or wherever we will use it. If the water is used in a building, it becomes what we call wastewater and is collected in drains and sewers. The wastewater is treated and released back into the natural water cycle, where it once again becomes available for others to use. When water is used outside of a building or for agriculture, it’s typically not treated before it’s returned to the natural water cycle. The water either evaporates, percolates through the soil into groundwater, or runs-off into a system of storm drains or ditches that lead to a waterbody.
When you pay your water bill, you are paying for all the pumping and treating, and not necessarily for the water. It requires energy to pump and treat water, and the carbon footprint of water contributes to climate change. When you use water, you increase your personal carbon footprint; the more water you use, the greater your footprint.
Our use of water disrupts and alters the natural water cycle in significant ways. Pumping water from a source means we take it from a lake, river, aquifer, or other waterbody. While we’re using it, the water is not available for the ecosystem or for others to use. When we’re done using it, the water’s returned to the natural water cycle; however, we seldom return it in the same form and quantity or to exact same source from where we got it. For example, water taken from the ground for crop irrigation is returned to the water cycle through evaporation and transpiration into the atmosphere. Water taken from a lake for a community’s drinking water may be returned to a river several miles downstream of the lake, sometimes even to a completely different river, or directly to the ocean.
The net effect of our disruption of the natural water cycle is that less water is available for other people, for the lives of non-human creatures, and for the natural ecosystem that relies on water for life. These effects are easy to see in the Rio Grande, which starts in the mountains of Colorado. The river flows southward through New Mexico. Along the way, it’s dammed and diverted into the water use cycle for municipalities and agriculture. By the time it gets to El Paso, Texas, there’s no water in the river for most of the year. It only flows when water releases are ordered from an upstream dam based on water rights. Without a baseflow, the river ecosystem doesn’t exist, and all the life that depended on it no longer exists. The river is dead.
The effects of our disruption of the natural water cycle can be widespread. You may have heard about the whale mother off the coast of Washington state, who in 2018 carried her dead baby on the water surface for over two weeks. The baby had died a few hours after birth. The whale is a member of an orca pod whose numbers are declining and are not reproducing well. There are several contributing factors. One is they evolved to eat Chinook salmon, and the population of this species is at a historic low. The rivers where the salmon spawn still flow, and they look beautiful, but they are dammed for power generation and water supply. The result is a decline in Chinook salmon population and stress on the struggling orcas.
Another way we disrupt the natural water cycle is by drawing down aquifers, such as the High Plains Aquifer, also called the Ogallala. It extends from western Texas, northward to South Dakota through eight states. The aquifer has been pumped down in seven of its eight states, with Texas showing the greatest drawdown, followed by Kansas. A drawdown means more water is removed from the aquifer than precipitation restores each year. The water table drops as the aquifer is depleted, making it more difficult for people to pump water from it, and sometimes requiring the expense of drilling deeper wells.
Aquifers like the Ogallala are connected to and contribute flow to many surface waters. As the aquifer’s water table drops, ponds go dry and flow decreases in rivers associated with the aquifer. Less water is available for other people, other creatures, and ecosystems that need water for life.
All life on Earth requires water, so having access to water is a deadly serious business. This reality is the source of a frequently heard quote: Whiskey is for drinking; and water is for fighting!
Who gets to use water in the U.S. is governed by a complex system of federal and state laws, and international treaties. Unlike God’s justice, in which all life gets the water it needs, U.S. justice allots rights to water based on factors other than need. These factors include land ownership contiguous with a water source and the ability to put the water to beneficial use, with preferences for those who got to the water first and put it to use. Herein lies one root of some of the water inequities in our country. Laws defining most water rights were established long before women and people of color had opportunities to own land or the capital to put water to beneficial use.
The term “beneficial use” itself is subjective. Early definitions of the term, when most water rights were granted, did not always consider uses by Native Americans and holders of Spanish or Mexican land grants to be beneficial, nor were ecosystem uses considered beneficial. Although the definition of beneficial use continues to evolve and include more people and uses, prior allotments and appropriations mean water often is not available for newly defined uses, unless someone gives up or sells their water rights.
I have a personal saying about water: All water is drinking water. I say this because the water that comes to my house has been pumped and treated to drinking water standards; meaning, energy with its carbon emissions and chemicals mined from the Earth, and people’s labor, all have gone into making that water safe for me to drink. The water itself was removed from the natural water cycle and isn’t available for others to drink. No matter how I’m using the water, it could be drinking water for others.
I can’t change water law in the U.S., but I can work toward justice in my own use of water. It starts with knowing how much water I use. This information is available from my water bill, or if you’re on a private well, you can get it from a well meter. According to a 2016 study by the American Water Works Association, the average household has an indoor water use of 51.7 gallons per person per day. That amount excludes outdoor uses like lawn watering and swimming pools. How does your water use compare to the average? If you want to know more about calculating your water use and sustainable water use, I encourage you to register for one of my upcoming water workshops.