Most of us turn on the tap and get clear, clean water at a U.S. average cost of only $2 per 1,000 gallons. That's only about $300 per year for an average household, so it's pretty easy to take water for granted. But did you know that an estimated 2 million Americans live without running water? Did you know that water infrastructure in the U.S., much of which was built more than 50 years ago, needs more than $200 billion in repairs?
The Earth is covered with so much water that it appears as a blue planet from space. It also allows us to assume that water will always be readily available and cheap. However, only about 2 percent of the world's water is fresh water, and of that, much is inaccessible, tied up in the polar ice caps or in remote regions of the world.
The average American uses about 100 gallons of water per day, but calculating your "water footprint" (the amount of water used to make the things we consume every day) shows our true water impact and boosts our daily water usage up to about 2,000 gallons per person per day. You can calculate your "water footprint" online at environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/ freshwater/water-footprint-calculator/.
The “water footprint” of the average American is 2,000 gallons of water per day.
Take, for instance, the T-shirt you are wearing. Four hundred gallons of water is needed to grow the cotton it is made of, in addition to the amount of water used in its manufacturing and processing. A pair of jeans requires 1,800 gallons to grow its cotton. Even a single board of lumber needs four to five gallons of water. Multiply that times the number of boards in your house (and the 13 gallons of water it takes to make one gallon of paint), and your water use goes up again. See that car parked in the driveway in front of that house? The Huffington Post reports that one car requires 39,090 gallons of water, with each tire requiring 518 gallons.
Maybe these figures are interesting tidbits to discuss over breakfast of a cup of coffee (it takes 37 gallons to make it), a couple of scrambled eggs (72 gallons) and a quarter pound of sausage (375 gallons), but hopefully they also make you think about how we consume water and where our water comes from. But, you might say, water is used and returned to the water cycle, cleaned and processed and put back into the system to come out of our tap, right?
Well, yes, that's the amazing part. A lot of our local water is cycled back around and used again. But all that water used to make plastic and food and manufactured goods takes energy to use and recycle.
Much is lost during the process, and though it may return to a lake or reservoir in the form of rain, a lot of water is lost to the ocean by melting glaciers, rain or the emptying of rivers into that vast salt water body where it is extremely costly and inefficient to turn back into drinking water through desalination at a cost of $1 per gallon or more.
Although you may have been enlightened by this method of valuing water, we can also examine the value of water quality. A study of lakes in Maine showed that water quality in lakes is most often judged by its clarity, despite the fact that there are many other factors, such as bacteria, phosphate and dissolved oxygen levels, which are better indicators of water quality. The study of real-estate values in the regions of these lakes was found to change as little as $5.55 per foot and as much as $423 per foot of lake frontage for every 1 meter (3.3 feet) of change in water clarity. When water clarity improves, real estate values go up. When things such as runoff, aquatic plants and sediment reduces water clarity, real estate values go down. Looking at real estate values and average lot sizes, the researchers noted that this change in value could have an impact of as little as $1,000 per lot in some areas and as much as $43,700 per lot, depending on assessed values and lakeside frontage. Not only does this impact the value of your home, it also greatly impacts the tax base, affecting funding available for infrastructure, services and employment.
So the next time you have a bottle of water (which took 1.5 gallons of water to produce the bottle and costs about 5,000 times as much as tap water), think about water as a commodity that is intertwined in everything we use every day. Conserving water and our watershed makes sense ... including dollars and cents, when we examine the cost of water.
The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local nonprofit organization that is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty, and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands, and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, visit chautauquawatershed.org or call 664-2166.