By Matthew Power.

Resources at Risk: Material World

Builder Chris Lucero of L.M. Inc., in Santa Fe, N.M., has experienced firsthand what happens to a builder when fresh water becomes a scarce resource.

"A moratorium had been threatened because water was so low," Lucero says. "We actually had to go before the city and plead our case to be able to keep building. It's very bad." Builders from Denver to Charlottesville, Va., describe the same sort of situation. When the water dries up, home building comes under fierce scrutiny.

One reason for that scrutiny, says water conservation expert, consultant, and author Amy Vickers, has been the exponential increase in household water use for lawn irrigation.

"In this country, most single-family homes now come with automatic irrigation systems," Vickers says. "The impact is very direct. We have communities literally running out of water. It happened in New Hampshire this summer. Part of it is the second-home market. Most people won't regularly adjust the time clock five times a day to minimize lawn irrigation. Instead, it creates a dynamic in the community to waste water."

Indeed, a recent report in the Rocky Mountain News on the water-guzzling Denver area noted that officials have begun mailing notices to homeowners who use excessive water. One homeowner may have wasted as much as 300,000 gallons to water an eight-acre Kentucky bluegrass lawn.

In Florida, the situation is much the same. "The greatest irony is we are at the same latitude as Saudi Arabia," notes R. Bruce Stephenson, professor of environmental studies at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. "Lawn irrigation uses more than half of our water," he says. "But the point is, people are trying to have a lawn in Florida that belongs in central England. Everybody's gotta have a lawn and a quarter acre of grass. It's crazy."

Why so dry?

At least a third of the United States faced extreme water shortages last year, including rarely troubled states such as New Hampshire and Vermont, where dams and water diversion have made rivers more susceptible to drought. The result: dry wells, monster wildfires, billions of losses in crops, and questions about the capacity of some regions to carry more people.

Internationally, the situation is even worse, with life-threatening droughts in Africa, India, Mexico, and China. The World Meteorological Organization reports that water consumption on a per capita basis increased sixfold in the past century, due to agricultural demand, population growth, and industrial production. The United States has one advantage over less wealthy nations, according to a recent report by the International Food Policy Institute and the International Water Management Institute: We manage our water more wisely, in most cases. But even the best management won't keep the taps flowing if users ignore pleas for conservation.

"Water is a lot like politics," notes Vickers. "It's all local. Some areas are naturally endowed. But what we're seeing is that with increasing affluence comes increasing water consumption."

That consumption inequity has raised tensions between economic haves and have-nots in some towns. In Roanoke, Va., for example, wealthier citizens have begun drilling wells so they can avoid water restrictions, and well-heeled golf courses in drought-ridden communities such as Louisville, Ky., have been criticized for continuing to soak their greens while citizens curtail washing their cars.

Keeping it clean

To our good fortune, many U.S. cities still have ample clean drinking water. But the WRI estimates that about 40 percent of the world's population already lives with polluted drinking water. Assuming that our water will stay clean in the face of growing pressure is naiuml;ve, says Vickers.

"The average lawn uses 10 times more chemicals than a similar agricultural parcel," she says. "There's growing evidence that misuse of chemicals may be adding to the health problems we're having [such as the recent spike in breast cancer in California]. These chemicals get into our water and stay there."

Part of the pollution problem, note biologists, stems from our loss of wetlands, which act as natural filters for pesticides, industrial runoff, and other waste. A 1990 report by T.E. Dahl for the U.S. Department of the Interior estimated that between the 1780s and the 1980s, the United States lost 53 percent of all wetlands in the lower 48 states--a figure that mirrors loss estimates for the rest of the globe.

River and stream diversions contribute significantly to wetland depletion, notes geologist Zen.

"Builders tend to divert stream systems," Zen says. "But when you take a meandering stream and channelize it, it kills the stream. Once you straighten it and put riprap on it, it's just a fixture there, no longer a part of the ecosystem, replenishing soils. It needs to find its own way and meander."

Tapping the future

"We have to start acting differently," asserts Vickers. "We've got to implement water conservation. Take one example: The Midwest--the nation's 'breadbasket'--has the Ogllala, a huge, non-rechargeable aquifer. Well, it's dropping by about a foot a year. It could get so low that there won't be adequate irrigation for America's breadbasket. Then what?"

In extreme cases, where water supplies can't meet demand, we may have to look to costly measures, such as the desalinization plant being built in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"They're estimating that when it's finished, water will cost 100 percent more," notes Stephenson. "And there are [many] unanswered questions about what to do with the saline, and what are the maintenance costs. It's a very costly solution."

But according to Vickers, the best solution is right in front of us: better use and protection of the water we have--not more production.

"The great thing is that water conservation doesn't mean sacrifice," she adds. "For example, many people actually like low-flow showerheads better. It's what you're used to. That's the message builders need to get out."

Perils of Privatization

One potentially troubling development in the water debate is the growing efforts of private multinational companies to take control of local water supplies. The process has been slower to take hold in the United States because of our good public utilities. Atlanta, however, recently handed control of its water supplies over to a subsidiary of a French-based multinational company called Suez. The result so far has been five "boil water" alerts in 2002 and growing concern about the safety of the water supply.

Source: "Water for Profit," Mother Jones, November/December 2002

Saving Water: Best Practices

Adopting these five techniques in your next project could save tens of thousands of gallons of water each year.

Ditch the lawn. Automatic irrigation is the worst water waster in the book. It dwarfs consumption by toilets and showers. Urge your clients to plant drought-resistant grass. Better yet, xeriscape, or make natural landscaping a part of your standard landscape package.

Spare the streams. Leave plenty of room for brooks and streams to meander through wetland areas. Don't fill in marshy areas that purify water.

Go multifamily. Multifamily projects result in far less outdoor water use per capita--greatly reducing overall water demands. Consider this fact as a selling point for the planning committee in water-strapped municipalities.

Skip the golf course. Although courses today use far fewer lawn chemicals than they once did, their water demands are still high. Consider nature trails and bike paths as alternative amenities.

Play by the rules. Don't allow buyers or plumbing subs to remove flow restrictors in faucets or showerheads. Use good-quality, low-flow toilets and double-check for toilet leaks.

"Almost 40 percent of the world's population now lives within 100 kilometers of a coastline, an area that accounts for only 22 percent of the landmass. Fish and shellfish provide about one-sixth of the animal protein consumed by people worldwide. A billion people--mostly in developing countries--depend on fish as their primary source of protein." --The World Resources Institute, Washington

Blame the Buildings?

In New Jersey, officials have put some of the blame for declining aquifers directly on new development. They note that pavement and roofs create impervious surfaces that keep rainwater and runoff from reentering starving aquifers. They plan to create new regulations limiting the amount of impervious surfaces created by new developments.