Intersection

[Pyramid of Biscuits]

Trying to make sense of our all-consuming water habit

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To the last drop: Are you contributing to hasty water waste or conservation?
Photo: Jon Estrada
Stacy J. Willis

I’m on a walk in the midday sun in Las Vegas, and I didn’t bring any water. I could’ve gotten my thermos and filled it up with clean, filtered water from my home, water I pay a relatively low monthly fee to drink. But I forgot to bring that thermos, and as I stroll through the neighborhood, I’m starting to get cotton-mouthed. The farther I walk—baking, sweating, panting up long hills—the more my thoughts return to water, until about an hour in, I can think of little else. I need water.

The solution for me—for many of us—is easy. There’s a park up ahead, and there will certainly be a water fountain there. I walk across well-irrigated grass to the park building and turn the handle, and H20 bursts out—arcing from mouthpiece to basin, from the peaks of the Colorado Rockies to the plumbing at a suburban Las Vegas park. I feel it with my hand and wait as it turns from warm to slightly less warm, and I take a few rehydrating sips—enough to get me home. How lucky we are.

* * * * *

“By mid-century, 3 billion people will live in water-stressed countries. That’s one in three people on the planet,” the radio reporter says as I drive through the car wash. I’m in one of those automated, sit-in-your-vehicle washes with the mechanical brushes and rainbow-colored soap. It’s by pure coincidence that I’m listening to Thirsty Planet, a report by American RadioWorks on NPR, as gallons and gallons of jet-sprayed water pummel my car.

The reporter is talking about women in India whose entire lives are spent carrying water in pots on their heads from the only available (yet tainted) sources back to their families, making several multi-mile trips a day. “Girls start carrying water for the family as young as 6 years old. Older girls drop out of school because they don’t have time for homework.”

So much water is pounding my car, I have to turn up the radio to hear. “The burden of fetching water traps millions of Indian women in a kind of water servitude that keeps them from getting more education or bettering their lives.”

Sheets of water—and guilt—cascade across my windows. Then the giant blow dryer chases every last drop off of my windshield onto the cement. I stop to clean out the car’s interior. Naturally, I find a half-full disposable water bottle that’s been rolling around on the floorboard for days, possibly weeks. But I’ve come this far in my adventures in First World waste, so for a split second I try to rationalize throwing it away—on the same planet where those women face a daily life-defining struggle to get precious little drinking water. Yes, I know these four ounces of Aquafina backwash won’t make a difference now. But that doesn’t stop water activist Seth Siegel from jabbing my tardy conscience on the radio.

“In Israel ... children are taught how to brush their teeth in the most water-efficient way. They are taught to bathe in the most water-efficient way. And over and over again they are given the phrase, ‘It is a pity to waste even a drop.’”

A drop? I twist off the top of the Aquafina bottle and look for, at the very least, a thirsty plant, but there’s nothing but cement here. So, in a moment of karma-conscious contrition, I drink it. Warm, heat-altered, plastic-chemical-tasting, leftover bottled water.

Irrational, yes. But does anything about the world’s inequities feel rational?

* * * * *

It’s all bikinis and board shorts at the community pool at the Trails Park in Summerlin. I sit in the shade, and amid the smell of sunscreen and chlorine I notice that everybody’s got a thermos or a plastic bottle somewhere; no one in this fenced-in desert oasis lacks water.

The history of humans is about finding and managing water. We’re aware of that in Las Vegas, with white-walled Lake Mead in our backyard. We know the American West’s years-long drought caused irrigation restrictions and increased water prices, and we’ve heard about the consequences of waste and the benefits of conservation. But we defer to comfort and denial. We like the automatic car wash, the industrialized passing of worry to someone else. Accordingly, when the Republican presidential nominee visited California recently, he promised to swiftly solve its water problems. “We’re gonna get it done quick,” Donald Trump said. “Don’t even think about it.”

But I’m going to think about it. Sure, it’s summer and I’ll no doubt enjoy the splendors of pools and the luxury of clean drinking water and food produced with ample irrigation. But it wouldn’t hurt to do it all a little more consciously, conservatively and gratefully.

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