Blog Action Day: Following the Water

As part of Blog Action Day, bloggers from across this Pale Blue Dot will be posting about some aspect of water, a timely topic indeed.

Recent reports highlight aquifers running dry, glaciers melting, sea level rise, floods, pollutants in our rivers and streams, upcoming “water wars” for agriculture or energy or between nations, failing infrastructure, and even “Peak Water” in the United States.

Lots of alarming news.

In any case, let’s take a step back.

Start from wherever you are right now

Wherever you are reading this — especially if it’s on a computer plugged into an outlet — you are probably not more than 25 yards (or meters) from a faucet or tap, perhaps in a kitchen or restroom, water fountain or even garden.

From the tap to the pipe — If you follow the connections, that pipe will lead you down through the circulatory system present in almost any building in more developed nations. The fixtures, the valves, and the joints reveal the standardization that guides (and sometimes hamstrings) an industry and facilitates wholesale construction.

From the pipe to the main — Moving into the ground, the pipe leads into a network of conduits that course for miles under roads, houses, and fields. Water seeps from cracks along the way. Water mains run alongside sewage mains and gas and electrical conduits, all part of the invisible infrastructure that serves the population–invisible, that is, except when something breaks down or have to deal with unexpectedly extreme conditions. Likewise, waste treatment plants usually protect waterways from sewage, except when they don’t.

Pipes tell a tale of your town or city’s history and development, even if the pipes just lead to a well in your backyard. The pipes or mains might be decades old, perhaps more than a century old. On the rare occasion, something like a greywater system or bioswales might suggest promising changes in how settlements could be developed. Pipes embody decisions about how we live, now and into the future, and how we plan in relation to nature.

From source to system — The pipes eventually lead to a water source – a river, lake, well, etc. Human communities share water for the whole range of needs: agriculture, energy, industry, drinking water, tourism, comfort. In order to guarantee water quality, treatment plants remove bacteria, sediment, even chemicals that originated in fields and feedlots, storm drains, and bathroom sinks.

We all live both downstream and upstream.

Of course, this source is not the end of the line — just where the hydrological cycle is turned into a “utility.” Physical infrastructure gives way to green infrastructure, upon which we all rely for natural services for our well-being. Land and water interact in the watershed. Here, too, water and wildlife have coexisted for millennia. Water is habitat, water is life. Humanity’s increasing water withdrawals change the balance of life, especially in local ecosystems.

So what?

This may not be news to you. But easy access and the convenience of infrastructure systems can leave us taking local resources (utilities) for granted.

And the great water crises around the globe can be unfathomable, such that we fail to take away any lessons for our own lives, communities, and watersheds.

As the saying goes, think globally, act locally (or bioregionally). There are many things you can do to reduce water use, from improving efficiency in the home to being more thoughtful about purchases of food and goods — which affect water use wherever the food was grown or goods produced. Calculate your water footprint. Take the bioregional quiz. Understand and appreciate water’s role in everyday life.

Things fall apart

Following the industrial revolution, the practices of urban planning and public health grew out of responses to poor sanitary conditions that made burgeoning urban settlements difficult places to live. These efforts to promote the well-being of communities are now faced with even broader problems. Our great successes now push us towards greater challenges, and humanity is straining at planetary limits.

The US is slowly realizing that physical infrastructure is not a “if they build it” proposition. Constant maintenance of bridges, tunnels, and water mains comes with the territory.

Likewise, the human footprint has expanded such that a corollary for natural infrastructure is greater human responsibility for management and stewardship. And that starts with recognizing the “wisdom” embodied in natural systems and then acting accordingly. We can even choose to remove roads to better preserve natural systems, such as protecting wildlife corridors.

I recently watched a web presentation by the Washington Department of Ecology about the future of the Puget Sound. One of the key lessons was that land use planning needs an ecosystem or watershed perspective. There is great utility in rethinking how human communities coexist (perhaps even culturally co-evolve) with natural systems.

Practices change, and our expanding awareness of the need to maintain and foster resilient ecosystems entail different ways of planning – and living with water.

Check out what other blogs are writing about water at Blog Action Day.

Image credit: Xymox (Flickr/CC)

Happy 2010! Where You At? (a bioregional quiz)

Photo by Jillyspoon (Flickr CC)

As the new year and new decade begins, I thought I’d post a version of the bioregional quiz. It’s a thought-provoking set of questions worth revisiting periodically.

I recall first encountering the quiz in The Whole Earth Catalog during the late 1980s. The questions were intriguing for a city kid. All these years later, I can answer more — but, frankly, not many more — of the questions than I could back then. Certainly, there seem to be more distractions these days. For me, the point of the quiz is not to provide a list of items one must know; rather, it’s a point of departure for reflecting on one’s natural environment.

The bioregional quiz first appeared in 1981 under the title, “Where You At?,” in CoEvolution Quarterly, which later evolved into The Whole Earth Review. The version below comes from Kevin Kelly’s post, “The Big Here.”

You live in the big here. Wherever you live, your tiny spot is deeply intertwined within a larger place, imbedded fractal-like into a whole system called a watershed, which is itself integrated with other watersheds into a tightly interdependent biome. (See the world eco-region map ). At the ultimate level, your home is a cell in an organism called a planet. All these levels interconnect. What do you know about the dynamics of this larger system around you? Most of us are ignorant of this matrix. But it is the biggest interactive game there is. Hacking it is both fun and vital.

Along with figuring out one’s ecological footprint, the bioregional quiz is a helpful tool for developing a concept of one’s connections with nature’s resources. The advantage of the quiz is that it focuses on “place,” that is, a local or regional context. This awareness can support better local choices. And, as Kelly suggests, places are interconnected. Most of the current focus on “sustainability” provides few answers to the questions included in the quiz.

As it’s been said, “wherever you go, there you are.”

Continue reading