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Earth Island Reports

A Simple Question: Where Does Your Water Come From?

Wholly H2O

A “crisis” like the 2014 drought in California is a snapshot of humanity’s long- term relationship with the hydrologic cycle, a finite and closed-loop system. The drought makes us ask hard questions: Are we working within the constantly moving, natural water cycle or are we pushing so hard against it wih our water-use practices that the cycle is close to collapsing? And, will we go back to business as usual with our wasteful water-use practices if and when heavy rains fall in the coming years?

Here’s what’s interesting about water on Earth. It’s finite. There is no more coming. The water we are living with now on the planet has been here in one of its various states, solid, liquid, or gas, since the beginning. As we like to say: “The water you are drinking today was once dinosaur pee.” So much for our fears about recycled water!

But don’t think that the closed loop makes water static. In fact, one compelling aspect of water is that it is always in motion, in whatever state, even ice. Water continues to cycle around – into rivers and oceans, the earth, up into the atmosphere, and round and round again.

Wholly H2O, a California-focused, water-conservation-and-reuse education organization founded in 2009, has been asking people the very simple question: “Where does your water come from?” While we have collectively turned our attention to the origins of the food and energy we consume, where our water supplies come from still remains a mystery to most of us. So few, particularly urban dwellers, can answer this simple question.

In California, the answer, depending of where you live, might be the pristine Tuolumne River which supplies water to 2.5 million people in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, or the lovely Mokelumne River, 90 miles from its 1.3 million users in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, or the San Francisco Bay Delta, the West Coast’s largest estuary, which sustains 23 million Central and Southern Californians.

photo of a river flowing in a meadow under snowy peaksphoto by Frank KovalchekThe drought in California is once again making water conservation and reuse a mainstream issue.

After the “where,” Wholly H2O asks several additional questions: “What is the daily water use, per person, in your home? Do you know where your water goes when it leaves your property, whether as stormwater or through sewer lines? Do you know what watershed you live in? Do you know how much rainwater you can capture on a 1000-square-foot roof, with just one inch of rain? We assure people that they are not alone if they cannot answer the bulk of these questions. (By the way, the answer to the last question is 600 gallons. No kidding!)

But the reality is that if we cannot name our water source, it means we know little about the quality of the water we are using, any beneficial (or potentially harmful) minerals it may contain, or the chemicals used to “purify” it. Remember, humans are made up of 60 percent water. Replenishing that water daily means that you are literally made of the water you are drinking today. It just makes sense to know – for your own health and well-being, never mind the health of the watershed – where your water comes from. So how can we make wise and elegant and enjoyable choices in order to maintain the relative health of our planetary waters?

The positive thing about the California drought is that once again, water agencies, the state, the media, and the general public are turning their attention to water conservation. California has experienced drought for 37 percent of the last hundred years. In fact, over the last millennium, the state has been baked by two prolonged droughts, lasting 220 years and 140 years each. That’s 370 years in the last 1,000 years – again, 37 percent of the time. Yet we still do not manage for drought conditions. Despite growing demand for water, especially for agriculture, Californians treat dry spells as exceptional. It’s high time we began considering drought-like conditions as “the standard condition” when shaping our water management policies, rather than creating this seasonal and repeated “drought terror.” This is especially important at a time of growing uncertainty about our climate.

photo of a rain barrel with a tap, filling a watering can in a gardenphoto Nate Steiner

Wholly H2O, which became an Earth Island project in 2011, has been working to bridge the gap in both knowledge and connections in order to make water conservation and reuse the hip and sexy thing to do in California. For a long time, the informal users of rainwater and graywater, who have become water conservation experts, were completely disconnected from governmental water-management agencies and engineering and technology professionals. Wholly H2O has been bringing these diverse groups together via forums where the “official” decision makers get to meet the “informal” experts from the permaculture and low-impact design world.

The project has been a catalyst for sustainable, localized water management in California. So many connections made at Wholly H2O events have led to new business ventures, public education, and inclusion of water reuse systems in water agency plans. In the past five years, the project has been actively involved in enabling a mighty shift towards water reuse in California.

Last year, we finally stopped keeping a calendar of pertinent statewide water reuse events. A few years ago, we had to mine the Web for any water-related event at all, but now classes, events, and films on the subject are too abundant to keep up with. However, while the decision-makers and the business community are now in the loop, there is need for wider public engagement. This calls for a new strategy that will inspire people to connect with the watersheds that sustain them. Which takes us right back to the question: “Where does your water come from?”

To reach the hearts of the public, Wholly H2O has hit the streets, art galleries, and taps around the Bay Area and in the upper watershed regions of California. We sell stickers that say “Tuolumne River on Tap” and “Mokelumne River on Tap,” that remind people about the source of their water supply. People have been putting these stickers over water taps in private and public sinks around the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s a provocative and fun way to remember which river is pouring through the pipes and to save at least a gallon more of it each day.

Learn more:

We are also organizing a series of watershed and river-related exhibits that engage the public in discussions about water. Our ongoing “Standing with the Watershed – Tuolumne River” exhibit in San Francisco is bringing upriver (those living close to the rivers) and downriver (urban water users) people together. The exhibit’s focus is the still-burning Rim Fire that has brought dramatic and sudden long-term changes to the Tuolumne watershed, having burned large parts of the 257,000 million acres of forest in and around Yosemite National Park. A second art show, “What River Are You Made Of?” focusing on the water quality, infrastructure, and the end-uses of the Tuolumne River, will be opening in San Francisco in September.

Additionally, Wholly H2O is working for more progressive responses to the current water supply conditions by pushing for improved building and plumbing codes. We believe California and the rest of the United States needs to have laws making water conservation and reuse mandatory, just as in places like Tucson, AZ, Texas, and Australia. To maintain the health of our watersheds and water supplies, we need to conserve and reuse water not only during times of drought, but every day.


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I fully agree that laws should be put in place to enforce California residents to use recycled water whenever possible as an effort to mitigate our water consumption especially when parts of California require so much of their water to be pumped from hundreds of miles away such as southern California.

By Sarah Greer on Mon, January 29, 2018 at 1:55 pm

This is actually a really good question to ask. When I moved to Milwaukee 10 years ago, I thought it was impossible that municipal water came from Lake Michigan (ewww). Then learning about it more it made sense, but not as obvious as you think, even to those who should know better.

By McGee Young on Mon, June 09, 2014 at 10:28 am

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