Water: wishes and wallets

When the mercury hit 90 in June, my green tin roof popped and pinged.

The sound sent me reaching for a glass of ice-cold tea, though if I were more Southern belle and less teetotaler, I might have called for a fan and a mint julep. If I were more hip, I’d demand a mojito, but my mint crop wilted during the long, dry June. So I sipped iced green tea and mused, because it was too hot to do much else.

When it’s hot, it’s dry; neither bodes well for the tender lettuce growing in my garden. I was expecting the usual June on the mountain: cool nights, a bit of rain and moderate warmth during the day. Instead, our mountain region teetered into Extreme and Exceptional Drought again (the ominous D3 and D4, respectively). I reckon I should have installed that rain barrel back in April, but I didn’t. Neither have I whittled my showers down to a three-minute Navy dash, nor turned off the faucet while brushing my teeth.

We humans are peculiar creatures. We stop in the grocery store and talk to perfect strangers, commiserating about the high price of gas. Offered cold, bottled water during an office visit, we chat with the receptionist about global warming. We all agree that something must be done.

But when I’m halfway through a long, long shower, trying to wash the sleep from my eyes, I realize I haven’t adjusted that much to this on-again/off-again pattern of drought. I’ve preached without doing much practicing.

My water habits are stubborn creatures. I grew up in a wet world—the marshes, rivers, swamps, beaches and torrential thunderstorms of coastal Alabama. Naturally, I took water for granted back then. But here on the mountain, I suffer from the same illusions. I get water from a well, and it seems free and unlimited—I pay little more than the occasional cost of the filters I use to keep sediment out of the system.

And therein lies the rub: My water’s too cheap. By comparison, every time I fill up my little Subaru, I cringe and calculate. Forty dollars for a mere three-quarters of a tank the other day! I’ve even started figuring my income in terms of how much gas I can buy. On one potential freelance gig, I estimated that I would spend the first two hours of the work just paying for the round-trip gas. Sobering. So I turned down the job. I can get cheaper gas in nearby Tennessee, but it’s 20 miles there and back—so I’d use almost a gallon of gas to save a measly $1.50 on a tankful.

I was never good at math, but even I can see that it’s not worth it. Nor do I need a psychiatrist to convince me that high prices can modify behavior very fast. My sister in Denver has a 30-mile commute to work; this year she often takes the train, even though it’s a longer trip (she goes downtown first, then changes trains to get to her office—she calls it the “V route”). And she doesn’t bat an eye when saying “no” to her teen daughter’s demand for $200 a month in gas money so she can run around town.

But how do we translate that same steely resolve to our water habits? If you’re on a municipal system, you get a water bill every month or two. Saving water trims that bill—but it also trims the revenues that help fund repairs, maintenance and new projects. Maybe, in the long run, it all evens out: You change your habits and city crews adjust theirs.

I’m also reminded of the mantra, “Think global, buy local.” But it doesn’t just apply to food: I say think about the big picture (global warming, droughts, high prices) and tweak your own domestic habits, a little at a time. I may be having trouble with long showers, but I have made other adjustments. I used to throw out the water in my dogs’ bowl when a bug or two went swimming and drowned; now I use it to water houseplants (sometimes debugged, sometimes not). Small steps, but at least it’s a start.

As for the high price of gas, I feel like a soccer mom who’s mastered the art of multipurpose car trips (i.e. hitting work, bank, errands, workout and grocery store all in one swoop). And yes, I stay home more on the weekends now, trying to teach this ol’ water-lovin’ belle some new tricks.

[Freelance writer Margaret Williams can be reached at margo010@mac.com.]

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