A local journalist recently asked me, “Why conserve water here in South Central Indiana when we have an unlimited supply?”
It is indeed comforting to have a 10,750-acre reservoir in our back yard and 44 inches of annual rainfall. Water conservation was not a consideration in Atlanta, either, prior to their historic drought in 2008. When the water level of their 38,000-acre Lake Lanier dropped 21 feet, revealing the foundations of houses that had been torn down in the 1950s to make way for the reservoir, water conservation suddenly became an issue. Even if we manage to dodge the drought bullet, wasting water does come at an increasing cost, including some costs we rarely consider.
One hidden cost associated with water use is the amount of energy we use to pump, filter, heat, cool and retreat water before putting it back into the water cycle. When the City of Indianapolis began investigating their energy use and their greenhouse gas emissions, they were surprised to discover that their second largest electrical energy cost was for pumping water. Heating hot water can account for as much as a third of home energy bills. Chlorine and other chemicals required to filter and treat potable water and sewage constitute another hidden cost.
For Indiana University Bloomington, where 11,000 students reside on campus, water use is a $3.4 million annual cost (combined water, sewer, and storm water), not counting the substantial energy cost of pumping and heating water. Although campus building area increased by 480,000 square feet since 2004, water use has been reduced by over 24% through simple but effective conservation programs initiated by IU Physical Plant, saving millions of dollars that can be spent on educating students.
The greatest associated cost of wasted water may well be the environmental and health costs of pollution associated with fossil fuel combustion, which provides the energy to pump, process, and heat our water. We all pay these costs indirectly. Air and water pollution already impact the quality of our water supply. Climate change, population growth, and increasing consumption will provide increasing stress to our water quality and quantity and make it necessary for all of us to work together to conserve this critical life-supporting resource.
“When oil runs out, motors stop. When water runs out, life stops.”