Diving Into Water Conservation
February 17, 2021

By Olivia Baud

Have you ever wondered where your water comes from? I’ll admit, I hadn’t until a few months ago. I had learned about the water cycle in school, and my mother, an environmental consultant, had taught me a fair amount about water conservation, but I had never really sat down to think about my water journey as a whole.

One hand holds a waterbottle under the faucet as another holds the faucet handle. A water droplet character sits at the lip of the waterbottle. "Where did you come from?" asks the person. "I thought you'd never ask!" says the water droplet.

The truth is, I was privileged to not have to think about the source of my water and where my water went. 1 in 3 people around the world don’t have access to safe drinking water. That means that for billions of people, water quality is an everyday concern rather than an everyday given. That might come as a surprise since, looking at the expanse of blue that stretches over the globe, water seems to be everywhere. Yet, while approximately 71% of the Earth is covered by water, only about 3% is freshwater, and only about 1% can be easily accessed for use.

Water quality, access, and affordability issues disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color. In the U.S. for example, urban households headed by people of color are nearly 35% more likely to lack complete plumbing (no access to piped water) than households headed by white, non-Hispanic people, and the rate of violations of The Safe Drinking Water Act by water systems increases in low-income and minority communities. To tackle these issues, we have to understand our relationship to water in the first place.

We all rely on the freshwater provided by our respective watersheds. Watersheds are areas where water flows to a common body of water, so living in the metropolitan Boston area of Massachusetts in the U.S, for example, I depend on the Quabbin and Wachusett watersheds. All the water from snowmelt, rain, runoff, etc., in these two watersheds drains into the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoirs. Hungarian cartographer Robert Szucs beautifully captures what a watershed looks like by mapping out continuous river systems.

Continuous river systems are each assigned a color on the African continent, forming a colorful depiction of the continent against a black background.
River basin map of Africa by Robert Szucs/Grasshopper Photography

How the water in your specific watershed reaches you greatly depends on where you live. You might know exactly how you get your water because you have to fetch it yourself. Perhaps you gather it from a well or buy bottled water at the store. Or you might be privileged to receive water directly through your sink or hose. If that’s the case, your water has typically traveled through plumbing that is often connected to a septic system. As a Boston resident, my water is pumped from the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoirs and is treated at the John J. Carroll Water Treatment Plant in Marlborough, Massachusetts, before it reaches my apartment.

The quality of your water is equally as important as how you access it. For example, while the water supplied by the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoirs is treated before reaching my apartment, treatment can only do so much. Think of a barrel of pesticides leaking into a swimming pool. Chlorine treatment is usually enough to make the pool safe to swim in, but in this case it wouldn’t do much to combat the harmful effects of the pesticides. What’s more, if my plumbing system was leaking or contaminating my water after treatment, as was the case with the Flint water crisis, my water wouldn’t be safe to drink.

That’s why protecting water at every point of its journey—from rain to rivers to lakes to infrastructure and plumbing to oceans and beyond—is critical to maintaining water quality. In other words, we must maintain the health of every part of the water cycle. Air pollution from downwind factories can acidify rain falling in these watersheds. Fertilizer runoff from farms upstream can lead to harmful algal blooms in rivers and reservoirs, creating ecological dead zones. Fracking can drain local water supplies and contaminate groundwater.

Water polluted by fertilizer runoff flows downstream. Factory emissions pollute water upstream by coming into contact with a rain cloud.

The more water is contaminated, the less clean water we have to use. Beyond our immediate drinking and sanitation needs, our livelihoods depend on uncontaminated water. Indigenous communities around the world center spirituality, tradition, and way of life around this sacred element. Farmers rely on it to grow healthy crops for us to eat, and fisherfolk rely on it to catch healthy fish. Many of our recreational opportunities, from swimming to canoeing, are dangerous or unenjoyable in polluted waters.

Additionally, all kinds of organisms and other-than-human life depend on us to be mindful of our water usage and waste. Sometimes a slight change in the salinity, acidity, or even temperature in a stream, lake, or sea is all it takes to decimate some populations of aquatic species. For example, excess levels of nitrogen on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, due to wastewater contamination has led to widespread algal blooms over the years, suffocating freshwater pond and marine life, forcing the closure of shellfish beds, and causing health concerns for humans and their pets.

While many initiatives have aimed to address water quality issues, there is still much work to be done. According to the Nature Conservancy, “40-50% of [U.S.] waters are impaired or threatened.”
Fortunately, there are many ways for all of us to help conserve and protect our water resources:

Interconnected through water, we’re all in this together.

A woman in a gray sweater holds a dark blue water bottle, smiling at a water droplet character sitting on its lip. The droplet says "Thanks for looking out for me!"

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Diving Into Water Conservation

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