Taking on Waterby Wendy Pabich, author of Taking on Water: How One Water Expert Challenged Her Inner Hypocrite, Reduced Her Water Footprint (Without Sacrificing a Toasty Shower), and Found Nirvana (Sasquatch Books)

Water is getting scarce. This year has brought extreme drought, low snow packs, and record low stream flows in a number of river systems. We see Las Vegas waging water war with the open ranch lands to the north, Atlanta in protracted battles with downstream states over its primary water supply at Lake Lanier, and water tables beneath the San Joaquin Valley—the source of 40 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables—dropping. A recent study by the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) suggests that by mid-century, half the counties in the U.S. will be facing water scarcity.

For any one of us, these problems can feel overwhelming. We may sense that our own role is negligible, our power to make change inconsequential. And, it’s easy to find fault with government policies, corporate behavior, and farming practices. Yet, taken together, our aggregate behavior is the source of these problems. An individual home can waste 10,000 gallons of water a year to leaking fixtures; as a nation, we lose one trillion gallons of water to leaks. We buy 450 million pair of blue jeans every year, each of which requires about 2,200 gallons of water to produce, mostly to grow cotton for denim. That’s a total of 990 billion gallons of water, or enough to provide copious domestic water supplies to almost 10 billion people. And the list goes on.

While this may all seem distressing, it also implies a potent truth. As consumers, we have the power to change our own behavior. We can make choices about what and how much we purchase, and we can influence what types of products and services are sold in the market—all of which can lead to increased water use efficiency and decreased water demand. And, as educators, we can play a critical role in raising the awareness that will catalyze necessary change. We can do this by weaving sustainability into our curriculums, modeling changes in our own behavior, and pushing to implement changes in school programs, infrastructure, and management to better steward water and other resources.

Several schools stand out as shining examples of how these principles can be modeled for students. One in particular—the science wing of the Bertschi School in Seattle—is Washington state’s first “living building,” achieving net zero water and net zero energy, meaning that all water and energy used on the premises is supplied onsite, reducing both direct water use and the building’s larger water footprint (via reduced energy use and onsite food production). The building functions as a living laboratory. All water used is collected and treated onsite: a rain garden treats all storm water and provides food, an interior green wall treats wastewater grey water, and a composting toilet treats black water. Collected rainwater runs through the classroom so students can test water quality. Solar panels provide all electricity for the building, and students are charged with tracking energy production and use. Students learn to grow and harvest their own food in the school’s garden. Climate conditioning comes from a moss-covered roof, natural ventilation and radiant floor heating. Via the power of example, this school is likely to produce the water and resource stewards of the future. If we are to solve our water problems, we need more schools and more educators walking down the path towards sustainability.

Wendy Pabich