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Water Wisdom

Author: Joe Paternoster
April, 2014 Issue
When I woke up this morning, I turned on my shower and water gushed out. I filled the coffee pot from the faucet in my kitchen sink. I left for work to the “ch-ch-ch” of my neighbor’s sprinklers.
But when I read the newspaper, the headline story is the extreme drought facing California. In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an agricultural disaster designation including the counties of Sonoma, Napa, Marin and Mendocino, opening agricultural operations to the receipt of federal aid. As I write, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is poised to declare a drought emergency. And yet, everywhere I look, there’s water: faucets, showers, toilets, sprinklers. Changing the way people think about and use water in the United States isn’t an easy task. I know. I’ve been trying to do just that for the past 20 years.
Across the world, water is sprayed on dirt to grow crops. In developed countries, approximately 70 percent of the water we extract from the ground is used for irrigation; in developing countries, that statistic rises to 90 percent. DriWater, the product made by my company, is a gel that time-releases water when it comes into contact with soil. It can reduce agricultural water consumption 100-fold. Inother areas of the world, DriWater is used in reforestation and roadside plantings. Here in the United States, it’s mainly used for establishing native plants, watering street trees and maintaining houseplants while people travel.
There’s another difference between the United States and other water-starved countries. In other places in the world where water is scarce, there’s virtually no grass. In 1997, while driving in Egypt, I saw multiple families clustered on the grassy median strip between two highways, sitting under the trees and picnicking. My guide told me the only vegetation in the area was that maintained by the government, and this median strip was the only place grass was available. Grass is water-thirsty. In the United States, more than one-third of the total residential water consumption—more than 9 billion gallons per day—is used on lawn and garden irrigation. As much as 50 percent of that water is lost to run off, wind or evaporation due to inefficient irrigation methods.

Learning from other countries

Australia suffered a long drought, known as the “Millenium Drought,” which began in 1995 and continued through 2009, that changed forever the way Australians think about water. During the drought, the government forbade irrigation, exterior cleaning and car washing. The grass dried up, flowers died and the landscape changed forever. But through this, a new, more sustainable and natural landscape evolved. Australians began using low water, drought-tolerant and native plants that were adapted to the environment. As the drought lessened, Australians maintained these new gardens instead of reverting to ornamental and non-native plants. Water use remained low and, as a result, Australia will be better able to weather future droughts.
Another priority of the Australian government became to plant trees and save mature trees. Native trees have many benefits to the environment (in addition to their low water consumption), including reducing energy consumption by providing shade, improving air and water quality, and providing a natural habitat for wildlife. Mature trees can also increase the value of residential real estate by as much as 20 percent.
California hasn’t experienced a drought like Australia’s…yet. But it’s a state—and we’re a country—that wastes water. In other countries, water doesn’t flow unregulated from pipes, pumps and emitters or faucets, showers and toilets. It’s rationed and definitely not free. Before people use water, they think about whether enough will be available to drink if they use it to shower. It’s difficult to change the way people think about water when water has the appearance of abundance and is virtually free of cost.
Changing the way people in the United States use water will take a sea change in way people think about it. If we’re aggressive about developing and using conservation technology in homes, businesses and agricultural uses, our daily lives may not be subject to radical change. But we need to change the way we think.
Engaging in a simple mental exercise can help people realign their thoughts about water and, therefore, their water use: Just pretend water isn’t free. Assign it a cost in your mind. Choose a price that’s meaningful to your wallet. When you brush your teeth, be mindful. Turning off the tap while you brush can save 10 gallons of water per day. At $5 per gallon, that’s a $50 choice.
Water is our most precious natural resource. I’ve traveled the world and seen the devastating effects of water scarcity. Abundant water is a driver of economic and food security. It’s one of the reasons for America’s excellence. We need to be mindful of our good fortune and conserve our water resources. Without water, quality of life changes in an instant.
Joe Paternoster is the managing member at DriWater in Santa Rosa. DriWater is a low-cost and efficient source of water to establish native plants and trees. For example, coastal and live oaks can be established using a single quart of DriWater, without any additional water source, if planted at the correct time.


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