Sunday, March 27, 2011

America's water footprint

We hear a lot about carbon footprints these days, but do you know much about your water footprint?

Our water footprint includes all the water we use for everyday activities, such as washing, and what is used to produce our products, energy, and food.

It is perhaps no surprise that Americans have the biggest water footprint of any other nation. Yemen comes in at the smallest.

This short article from Yes! Magazine reveals the average American's water footprint in comparison with the rest of the world. The numbers are quite troubling.

For example, the average American uses 11.6 gallons a day for showering only. That is the same amount of water the average Bangladeshi uses per day for everything.

 And in the 18.5 gallons we each use to flush our toilets, the average Chinese person has flushed, washed, and everything else in that same day. This makes the adage “if it’s yellow, let it mellow” seem more and more like a good idea.

Also, for the record, the United Nations states that every person needs between five and 13 gallons of water per day to meet our basic needs. This makes Americans’ daily 69.3 gallons seem embarrassingly gluttonous.

I write about this not to make everyone feel guilty. Rather, I think it is important to have this knowledge to put our resource use into perspective and to consider how we can shrink our water footprint in meaningful ways.

Thankfully, Yes! Magazine also provided a few good ideas for how to live within our means and make our water last. A couple examples that seem easy for everyone to do include fixing leaky faucets and supporting organic farming, which can even improve our water supply by boosting the soil's ability to hold water.

Perhaps World Water Day, just like Earth Day, should be every day?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Happy World Water Day?

Water is playing several starring roles in the news these days. However, none of these roles are happy ones. It is playing the bad guy in Japan's devastating tsunami; the victim in the GOP-backed proposed cuts to federal funding for clean water; and the perpetual underdog in the numerous ongoing water-related environmental issues, from looming water shortages around the globe to the creeping threat of fracking.

Despite this sad cast of characters, water is something to celebrate today, March 22: World Water Day.

This global event hatched at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. Around the world, communities host activities focused on the importance of fresh water and the sustainable management thereof. To find out what activities are being held in your neck of the woods, check out WWD's event page.

This year's theme is "Water for cities: Responding to the urban challenge," and is a call to nations to think strategically about meeting the water needs of the world's rapidly growing urban population (apparently one in two people are city dwellers these days). To celebrate this theme and in an attempt to uncover some more hopeful water stories, I scoured the Internet for as long as my patience lasted, asked a few enviro-minded friends for ideas, and then patched together this meager list of promising urban water conservation ideas and initiatives.

Saving gray water for a not-so-rainy day
Gray water reuse, or the use of wastewater from showers, baths, sinks and laundries, is getting some attention as a potential conservation strategy in urban areas. To clear any initial confusion, this method is not promoting the reuse of yucky water for drinking or bathing; rather, gray water is used to quell your garden or lawn's thirst (i.e. irrigation) or for flushing toilets. Of course, attempting this method involves safety measures to prevent contamination (the meaning of "safe" varies by state). While building codes and laws still prohibit individuals and businesses from collecting and reusing graywater in many places, grassroots groups and some states, especially the arid ones, have made progress in enabling the practice. Though, it is still unclear to me whether or not watering your lawn with bathwater is a good thing, considering some of the questionable ingredients in many soaps and shampoos. The following video tells the story of a guy in Sonoma County, CA who designed a pretty complex, but legal, gray water system.

Paving city streets with green
The city of Portland, Oregon implemented a stormwater management policy called Portland Green Streets, which it incorporated into the city's overall plan in 2007. The rainy city seeks to not only to better manage its stormwater runoff, but to also enhance livability and create habitat corridors, among other objectives. A "Green Street" is decorated with vegetative patches or strips, which suck up stormwater and/or prevent the water from flowing through the streets, picking up pollutants, and then dumping them into the watershed.

Wetland restoration is for people too
A 30,000 acre swatch of degraded wetlands abutting New Orlean's Lower Ninth Ward is getting some TLC from a collection of stakeholders that are trying to return it to its glory as a working swamp and storm buffer. Bayou Bienvenue had lost its cypress trees and swampiness to saltwater intrusion as a result of years of flood management engineering--mainly the surrounding canals that connect the Mississippi river to the Gulf of Mexico. Too much saltwater kills many picky wetland plant species, which require the right balance of fresh and saltwater. Several teams are trying different tactics to bring the wetland back to life. One team is piping in semi-treated wastewater and biosolids to revive the ecosystem (piping in sewage might sound icky, but the hope is the nutrient-rich freshwater will be inviting to wetland species, who will in turn clean the effluence from the water). Another team launched floating islands, on which they are trying to grow wetland grasses. If successful, these restoration efforts could not only resurrect an ecosystem, it could also provide natural storm protection to the people in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Lower Ninth Ward with Bayou Bienvenue in 2008. Photo: UW NOLA Group

Making the Mediterranean waters bluer
Horizon2020 is an initiative to de-pollute the Mediterranean by the year 2020. It targets urban sources of pollution, such as municipal waste, waste water, and industrial pollution, which account for 80% of the sea's pollution. (I realize the Mediterranean is not freshwater, but I nonetheless found this initiative noteworthy).

Swearing off the (water) bottle
A gaggle of colleges and universities around the U.S. have banned plastic water bottles--a rebellion led by Washington University in St. Louis, which instituted its ban in 2009. While this isn't a water conservation measure, per say, it's all part of the bigger picture nonetheless. Perhaps Congress, which reportedly spends at least $860,000 on bottled water annually, should consider following suit, especially in light of our budget woes?

City farming with wastewater
Urban agriculture is getting a boost in Ghana with support from the International Water Management Institute. An increasingly common urban ag practice in developing countries is the reuse of wastewater for crop irrigation. While a boon for water conservation, if done improperly, this practice can be a bust to human health. So, IWMI is working with urban farmers in Accra, Ghana to implement safe wastewater practices, explained in this video by WorldWatch Institute.

Photo: IWMI

For further reading...

I also found these two informative articles related to urban water conservation: Putting water conservation in the bottom line (re: sustainable business), and Building the way to water efficiency (re: green building). 

...and for kicks
Bananas might become the new trick for removing heavy metals from contaminated water in industrial settings.

So, will water have a happy ending? Save natural disasters and now-irreversible changes to the climate, we are largely in control of that storyline.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sisters act for the earth

Four nuns, a budding journalist, and a confused bird recently met for lunch. Unfortunately for the bird, a glass window stood between it and the lunch table, and no matter how much it pecked at the window, the glass would not break and allow it through to join the meal.

This bird is a member of a menagerie of creatures that live on or frequent Holy Wisdom Monastery, located just outside of Madison, Wisconsin. Fox, deer, pheasants, wild turkey, and even a once-seen wolf wander the monastery's 138 acres. The monastery grounds provide these creatures an oasis of restored prairie and woodlands within a landscape otherwise dominated by farmland and suburban development.

I recently journeyed to the monastery for research for an article for my long form journalism course. I left my visit surprisingly inspired and rejuvenated. And I don't even consider myself religious.

Holy Wisdom is also home to three Sisters, who have established an ecumenical spiritual community called the Benedictine Women of Madison. At the core of the Sisters' mission lies care for the earth.

When the founding Sisters arrived in 1953 to establish Holy Wisdom, the tired pasture land on which the monastery was built had but two trees. Now, it is home to a beautifully restored prairie, a restored glacial lake, and America's "greenest" building.

Sister Lynne Smith explained that their commitment to caring for the land partly comes from their recognition of their integral role in protecting the local ecosystem. Located just across the highway from Lake Mendota, their land is a sensitive area for the Yahara Lakes watershed. Whatever they do to their land affects the lake's water quality. The restored prairie helps to minimize their impact by controlling erosion and runoff.

First and foremost, however, the Sisters' commitment stems from their spiritual tradition. "It's been the practice of Benedictine monasteries to care for the place where they are," she said. According to the rule of Benedictine, written in the sixth century, monasteries must establish roots in their community, which entails caring for their place.

"I’ve come to think about this place as a part of our community. I go on a walk and I meet God there. It feels like a part of us," said Sister Lynne.

The Benedictine Women of Madison are part of a larger and growing movement within faith communities around the United States to become engaged in the care of "creation." This grassroots movement connects faith with a moral responsibility to care for the earth, or “creation.”

This forging of religious beliefs and environmental protection has strong potential for activating positive change. Research has shown that belief systems inform our understanding of how we fit into the world, and strongly held existing beliefs, such as religious beliefs, are powerful determinants of our behavior.

The strength of beliefs can work either in favor of or against the environment.

According to Sharon Dunwoody, professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, our belief systems can be the strongest roadblocks to change. "Once our beliefs are set, we are pretty resistant to change," she said.

This concept sits at the heart of why environmentalism has become such a polarized movement over the past few decades. The folding of the environmental movement into "left-wing" politics has caused political conservatives to dismiss environmental issues and reject regulation. Even controversial issues backed by credible science and scientists, such as climate change, can thus fall victim to skepticism by conservatives.

"Culturally, environmentalism is not seen as a pure arena like science is, but as one contaminated by politics and ideology. That invites people to align their views ideologically," said Dunwoody.

On the other hand, aligning the environment with existing beliefs, such as religion, can also motivate its protection. For example, a 2008 Sierra Club report claimed 67% of Americans care about the environment because it’s God’s creation.

Another report, conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change and George Mason University, revealed that 48 percent of Americans believe protecting God’s creation is an important reason for taking action to reduce climate change—the fifth highest ranked reason among 16 choices. The report also claimed that, among respondents, protecting God’s creation is the second most important reason to combat climate change, behind providing a better life for future generations.

The Benedictine Sisters' motivation to care for the earth is directly tied to the tenets of their faith. "We see everything as sacred...we are taught to see Christ in everyone," said Sister Lynne.

An environmental ethic can be accessible to even those who do not already possess strong environmental beliefs. According to Dunwoody, direct experiences with nature can be formative, especially if one's existing value system lends itself accordingly. "Encountering an opportunity to learn about environmental principles [can] be an effective tool to making an [environmental] ethic relevant," she said.

The Benedictine Sisters provide ample opportunity for people to experience nature at the monastery and, thus, nurture their environmental ethic. Throughout the year, they host volunteers to help them maintain and continue the restoration of their prairie. Their land also includes trails for people to explore and connect with nature.

"Whether religious or not, when [visitors] walk out into the prairies, there is an opportunity for them to get reconnected with a deep part of themselves and something larger than them," said Sister Lynne.

Other than restoring their local landscape, the sisters have taken on a number of habits that contribute to their efforts to care for the earth. They maintain a large vegetable garden that feeds them and their guests. They also carpool and recycle.

Furthermore, in March of 2010, their newly built monastery was awarded a LEED Platinum rating by the United States Green Building Council, receiving 63 points out of a possible 69--the highest scoring building to date. Features such as high performance windows; solar panels; FSC certified wood; and low VOC paints, carpets and other materials helped them achieve their high marks. They even reused or recycled 99.75 percent of their old building. 

"We would ultimately like to buy more solar panels for the building, so the building can generate all the electricity it uses," said Sister Lynne. Their solar panel system currently generates 13 percent of the building's electricity.

Even so, the Sisters' environmental footprint is observably light. For example, as I walked about the monastery on my visit, I noticed most of the lights were turned off and each room relied on the generous amount of daylight shining through the windows.

And at lunch the Sisters told me stories that exemplified the respect and care they have for their place and the creatures they share it with. For example, they regaled stories of one bird that was fortunate to share a meal with them--a male wild turkey that used to hang around the monastery. The Sisters occasionally fed him, and they joked about how he never brought his lady turkey friends with him to share the treats.

This active relationship with nature is clearly integral to the Sisters' way of life. "When people are involved with nature, you get up close to it, touch it, smell it, see it and come to appreciate it. Then you want to save it,” said Sister Lynne.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Update: Tim DeChristopher found guilty, but double standard exposed

Shockingly and unfortunately, Tim DeChristopher, the environmental activist who saved more than 100,000 acres of public land from oil and gas drilling by "disrupting" an auction later deemed unlawful, was convicted of two felony accounts last week. He could now face up to 10 years in jail.

Journalist and author Naomi Klein poignantly revealed the double standard of this terribly disheartening outcome in her recent appearance on Democracy Now! As she explained, Tim's crime was, explicitly, participating in an auction without intent to pay. However, oil and gas companies privatize their profits with no intent to pay for their externalized costs: pollution and climate change.

Watch Noami's explanation here.

I hope more people can recognize this unjust double standard and be motivated to take action against it.

And by "taking action," I don't just mean scorning the oil and gas companies for their refusal to accept and address the harmful externalities of their business. First, I think we need to also examine and change (if needed) our own habits, which fuel their business. Second, we need to demand better of the system that is holding us back from progressing beyond the need for oil and gas.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Five ways to be actively engaged

I must admit that I've been battling with a sense of hopelessness these past few weeks, living in the epicenter of the "Crisis in Dairy Land," as John Stewart calls it. At both the state and national levels, environmental protection measures are threatened with funding cuts left and right. Wisconsin, for example, may experience a loss of state-mandated community recycling (to include the elimination of grants aiding recycling programs) and the repeal of mandatory disinfection of pathogen-contaminated drinking water.

Yet, I have to continually remind myself this is not the time to become paralyzed by hopelessness, but rather a time for concerned citizens, such as myself, to demonstrate how much they care about their environment, their personal and societal wellbeings, and their futures. So, in the spirit of Tim DeChristopher (see my previous post), I hunted around for a few ways to participate in peaceful citizen action for the environment. Unlike Tim's strategy, these aren't necessarily "disobedient," but they at least provide an avenue for one's voice to be heard.

Here are five ways to proactively work towards pro-environmental change.
(Note: A couple are biased toward Wisconsin, but hopefully they will motivate out-of-staters to investigate similar opportunities in their locales).

1. Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters' Conservation Lobby Day. This event, to take place March 16, is an opportunity for ordinary citizens to speak with their Legislators about the importance of conservation policies. Most states have their own League of Conservation Voters, so if you don't live in Dairy Land, check out opportunities with your state's League.

2. Wisconsin Bike Summit. The Governor's proposed budget cuts $5 million in state funding for bicycle infrastructure. In light of this, one way to voice your support for the protection of the state's bicycle industry is to participate in this April 19th event hosted by The Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin. The event will also feature education and networking opportunities. Wisconsin's bike industry is a significant economic strength for the state, contributing $1.5 billion annually and supporting 13,200 jobs, as a study released last year showed. If the Governor is setting out to create more jobs and decrease the deficit, $5 million seems but pocket change to maintain such an important source of state revenue.

3. Vote with your fork. Michael Pollan proposed this action back in his 2006 NY Times column, and indeed this remains a powerful tool for citizens to demand more "sustainable" food choices. His basic platform was for readers to stop participating in a food system that continues to damage our health and the environment. Just stop buying fast food. Say "no" to non-organic or foods imported from faraway places whenever possible. Stop supporting a system that perpetuates the status quo. Instead, choose to support and strengthen a system that provides food that is nourishing for you and for the environment. While this action is not new to seasoned environmentalists, the status quo still has a strong hold on our food system. So it's clear that still more people need to be motivated to participate in this form of citizen action. Don't know where to begin? Local Harvest has an interactive website to help you find sustainably grown food near you.

4. Stay informed and connected--Facebook can help. An interesting thing I have noticed throughout the Wisconsin uprising is the apparent influence of social networking. Over the past three weeks, the Facebook status updates from my Wisconsin friends have largely been links to news articles about the scary impacts of the budget and invitations to protest rallies. Not only has this helped me keep track of the almost unwieldy flurry of information, it has also helped fuel my motivation to remain engaged and active in the struggle. And based on conversations with my friends, I am not the only one to experience this. A growing number of studies and articles are uncovering the impact of social networking on civic engagement--a notable example being President Obama's campaign. And, at full disclosure, I wrote an article for Discovery News about this last year.

5. Vote. Tried, trite, but true. Complacency and ignorance are the enemies of positive change. Pay attention to what is going on with environmental and social affairs. Recognize where citizens voices need to be heard. And let your voice be heard. It does matter.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A new kind of environmental hero

Environmentalists recently added a new hero to their list: Tim DeChristopher. But, according to the Feds, Tim may be a criminal.

Tim DeChristopher
Tim's transgression was not a Monkey Wrench Gang-style act of eco-terrorism or any other act of violence in the name of the environment. Nobody got hurt or wronged. But somebody did get duped--the Bureau of Land Management.

Two years ago, when the Bush administration was coming to a close, the BLM tried to rush large pieces of land off to auction for oil and gas drilling leases. In an effort to prevent drilling development, Tim--then a University of Utah graduate student--attended the auction. On a whim, he joined as Bidder 70 and successfully bid on 22,500 acres of land in southern Utah (clearly with no intention to drill), saving it from its dreadful fate. The only problem: he didn't have the money. His act of peaceful civil disobedience came with a price tag he didn't plan for--$1.7 million and possible jail time.

You can read one of Tim's personal statements about his actions here.

Apparently his act of peace was in violation of the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and is considered a felony, because he interfered with and made false representations at a government auction. His trial started February 28. You can follow his trial and learn much more about his story on

Ironically, the Obama administration later deemed the BLM auction illegal, because it violated the Secretarial Order 3226, a law mandating that the Department of Interior, which includes the BLM, must take into account potential climate change impacts on all major decisions involving resource extraction (i.e. more oil and gas = more greenhouse gases = more climate change). Unfortunately this did not absolve Tim from his "crime."

Tim sets an empowering example to citizen activists, to say the least. It is terribly twisted that he be reprimanded for a peaceful act he committed for the betterment of the world, but it is hopeful to know there are people, like him, bold enough to take such action. I hope his jury listens to their voices of reason and recognizes the bigger picture of what he set out to do.

Read more here and here.