Into the blue again: Leadership at all stages of the urban water cycle, including your home

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down

Letting the days go by, water flowing underground

Into the blue again, into silent water

Under the rocks and stones, there is water underground

You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?

Same as it ever was, same as it ever was

                                                   -Talking Heads 

In the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime,” David Byrne sings (loosely) about the water cycle and living unconsciously, without awareness, “operating half-awake or on autopilot” and not having stopped to ask, “how did I get here?”

I learned in grade school that, in the water cycle, water evaporates from the ocean, condenses into clouds, falls as rain, runs into rivers, and flows back into the sea. However, we humans have intervened and significantly modified this natural cycle.

In many of our cities, under standard operating procedures, we tend to:

1. pull the water from rivers, lakes or groundwater; treat it; use it; treat it again; and put it back in the river and

2. direct rainwater and stormwater into drainages and rivers to get them out of town as fast as the in-laws.

One Water takes a holistic view of the urban watershed and water cycle, ensuring that water—including non-traditional sources of water such as rainwater, stormwater, and wastewater—are used as efficiently as possible to promote sustainable water supplies for people and the environment.

Sounds simple, right?

As stated in the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation’s report, Advancing One Water in Texas, communities are challenged to overcome bureaucratic city silos for drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater thus embrace One Water for sustainable management of water and environmental resource. While some forward-thinking communities have accepted the One Water path, numerous others have yet to consider the concept or are resistant to its common sense approach.

If you personally “get” One Water but your community leadership isn’t there yet, there are actions you can take at home to set an example (thus walk the talk).

First, you can make sure that you are using water efficiently in your home. This involves installing the latest in Water Sense-rated fixtures and Energy Star-rated appliances. Using these fixtures and appliances (and committing to more efficient showers) can reduce your indoor usage by 50 percent or more.

Outside of your house, you can save a lot of water by xeriscaping your yard. Even better, by collecting rainwater, you can minimize if not eliminate the use of municipal-supplied water for your yard. And using wicking gardens allows you to have a low-maintenance (and back-friendly) vegetable garden while mitigating water use. You should even consider collecting or better distributing air-conditioning condensate for outdoor use.

You can also actively manage stormwater on your property through pervious cover (such as permeable pavement and “green" driveways) and rain gardens (contouring your yard to capture runoff and infiltrate it into the ground). 

You can also use graywater—water from showers, sinks, and laundry—at your home, but it’s more difficult to deal with for a variety of reasons. Your house may have to be replumbed to tap into graywater, local regulations may not allow it, and you may have to be concerned about salt loading (and possibly pathogens) if you use it outside. In my opinion, it’s not such a bad thing to let this water go down the drain because the drain goes to the wastewater treatment plant and, from there, hopefully, this water returns to the river (good for environmental flows and downstream users) or may even be reused, completing an urban water cycle loop.

My wife and I have employed many of these techniques—efficient fixtures, rainwater harvesting, wicking gardens, air-conditioning condensate harvesting, green driveway, and xeriscaping—and subsequently reduced our average use to 30 gallons per person per day. The average Texan uses about 100 gallons per person per day, with about 70 gallons of that for inside use and about 30 gallons for outside use. Reducing our water footprint by more than 67 percent shows the power of One Water at a residential scale. As a consequence, we’ve saved thousands of dollars in water bills compared to the typical Texan. 

The Mitchell Foundation’s report notes that it will take clear leadership to shift the paradigm toward One Water. This is a reminder that leadership occurs at all stages of the urban water cycle, including your home. Let’s do our best to be more aware—to stop letting the days go by and practicing a “same as it ever was” approach to our water usage and waste. Start using a One Water approach at home, and let's set an example for sustaining water for Texas.

Robert Mace is chief water policy officer at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. He is a former senior scientist and deputy executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB). Prior to TWDB, he worked for the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin as a hydrologist and research scientist. He holds a bachelor's degree in geophysics and a master's in hydrology from New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and a Ph.D. in hydrogeology from the University of Texas at Austin. He can be contacted via Twitter @MaceatMeadows.


Editor's note: The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Advancing the state of Water, Texas with a One Water approach" are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. The foundation works as an engine of change in both policy and practice, supporting high-impact projects at the nexus of environmental protection, social equity, and economic vibrancy. Follow the Mitchell Foundation on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for regular updates from the foundation.  

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