Tuesday, June 10, 2014


"Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over."
- This quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, but until the attribution can be verified, the quote should not be regarded as authentic.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about water.  This historically has been common for me this time of year, because snowmelt season also means paddling season, but when I realized some years ago that I lived in the desert and paddling is – at best – challenging, water took on a bit less meaning.  But this year has been different, partly because I read the excellent “River Republic” by Dan McCool (who has the best last name ever) that’s essentially a much-more-readable update to the legendary tome “Cadillac Desert”, partly because I was stunned to hear Jerry Brown declare a state of emergency drought in California in January,  the arrival of the annual sprinkler systems watering Kentucky Bluegrass in Salt Lake in April (historically one of the wettest months), and a trip to western Washington, where water is literally bubbling out of the ground everywhere. 

Just one of the zillions of random WA creeks that has as much water as one of Salt Lake's main water supplies 
The Wasatch had a pretty lean snow year to start, but a snowy March/April brought the snowpack up to effectively “average”, though I realized this year that our water managers care naught for anything below about the base level for the ski resorts; we had almost no backcountry skiing below 8000 feet this year.  Now Big and Little Cottonwood creeks are gushing happily from their high elevation snowmelt, the water managers are happy, and our slice of the desert Southwest's perpetual water woes (essentially in place because the Colorado River Compact was created after a several-year cycle of big water years and before major population shifts to the SoCal and the Southwest) has been staved off for another year.  But whither this water?  I know that if by some remote chance SLC mayor Ralph Becker or his water chief Jeff Neimeyer reads this they’ll be deeply offended, but our “watersheds” are pretty weird:  you can’t have dogs in the canyons that hold the water and you can’t swim in the alpine lakes, but apparently you can have a freeway (Parley’s canyon), 3000 inhabitants (Big Cottonwood Canyon), multiple ski resorts and major, well-traveled highways that are salted many times a year that all drain that salt, antifreeze, transmission fluid, oil:
Apr 30, 2014 - A truck crash in Parley's Canyon has led to a large oil spill and snarled traffic Wednesday.”

 Or turkeys:
Turkey truck crash into Utah reservoir sparks fears of contamination
directly into our “protected” drinking water sources 

However, despite our best efforts to the contrary, the water stays remarkably good thanks to Ma Nature.  And once in SLC it is treated and comes out – as Mr. Neiermeyer loves to point out – as some of the purest water in the country.  Now, I’m no water expert, but I do know that in Washington and Oregon the municipal watersheds are….absolutely, positively, off-limits.  Portland’s Bull Run river watershed is entirely and literally fenced off, and trespassing is a major deal.  A far cry from ski resorts, highways, communities with septic systems, and freeways (but NO DOGS! And NO SWIMMING!).  But, I guess if you put enough chlorine (aka, according to The Wiki: “a toxic gas that irritates the respiratory system”)  it becomes potable. 

The ironic thing is that – after paying for this purification with our tax dollars - we then put 60-70% of it on our lawns (and a recent study pointed out that something like 90% of US households don’t even “use” their lawns much/at all), poo and whizz in much of what’s left, and then…..we don’t even drink it! 

Acording to this site: http://www.bottledwater.org/files/2011BWstats.pdf  they proudly state that the average American drinks almost 30 gallons of bottled water per year.  I must say, hats off to the likes of Dasani (aka Coke), AquaFina (aka Pepsi), Arrowhead (aka Nestle), and others whose marketeers realized that people will exchange their hard-earned money for….water that they can get out of their own tap!  And it’s not cheap:  the other day at the grocery store I saw bottled water that varied between $0.02/oz to $0.06/oz,  which doesn’t sound like much until you realize that at 128 ounces to the gallon that we are paying between $2.50 and $7.50 per gallon for water.  Compared to gasoline that has been extracted from the earth, transported as crude halfway around the world on a boat, refined into high-octane gas, and then trucked to gas stations for practically the same price or even much less….bottled water is not a sweet deal.  It’s even more expensive than cheap beer! Good marketing indeed.  But at least Dasani and others are simply tap water that is also trucked across the country and packaged in plastic containers that are far more expensive than their contents (but they love to greenwash themselves in envirospeak by touting how much recycled content they use!  C’mon, are we that gullible?!?!  I guess the answer is…yes, we are that gullible…..)

Then ironically, the outdoor business has done a great job of telling people that water that comes out of the ground out in the backcountry is….bad.  I don’t know the industry sales numbers for water purifiers, but it’s huge, and virtually everyone I know has been convinced that naturally-occurring water is full of squirmy, gut-busting amoebas and protozoas that are certain to make your bowels explode at very inopportune times.  If you come to a stream and are thirsty and out of water, you might was well continue your parch march because it’s absolutely certain that there is a Great Poo Party going on right upstream, just out of sight with all of these guys just squatting over your water source and havin’ one:

So we don’t drink backcountry spring or snowmelt water but we are willing to drink chlorine and flouride treated water?  To be sure, Ash reminds me that I have never had giardia so I don’t know what it’s like, but I know it’s not pleasant. 
Ash going up high in the "drainage" of a spring to avoid the Poo Party
However, Tinadazole is a very effective one-shot drug that was approved in the US in 2004 that effectively replaces Flagyl, which was a weeklong course and ravaged anyone who drank alcohol during the course.  But regardless of treatment, according to the CDC, giardia is not quite as well-understood as the likes of Katadyn and the other purifiers would like us to think it is, and there is a far-higher likelihood of getting giardia from food handlers and from public pools than backcountry water sources. 
At the aptly-named Dog Lake.....I was actually just kidding here; I do draw the line.....
As noted earlier and is well known by now, despite late-season snowfalls California is hurting badly for water.  One look at Dreamflows site http://dreamflows.com/flows.php?page=real&zone=canv&form=norm&mark=All that CA paddlers use is pretty shocking considering it’s typically peak snowmelt time.  Our friends Chris and Rebecca in Ventura took Governor Brown’s declaration seriously and looked at all the ways that they could do their part to save water; one example is to catch the water that runs cold before the shower turns hot, and this gets about a gallon or more of water that they then use in their toilet (I had no idea that a toilet will flush if you just pour enough water in the bowl; some sort of toilet siphoning magic….).
Chris capturing

and then using! 

Ironically, Californians already has had historically-decent water conservation, and equally ironically, Utah and Nevada – the two driest states in the nation – have the highest per-capita water useage (the average Utahn uses 295 gallons/day).  But some civic leaders are recognizing that these habits may not be sustainable:  Las Vegas wanted southern Utah water in a big way but UT Governor Herbert shut that down, much to the fury of Nevadans.  But that’s as far as Herbert will go; there will only be a call to conserve when things get acute and he and other politicians will continue to promote water-intensive fracking, coal mining, and even nuclear power (Green River) and development (St George will likely get a taxpayer-financed pipeline from Lake Powell for $1 billion – that is $500 for every citizen in the state!  I’m not that psyched to subsidize their golf course manicures).  In the meantime, our gutters will run with valuable (up to $7/gallon!) water overflowing supersaturated lawns.  And states like Utah subsidize use with tax dollars so consumers don't get the "real" cost in their bills, so there is less incentive to conserve.  And business meetings – like the one I was at yesterday at a place with “Environmental” as part of their name – will continue to serve bottled water at their meetings. 

The purpose of my rant?  Of course, first and foremost it’s simply to rant – and perhaps rave, though not much of that was happening here – but the other is to remind us all that pretty much aside from the rainy side of OR and WA the rest of us here in the West live in deserts or near-deserts, yet we are ferocious water users and that simple actions like not flushing for whizz, taking short showers, not thoroughly washing dishes under a running tap before then washing them in the dishwasher, and being strategic about watering our yards (and/or letting go of the green grass concept) can go a long ways towards keeping our communities viable.  It’s simply embarrassing to be irresponsible water users.  And - this one is simple - don’t drink bottled water.   Despite what I said above, our water – and realistically, ALL municipal water supplies – are good to go, or they would not be “municipal water supplies.”

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