Positively Green | May 23, 2014 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - May 23, 2014

Positively Green

Water is the new 'oil'

by Iris Harrell

I saw a cartoon in a recent "Funny Times" that showed a huge pile of trash with a person sprawled on top of it, clearly inebriated, and on his back passed out. The caption read "Mankind trashes Earth ... loses security deposit." I started to wonder who the new tenants of Earth might be after we humans get evicted.

This was a not-so-funny and sobering thought. Earth's stewardship and care has been the responsibility of humankind and we obviously need to "step up our game plan" and behave as if it were more of a life-and-death matter.

When I left the country in mid-January to go to my first-ever safari in Africa, I was extremely concerned with how dry our local surrounding landscape and environment looked. I wondered what the implications might be if Silicon Valley became a desert. January landscape looking like July or August landscape is not a good sign. I am starting to become more concerned about the rapid signs of global warming that are reappearing more often, as if to emphasize the increased need of doing something to reverse these problems.

While in Kenya, Africa, I saw firsthand so many women carrying drinking water in large containers on their backs back to their villages, and I realized more graphically how much our lives are affected when we don't have quick, easy and reliable access to clean drinking and cooking water. We were advised to drink only imported bottled water for the entire length of our trip, so as not to get any waterborne sickness. We complied with religious fervor. Most of the bottles we drank from were plastic. A quandary arose. How do you re-use a plastic bottle when the only water you can drink is from another plastic bottle?

There is a correlation between our trash and the quantity and quality of available drinking water. Our plastic, non-biodegradable bags and bottles that we as consumers use are found in great quantities in our oceans, rivers and streams. One American shopper typically uses 500 bags a year. The new local ban on plastic bags is a good first step to curbing the multiple problems caused by a simple plastic bag.

Plastic bags photo-degrade instead of biodegrade, breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic bits that contaminate our soil and waterways and enter the food web-chain when animals ingest them. It takes between 400 to 1,000 years for a plastic bag to break down. More than 100,000 marine animal deaths are caused yearly because of plastic bags thrown carelessly into the waterways. These bags are mistaken for food. Ninety percent of the debris in our ocean is plastic. Plastic releases toxins in our soil, oceans, lakes and rivers. These toxins affect our drinking water sources and all the natural life living in our waters. (We eat some of that "natural life.")

Producing plastic bags takes millions of gallons of petroleum (oil). So banning production of plastic bags could significantly reduce our carbon emissions, which, of course, is one of the biggest factors causing global warming. This destructive circle of bad behavior is spiraling into multiple problems for human "tenants."

So how hard is it to carry reusable bags into the grocery store? We don't usually forget to brush our teeth or bathe. Improved green habits have to become more automatic for us. There are still plenty of stores putting your newly purchased product into a plastic bag. Are you going to feel like a fanatic saying "Please don't give me a plastic bag"? These are the thoughts that go through our minds as we try to change our habits that we know we need to execute faithfully. We don't want to be looked at as crazy, but somebody has to be the role model for good stewardship.

A 2012 Christian Science Monitor article called "Troubled Waters" effectively pointed out that the real issue is that we do not recognize water's true value. The amount of water on our planet today is the same as when amphibians first came ashore. So how can we possibly have a water "crisis"? Only 2.5 percent of Earth's water is fresh water and two-thirds of that is locked away in glaciers and snow. As glaciers and icebergs merge with the salty ocean water, not only do we have less available drinking water options, we have rising sea levels, which is another set of problems related to water and humans.

We are now using more of our fresh water underground aquifers to meet our needs. Many of these aquifers are nonrenewable. The ones that are renewable are being used so rapidly (like too many straws in the same glass of water) that they are being depleted faster than they can be replenished.

What steps can we take as individuals, communities and a nation to fix these problems?

1. We need a national water policy and a state and local water policy that treats water as even more important than oil.

2. We need to be charged more for the water we use. This would give government agencies such as the Santa Clara Valley Water District more money to put into water conservation infrastructure. And we value what we have to pay more for.

3. Individually, we can make water conservation a top priority in our homes and businesses. (A constantly running toilet can waste 200 gallons of water a day.)

Lastly, we can try to avoid getting evicted as Earth's major tenant and most logical steward of Earth's precious gifts.


We don't want to be looked at as crazy, but somebody has to be the role model for good stewardship.

Iris Harrell is board chairman of Harrell Remodeling, Inc. in Mountain View (www.harrell-remodeling.com). She can be reached at 650-230-2900 or irish@harrell-remodeling.com.


Like this comment
Posted by baumgrenze
a resident of Triple El
on May 26, 2014 at 12:13 pm

baumgrenze is a registered user.

While commendable, our efforts will have little impact. With agriculture using 93% of our water the 'pinch' needs to be felt by cotton, rice, and flood grown alfalfa growers to have any impact.

Web Link

It is sad to read about orchard owners in the Central Valley struggling to keep their trees alive. Some, but not all, have adopted water conserving drip irrigation to reduce consumption. Unfortunately as long as water-wasting crops play a major role in California agriculture water will be in short supply in California

Please read the linked article before you comment.

Like this comment
Posted by Real Drip
a resident of Professorville
on May 26, 2014 at 4:52 pm

We use drip irrigation for our front yard ( no lawn, just drought-resistant trees and shrubs), and for our vegetable garden.

We have seven people living in our 3bdrm, 2ba house, two of which are children under three years of age who stay home with their grandma.

However, the CPA utilities dept sends us rude letters that say we use far too much water, even though we have informed them of our household and lot sizes. This year they sent us a letter in April advising us that we should not even plant a vegetable garden this year, that nobody should.

All but two of us ( the babies) take all our showers at the gym, and do as little laundry and dish washing as possible-- to the point of using disposable plates and cutlery. We cannot possibly cut our water use any lower, unless we start drinking bottled water and eat all meals out ( neither practical or practicable).

Where doe CPAUD get off telling us to lower our water use? Where do they find comparable households that use less water ( they must make this stuff up)? And why do they keep sending these accusatory letters when we have thrice asked them to stop?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 27, 2014 at 8:02 am

Recycling water is going to have to be part of the water problem in California regardless of the present drought.

Innovative ways for collecting and reusing water must be designed and readily available at reasonable costs.

On top of that, we have to start using scientific methods to treat waste water in such a way that gray water will be safe for almost all usages apart from drinking and food preparation.

At present it is very cumbersome to collect waste water around our home, the water in the shower before the right temp comes, handwashing/foodwashing, laundry and even rainwater collection can be difficult to collect and store. A system that does this with ease of use would make us all consider doing it more.

Like this comment
Posted by birth control baby birth control
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 27, 2014 at 9:03 am

Is it time to start talking about population control? Or do we have to wait for another 1000 years and even less resources?

Doesn't less people mean more water, less carbon emissions etc. etc.

Like this comment
Posted by Real Drip
a resident of Professorville
on May 28, 2014 at 9:37 am

Birth control does have a failure rate--both of my children were conceived while my wife was using oral contraceptives. My nephew was conceived while his mother was using an IUD. I know of quite a few unplanned pregnancies occurring despite birth control.

The only sure-fire method is sterilization.

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Green Acres
on May 28, 2014 at 3:32 pm

"It is sad to read about orchard owners in the Central Valley struggling to keep their trees alive. "

At Maybell, sits a historic orchard of 100 trees that have survived for decades, so established they no longer need water - apricots plus a dozen native hundreds-year-old oaks. It sits across from a park and near to a creek wildlife corridor between the foothills and the bay. City Council was so anxious to see it torn down, they committed a long list of serious transgressions (which we will no doubt see aired during the next election).

How to solve the problem of a few people's short-term interests working against the interests of the many and of the earth? In Paraguay or Uruguay, they have even written the rights of nature into the Constitution. Perhaps it's time we do the same, so that the rights of our future earth and its inhabitants will be represented, too.

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