Water issues: Sometimes solution really is ‘gray’

I love a good challenge. The bigger the problem, the more fun it can be to solve. The most elegant solutions are simple, effective and often right before our eyes. Such is the case with water.

For decades, we’ve focused on engineering “more is better” solutions that “improve” nature and bend it to our will. There are still plenty of folks around who subscribe to that antiquated approach. Big bucks, powerful pumps, long pipelines and massive amounts of energy can solve anything, right? Well, not exactly.

First we should ask ourselves just exactly what it is we’re trying to accomplish. Growth for growth’s sake is certainly not what most citizens want. Nor is overcrowding, higher prices or a community made even more precarious by relying on additional but ultimately finite sources of water. To do so only puts us in greater jeopardy down the line.

Ultimately, people and businesses alike will thrive only if true sustainable development becomes our mantra. This is not the same as growth. Think of it as the maturing of our local community through investment in our quality of life over the long term. Long term is not defined by a 20-year plan but rather a vision that will carry us indefinitely into the future by living within our means.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting with a true water visionary. Brad Lancaster is not with the water authority, although in my humble opinion he should be in charge of it. He is the author of a series of excellent books entitled “Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond.” They are chock full of practical, low-cost and common sense ideas on getting the most out of our precious water resources.

As we enjoyed lunch, Lancaster described how he became interested in the topic of water use, beginning with the changes he made to his own home and property. I’m a firm believer in walking your talk and Lancaster does it with humor and clarity, using his personal experiences to underscore his ideas. His books are written in a very casual and accessible style. The text is accompanied by photos and sketches on almost every page that effectively illustrate his ideas.

I can honestly say that “Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond” (volumes I, II and beyond) are a must-read, not just for those of us interested in sustainability and water efficiency, but for everyone in Nevada (and especially our legislators). After all, we live in the driest state in the U.S. and water is one of our most necessary and precious resources.

If you appreciate impeccable logic and practical solutions, you will like these books. They are literally “how-to” manuals for wise water use. As with most of our energy issues, the biggest problem we have with water is efficiency.

Lancaster’s first approach is to use what nature provides to the fullest extent possible. This is something that sounds obvious, but once you read his ideas you’ll soon realize that our system of handling rainwater is about as wasteful as it gets. Rather than creating expensive infrastructure to gather and concentrate storm water into channels that efficiently carry it away, Lancaster offers brilliant solutions that reduce runoff and create local habitats where plants can thrive, even in areas with little rainfall.

That approach is supplemented with wise water reuse in the form of gray water, a valuable resource we all pay for but currently discard. In Lancaster’s home town of Tucson (as in many other cities and states), gray water use is strong encouraged. Conversely, our water authorities have done everything in their power to prevent our use of gray water in residential applications. This is one way to assure they can keep selling the same water again and again, using tremendous amounts of additional energy to do so. In the middle of the arid Mojave Desert it just doesn’t seem right, does it?

I’m firmly convinced that if we implement the ideas articulated in “Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond” we can solve our water woes and create a more resilient community that’s well-positioned for the long-term. It’s a less expensive approach that favors the individual homeowner over the corporate growth machine. Perhaps that’s really the root of the problem.

Steve Rypka is a green living consultant and president of GreenDream Enterprises, a company committed to helping people live lighter on the planet. Steve can be reached via e-mail at steve@greendream.biz. More information relating to this column is posted at www.greendream.biz.

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