YIMBY: Yes, In My Back Yard, Part I

Understanding your water descent.

By Emily Votruba

We Michiganders have 90 percent of America’s surface freshwater resources in our backyard. Whether we feel a sense of ecological responsibility, rely on the lake for our livelihood, or just want nice beaches to enjoy with our families, we can all agree it makes sense to celebrate and protect our inland seas.

Like a lot of Americans of my generation, I grew up never worried about the water supply. I let the tap run full blast while I did dishes in the sink or brushed my teeth; I ran around under hoses and sprinklers in the heat of the summer afternoons, and every once in a while, after a day at the beach, I shampooed my hair in Lake Michigan. (It was the ’70s).

In young adulthood, I became more environmentally conscious — I took showers, never baths, and I did yard watering in the early morning or evening, never in the heat of the afternoon. In college, we all agreed not to flush just for pee — we had a little saying, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” (It was the ’90s.)

I switched to nontoxic cleaners, occasionally frustrating my bleach- and Drano-happy roommates. I was fairly confident that I was doing what I could to save water and keep poisons and excess nutrients out of the watershed.

But a few years ago — after I got involved in the movement against hydrofracture natural gas drilling (also known as “fracking,” in which a megagallon water-chemical mixture is used to break underground shales containing natural gas, often leaving contaminated water wells in its wake) — I decided to see what else I could do, or not do, to protect my local watershed.

I call my personal plan “water descent.”

(You’ve maybe heard of energy descent — the transition we’ll all soon be making, whether we like it or not, toward using less and less petroleum and other fossil fuels. I like the term “water descent” because it reminds me of the way water naturally flows, and also because it sounds like “dissent.”)

According to National Geographic, household activities — drinking, cooking, dishwashing, laundry, bathing, even watering the yard — add up to about 100 gallons per day per person, which is just 5 percent of each American’s total water footprint.

That sounds low for all household use, doesn’t it? (Even though, compared to the rest of the world, we seem like water hogs: according to the United Nations, each person requires 13 gallons for daily household activities, but, in some water-poor countries, the average is just 2 gallons per day!)

It turns out that most of our per capita water use is actually taken up by transportation, food, energy, and the clothing and other “stuff” we require. The total? On average we each use 1,981 gallons every day! That’s twice the average of the rest of the world. (To see how you rate, take the water footprint calculator survey.)

I found taking the water-footprint quiz very enlightening.

All this time, I’d thought doing the dishes by hand in the sink (only turning on the tap to rinse) was better than doing them in the dishwasher… but by National Geographic’s estimates, an Energy Star washer does a full load with just 4 gallons, whereas handwashing uses about 20 gallons.

Laundry-wise, front-loading clothes washers use about half the water required by top-loading machines — just 20 gallons per load. I thought I was doing well with the fossil-fuel-free, hand-powered washing machine I proudly ordered from Lehmann’s last summer… but it averages a little more than 25 gallons per load with a 31-pound capacity. (It’s got some fringe benefits, though: if you’re looking for a workout that’s equivalent to 15 minutes on the heavy bag at the boxing gym, this machine is for you.)

We would all have to change our lifestyles drastically to make our share of the planet’s fresh water more equal, since the American lifestyle sort of makes us water gluttons.

But there are several easy things people can do to cut their household water consumption — remember, that 5 percent? — in half, all while saving time and money, growing a beautiful green yard, and helping to keep our waterways clean and healthy.

If it’s cheaper and less work, you’ll at least try it, won’t you? It all starts in your backyard.

Emily Vortruba is an editor of the newly reborn Elberta Alert. A recent transplant, she spends her time split between her house in Elberta and her boyfriend’s apartment in Brooklyn, New York. This is the first of a two-part series in which Emily explores how individuals can make easy cuts in their personal water usage.

This article is the first in a new series called The Water Column, as an on-going part of the first annual Benzie County Water Festival, an education and celebration event taking place March 18 through 20. For a schedule of events and more information — or if you’d like to learn how you can become a contributor to The Water Column — send aubreyannparker@gmail.com an email.

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