water story

Last month I didn’t have water for a week, and I decided to write something about it for Writers on the Range. Since they don’t seem to want it, I thought I’d post it here. If you find yourself fascinated with my water situation, rather than that of the larger west, you can read more on Vox.

I am happy to report that next weekend, I’m moving to a house, where, I have been told, the pipes never freeze.


“The West begins,” Bernard DeVoto wrote, “where the average annual
rainfall drops below twenty inches.” The Conservation District where I
live recently released its figures for 2006: we got a total rainfall
equivalent of 6.71 inches. We are indeed in the West, going into the
eighth year of a drought.

You know that simply from looking around at the brown fields, the low
muddy reservoir, the dust that blows through your screens in the summer.
But I don’t think you really appreciate it–at least I didn’t–until
you have in some personal way gone without.

During a recent cold snap, my pipes froze, and for the past four days I
have had no water in my house but what I have brought into it. I called
my landlady to tell her about the situation and mentioned that I had, as
she suggested, left a couple of taps dripping. “Not dripping,” she
said. “Dripping won’t do it; you’ve got to leave them running.”

“Well,” I said, “it’s a good thing I don’t pay for water by the gallon.”

Yes–you heard me right–in a place that got fewer than seven inches of
rain last year, I get all the water I want for $35 a month. Granted,
it’s horrible water, much too alkaline to drink. If you water plants
with it, they shrivel up and die. But you can flush toilets with it,
and shower in it, and wash your dishes in it.

I suppose, though, that my water situation is no more ridiculous than
those of Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, cities that owe their
existence to the water they repurpose from western rivers, many of which
start up here in the Rocky Mountains. We know that the desert is not
made to support such a large human population, and that it is only
through the considerable intervention of human beings in the natural
world, mostly the damming of rivers, that so many are able to live there
(and, for that matter, grow lawns there). Even the biggest proponents
of growth in the desert southwest are beginning to admit that it may
face an end. The Christian Science Monitor reported last month that
the Central Arizona Project has said that current water supplies will
serve the nation’s fastest-growing state through 2030 and projected
water supplies through 2045. After that, according to a CAP planning
analyst, growth will depend on “possibly available supplies” and, after
a certain point, “uncertain supplies.”

It is hard to remember when you stand in the cold rushing waters of a
mountain river, nothing like the slow, meandering rivers of my
Midwestern childhood, that you live in a land of little rain. It is
harder still when there is water there, all you want, when you simply
turn on a tap in your home. But of course the plentitude of water is an
illusion, like the mirages you see on the highway on a particularly
sunny day.

In the past few days, I have been thinking about how much we take water
for granted, and about how much water we take for granted. I’ve been
doing dishes in a sink only a few inches full and flushing my toilet
only once a day. I have not wiped down my counter tops or cleaned my
bathroom sink or mopped the kitchen floor. I haven’t made pasta or soup
for dinner. Yesterday I took up a friend’s offer of a shower, and it
felt positively decadent to let all that water run over me and down into
the drain.

I believed when I first moved here that I was becoming more attuned to
my use of water because I had to haul in all the water I wanted to
drink. It was not until my pipes froze, though, that I realized just
how much water I use that I don’t even think about–washing my fingers
off after I’ve cracked an egg, wetting a sponge to wipe off a counter,
rinsing my toothbrush.

In a few more days the temperature is supposed to rise above freezing,
and the water in my pipes will flow again, and I’ll do loads of laundry
and make spaghetti for dinner, and when the temperature dips down again
I’ll leave my faucets running. And I will think, well, it’s not potable
water anyway, and I don’t pay for it by the gallon, but at the same time
I will wonder about water and waste, about human progress and human

One thought on “water story”

Leave a Reply