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This is the first in a series of articles that will explore “The Worth of Water.”

“Water culture” is the set of shared practices, values, and attitudes surrounding the use of water in a community. It’s multi-dimensional, with its many aspects determined on individual, community, and national levels. Water culture encompasses both personal and collective responsibilities, from how much water you use in the shower, to water restrictions on a city level, to the general feeling about water scarcity or surplus in an entire nation—with effects rippling into the rest of the world. Appropriate water culture should result in smart water management that begins with awareness, ends with policy, and is the first step to combatting water scarcity.

 

Water Awareness

How aware are we of the water we use every day? We use it to make our coffee in the morning, wash our clothes and dishes, cook, and shower—but how often we do these things and how much water we use for them depends on how much water we believe is available to us and our communities. Different communities naturally have different levels of awareness. Ghana, where clean water is scarce, has a much different water culture than the United States. But what about differences within our own country? In Elliston, Virginia, we don’t hesitate to water our plants or take a 30-minute shower, but residents of Las Vegas have to be more thoughtful about those activities.

Even though the water culture in the West produces heightened awareness of water scarcity, that doesn’t always lead to changes in policy. Las Vegas, for example, doesn’t have a municipal water reuse system. Moreover, much of the water they do use is evaporating from the many water features on The Strip. Even though the city relies on the dwindling Colorado River for its water, residents still plant grass and water their lawns, and there hasn’t been any large-scale public utility action, such as increasing employee awareness of water use, choosing water-efficient models for fixtures and equipment (such as dry urinals), or widespread leak awareness (the effects of which are discussed here). Unless this water culture changes, how long will it take for the well to run dry?

 

Water Policy

What is the worth of an inch of water on the East Coast? Is it the same on the West Coast? Should it be? Las Vegas and Phoenix are the least sustainable cities in the world. There, the issue of running out water is not a matter of if, but when. We would assume that residents and municipal governments would react differently in that water culture, since it’s a desert with very few adjacent lakes and rivers. With less water available, shouldn’t they value water more highly? But the Colorado River is running dry as cities in the West hatch plans to draw water from other parts of the region. There is heavy demand on water bodies in the Southwest, but many cities aren’t going the extra mile to take proactive actions restricting water use.

On the surface, it seems like the issue of water sustainability should be cut and dry. But overuse of water resources flows even further into the undercurrents of communities. Deep water culture is revealed in how a city allocates its budget to water stewardship. Industries that require tens of thousands of gallons of water a day to produce a good should not be based in cities where water is already scarce. Likewise, communities should practice good water stewardship. California has been dealing with various levels of drought for more than 100 years—but even this state, a leader in environmentalism and sustainability, is just beginning to experience residential water restrictions. A law set to be implemented later this year will restrict residential usage to 55 gallons per day. The downfall of this law is that although its goal is to create a “culture of permanent water conservation,” water agencies are not required to ensure this new target is kept.

 

Combatting Water Scarcity

Beginning with awareness and education, water culture should be the lens through which a strong industrial economy evaluates the best areas to generate public goods. The more water a product requires to develop, the closer the industrial plant should be to a large body of water—revealing smart economic development and water policy. Awareness in these issues will affect the votes of citizens, resulting in city and state representatives who will make the choices that will allow the city to buffer the withering effects of water depletion.

Citizens experience a reflection of their own water culture in their daily relationship with water. How long do you leave the water on while your brushing your teeth or shaving? Do you unravel your hose unnecessarily for yard work? Lawmakers and private interest groups influencing water policies demonstrate their own priorities in their private lives by these small tasks. Looking at water policy through a bottom up process that starts with the foundation of our own water culture reveals that we don’t yet consider the current water crisis be as pressing as it is.