Feel of Drought: The Illusion of Water

I took the cup next to the sink, filled it with water, and squeezed some toothpaste onto the brush. I then dipped the brush in the water to moisten it and started brushing my teeth. 

In between, I drank a mouth full of water from the same cup twice, gargle it, and spit it out. Eventually there was a third of the water left, and I stirred my brush in the water to clean it. The sound of water whirling and the stick beating the inner wall of the cup, somehow, makes a beautiful noise that often reminds me of life in China.  

After living in Colorado for several years, I have fully immersed myself in the convenience of American life, where I don’t need my plastic cup for brushing teeth or basins to store used water to flush toilets. But I had never thought that there could be a culture of teeth brushing, and that something so primary and automatic can be practiced differently in other parts of the world because of their environment and level of development. 

Indeed, natural factors can and do determine customs for a collective population living in a certain environment, and humans have long learned to adjust their ways of living for survival. On average, a person can only live without water for three days. So throughout history, civilizations have prospered and died out with the rivers and lakes their people depended on, and drought could easily bring out a region’s vulnerability. 

“Human civilization exists in a window of three days that is made possible by water,” said Perry Cabot, professor at Colorado State University with expertise in hydrology and agriculture and also a faulty affiliate of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. 

However, since the urbanization and technology revolution started in the western world, great engineering and city planning have helped countries with centralizing water resources and delivering them widely. Thanks to policies and subsidies made, and infrastructures such as reservoirs and treatment facilities built, the quality and quantity of water has been insured. Humans became less depending on nature, which created a gap between the reality and perception of their environment. 

The U.S. water footprint is twice as big as the global average, while 345 million others in the world are without water access, according to an infographic by National Geographic. 

When thinking about the water they consume, Americans tend to only think of water coming from their faucets, which they drink, wash or water their lawns with. However, an average American’s home water usage only counts for 10 percent of his or her water footprint. 50 percent of the water we consume goes to our diet, and 30 percent of it goes to energy use, which is more inconspicuous because it’s transformed into another source. For example, it takes 13 gallons of water to make a gallon of gasoline and five gallons to light a 60-watt light bulb for an hour. 

In Colorado, a state advanced in utilizing our limited water resources, the gap between the reality and perception is insurmountable. 

According to the Colorado Climate Center, in contrast to the common definition of drought measured by rainfall, drought in Colorado is a period of insufficient snowpack and reservoir storage to provide adequate water to urban and rural areas. 

From January to March this year, the state’s snowpack was roughly 77 percent of average compared to previous years’ records, while reservoir storage was 71 percent of average, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Reservoir storage in the Arkansas and Rio Grande basins was about 55 percent of average. Extreme drought covers 27 percent of the state and another 21 percent in exceptional drought, reported by the U.S. drought monitor. 

Facing severe drought and with reservoir storage at a historic low, life here runs as usual. Many cities and towns in Colorado have started to impose water restrictions, but more as a manner of drought response than as a conservation measure. 

The Pueblo Board of Water Works does not plan to impose water restrictions, stating that it has tried hard to create and maintain an ample reserve water supply in storage so that its consumers feel as little affected as possible, even during severe droughts.  

Whether or not if it’s a good aim or business drive, such an act moves people further away from their environment, creating the delusion that water is abundant and never going to be used up. 

We also forget that it takes good collaboration between engineering, earth sciences, hydrology and ecology in order to bring water to our faucets. 

In Colorado, 80 percent of the snowpack falls on the western slope where 20 percent of the population lives. Big infrastructure projects such as the Colorado Transmountain Diversion have played a crucial role in the state’s development. There are 12 main transmountain water projects as well as many smaller scale ones in Colorado, carrying water through tunnels beneath the Continental Divide from the western slope to the east, where 80 percent of the population lives. 

The city of Pueblo is mainly supported by the Arkansas Frying Pan Project for water to be diverted and restored in the Pueblo Dam and Reservoir. It then takes sophisticated delivery and treatment systems to make sure water is clean and ready for multiple purposes. 

In developing countries, people feel the strain of drought a lot more heavily, even though they may have tremendous amount of ground water, but lack access to clean water. In many countries in Africa, a woman walks three hours per day on average to collect water from the nearest pond or river open to contamination, making the choice between using the dirty water to support her whole family or not having any at all. 

Because developed countries have been so successful in delivering water to satisfy the demand, people seem to have forgotten the value of it, Cabot said. 

Globalization has also played a part in making drought less felt because more and more people are relying on corporations and big-box stores instead of local farmlands as their food source. 

Under the global food production business today, a consumer’s proximity to some vegetables from Chile is smaller than his or her local farmlands 20 miles away from town. 

This convenience has put us in drought denial. We don’t see how much water we use because we don’t need to. 

But how long will it take us to realize that we are living under the pretense that the impact is insignificant, and what will it take for us to step out of this this denial? 

I hope we will not wait until our rivers are dried and our town is devoured by another Dust Bowl to realize our water consumption is significant. 

“As long as we don’t suffer or lack anything, we don’t feel the impact of drought,” Cabot said, “We have been, as a society, a victim of our own success.”

by Ye Ming

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