Carrying Water


The thirsty drink from a bowl made of mountains, hills, and trees...

In the rural area where I lived for 20 years -- and throughout Oregon, as well as elsewhere -- "watershed management" has become a common term. Farmers and ranchers compete with urbanites and salmon for water to feed us all. The media call them "water wars," but without water, no one eats and no one "wins." If the salmon lose, we lose too. The issue looms ever larger: climate change, population growth, and an economy on the verge of collapse. Fear makes it hard to manage anything, but we try. Meanwhile, "watershed management" has become a career path. Years ago, an earnest young woman came to a community meeting to asked us this question:

“What is the one most beneficial thing that a resident can do to improve the quality of watersheds?”

She was trying to organize a citizen's committee to come up with a "management plan," but I thought instead of all the waters that pour from the sky to fill the creek where I lived, which replenishes the wide ocean, as well as our cloudy Oregon sky. I saw myself standing at the creek watching the salmon spawn as they have spawned since long before my ancestors stood on two legs. I thought of the bucket I used to haul water to my little house. I felt, again, the immense gratitude and wonder I have for all the miracles, seen and hidden, that make my life possible. Rather than sign up for more meetings, I sent her the following message:

The most beneficial thing a resident can do to improve the quality of watersheds is to learn the value of water. But value is not a concept you can understand by reading. Rather, turn off your main valve, or your electric pump. Fill up your bathtub with water. Get by on one tubful per day, every day. Carry water from the tub to wherever you need it. Wash your hands with a pint of water, your body with a quart, your hair with 2 quarts. Learn what you smell like. Disconnect the drain under your kitchen sink. Replace it with a 5-gallon bucket to catch all your dish water. Go to your tub to fill another 5 gallon bucket with clean water, and use it to do all your washing for the day. Put drinking water in a special, beautiful pitcher that will give you pleasure every time you pour yourself a glass, or fill the kettle for coffee. Figure out what to do with the dirty wash water from the bucket under the sink. If you use it on your garden, think about what you washed down the drain before you put it on your lettuce.

Make a composting toilet, so you don't have to use any of your precious tubful to flush. Carry water in buckets to feed your garden plants (if you have a garden, you get extra). Learn to make a dirt bowl around every plant, so the precious liquid doesn't run away into the garden path, where it only feeds weeds or rocks.

You will learn to value water the way most of the rest of the world does.

Then you will know the value of watersheds.

Then you may ask questions: Why do we waste millions of gallons of clean drinking water to flush away all that valuable fertilizer? Why do we make huge houses (with 3 or 4 or 5 or more toilets) that only rich people can afford to buy and live in? Why, in order to build all those big houses, do we cut down all those forests that hold water in the soil, and keep our rivers clean and flowing? Why do we damn all those rivers to make all that electricity for all those big houses that only rich people can afford to buy and live in? Why do we drive so much? Why do we make it so important to drive, when we know that cars cause such damage everywhere? Why don't we have decent public transport? Why do we use so much water to grow so much grain to feed beef cattle, when we could feed lots more people, more cheaply, from that same land and water? Why do we eat so much meat? Why do we import most of our food from far away countries when we used to be able to feed ourselves? Why do we drink so much soda pop, when we know it's bad for our teeth, our bodies, our health? Why do we buy bottled or filtered water, when we can still drink what comes out of our taps? And why do we use so much of it to flush away all that good manure that our land and crops cry out for? Oh. Sorry. I already asked that question.

But why do we? Because we don't value water. Until we value water, we can't value watersheds. When we valued water, we didn't have to "manage" watersheds, because they were perfect. They gave us the essence of life -- and we were grateful. Now we've traded the immeasurable value of water for cash we can count, and conveniences we ignore: flush toilets, washing machines, big fast cars, other stuff -- and we have to ask ourselves how to "manage" watersheds that we abuse at practically every turn.

I never did get any kind of response, but for twenty years all the water we used in our house we carried in 5-gallon buckets and 5-gallon plastic jugs. In the winter, we heated water on the wood stove; otherwise, we used an electric kettle. To wash dishes we boiled a kettleful, and dipped cold water from bucket to basin. We got very good at cleaning a sinkful of dishes with a few quarts.

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