For water, a scarcity of feeling

In Austin, editor Andrew Nusca writes of continued water shortages -- and how perception is everything when it comes to scarcity and conservation.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor on

AUSTIN, Texas -- The smell of chlorinated water greets me after touching down late in the evening at Austin International Airport, but there's no swimming pool to be found. On the ride to the hotel, my cab driver can't help but complain that Austin is too hot -- this I knew, especially after news headlines screaming of wildfires and drought -- but also too humid for his Ethiopian sensibilities, forged after many years of living in toasty but dry Addis Ababa.

As I check-in at the desk, the attendant asks whether I'd like to completely forgo housekeeping during my stay. It's primarily to conserve water, she says. I pause for a moment, rendered speechless by a most unusual request. Towels on the floor when you'd like them laundered, sure -- but a hotel without housekeeping?

Having departed earlier in the day from Philadelphia, so waterlogged after two months of record rains that in some areas near the Schuylkill River the water is still receding, you can understand my initial reaction. I say yes to her request -- I'm only in town three days, sure -- and head up to my room to quickly drop off my things before the restaurant down the street closes. I make it in time, grab a seat on the patio (at a balmy 75 degrees, who wouldn't?) and stare at a small place card on the table:

"Due to City of Austin Stage 2 water restrictions, water will only be served upon request."

Rolled out on Sept. 6, Austin's Stage 2 restrictions prohibit washing exterior surfaces, ban charity car washes and severely curtail irrigation systems of all kinds in response to "exceptional drought in Central Texas." The penalty: at least $475, after a warning.

To Austin residents, this has been business as usual for much of the summer season. But for someone like me, whose summer memories include a massively humid heatwave followed by repeated drenching from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, it came as a surprise, albeit a logical one.

Here's the hard truth: much of the United States is in a critical place with regard to water conservation. The word "critical" doesn't quite hit hard enough, though, so allow me to reword for maximum impact: a large part of America is desperate for water.

We've always acknowledged that places like Las Vegas and Phoenix and San Diego were at a significant natural disadvantage when it comes to acquiring water. But these cities' populations aren't shrinking -- quite the opposite -- and severe weather spells like this mean trouble for their economies. For Vegas, it's tourism in every way. For Phoenix, it's the manufacture of everything from aircraft parts to air conditioning equipment. For San Diego, it's the manufacture of industrial machinery, sporting goods and toys -- not to mention trade, with one of the busiest ports in the world. And for Austin, it's high-tech companies like Dell.

Every single one of these cities must reach all the way to the Colorado River (there are two unrelated ones; Austin's version flows into the Gulf of Mexico) to get water. And their biggest economic drivers use a ton of it. It's an unsustainable solution, both in resources and design. And it threatens both everyday quality of life and the cities' future growth.

Again, this is old news for residents of these areas. But it's something residents in the rest of the country simply aren't aware of, at least not enough. These are local and regional stories, but it's hard to really feel the difference unless you fly from one area to the other directly.

In Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and New York, there's so much water we can't get rid of it fast enough, so we use energy to remove some of it from our rivers and lakes before it damages property. Meanwhile, state officials in the Southwest burn energy in an unceasing quest to find more of the stuff (and move over great distances what little they have).

Residents in the Northeast hear about the wildfires in Texas, but they only see homes at risk on the evening news -- they don't have a chance to dig deeper and realize that wildfires are merely one symptom of a bigger climate issue. Ditto the reverse, where it's truly hard to imagine, sitting at a table at this restaurant in Austin, so much rain that your parked car could just float away. Simply unfathomable.

We can talk about climate change and discuss the idea of resilience of cities -- and we do, plenty, in this very publication -- but the bottom line is this: when it comes to water scarcity, you simply can't feel it until they take away your complementary glass of water. What feels like a right, however inconsequential, rapidly becomes a commodity before your eyes.

Photo: Mia Bennett/Flickr

For more stories about water conservation and scarcity, see SmartPlanet's topic page.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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