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Water, Water Everywhere, But...

 November 14, 2002 

Eileen fills our tanks with water before our passage to Florida

We filled up our water tanks just before we left North Carolina on our way to Florida. That was a couple of weeks ago. We have two stainless steel tanks that hold a total of 400 litres (or 105 gallons) of water. We plan to fill up again shortly after Thanksgiving when we're ready to leave Florida for the Bahamas. It takes us over a month to consume as much water as the average North American goes through in less than a day.

This past summer we encountered a lot of talk about water shortages. At the boatyard in Virginia where we had hauled "Little Gidding", we were asked not to use any fresh water to wash our deck and hull. When we went home to Toronto for a visit, the news was filled with grim accounts of farmers out west facing the worst drought in living memory. Scientists were predicting permanently lower water levels in the Great Lakes that would leave many docks high and dry. A lot of people blamed global warming for the pending crisis. A few mentioned that homeowners, farmers and industrialists were consuming more water than ever, despite the apparent shortages.

One evening while we were in Toronto we joined our friends Kelly and Rob for dinner. They consider themselves to be very environmentally conscious. When it came time to clean up, there were different receptacles under the sink for organic waste, paper products and recyclable plastics and metals. We dutifully disposed of the garbage in the appropriate places and began washing the dishes. Kelly came by, stared in the sinks, and exclaimed, "Where's the water?"

We were momentarily dumbfounded. We felt we were being quite extravagant with Kelly's water. There was at least an inch of soapy water in one sink and an inch of rinse water in the other sink. When we wash the dishes on "Little Gidding", we generally rinse them first under the salt water tap (assuming we're in a clean anchorage), then scrub them in a few cups of soapy fresh water, and finally rinse the soap off with a spray bottle filled with fresh water.

We never let the water taps run when we're on board. We can't. We've disconnected the pressurized water system and have manual foot pumps mounted under the sinks in the galley and the head. When we brush our teeth, we pump some water into a glass. In the islands, we wash ourselves by jumping overboard and soaping up in salt water (biodegradable dish detergent works well). We rinse the salt water off our bodies with fresh water sprayed from a pressurized insecticide sprayer (which, you'll be relieved to know, has never contained insecticide!). If we're anchored in water that's not so clean, we sometimes wash up under a "solar shower" suspended on a halyard. Although we're careful with the amount of fresh water we use for washing, we make a point of not restricting the amount of water we drink. It's easy to get dehydrated in the tropics. We filter our drinking water and keep a pitcher of it in the fridge.

When we're using water in the manner just described, the two of us go through about 10 litres (or 2.6 gallons) of water in a day. This is significantly less than a single flush of a typical toilet. Are we more environmentally conscious than our friends Kelly and Rob, and most other North Americans? Probably not. We're cheap and lazy.

In North America, we can usually fill up with free water at marinas if we've bought fuel. There is a cost in terms of effort, however - we have to either bring the boat to the dock or bring the water to the boat via a bunch of five gallon plastic containers we have for that purpose. In the islands, free water is usually the exception. In the Bahamas, the cost of drinking water ranges from free in Black Point - if it's available and you don't mind a bit of a hike from the dinghy dock to the public spigot - to 60 cents a gallon or more in George Town. In the Virgin Islands, water typically costs somewhere between 10 and 25 cents a gallon. When we're paying that kind of money and making several trips back and forth with a dinghy full of containers, we think twice about filling up the tub for a good soak.

Despite all the hue and cry about the apparent growing scarcity of clean drinking water, water is surprisingly inexpensive in most North American cities. We called up the Public Works Department when we were in Toronto and learned that the average water rate there is about US 75 cents per 1000 litres (or 264 gallons). The typical Toronto household consumes 683 litres of water per day - or about half a dollar's worth. To us, that seemed like a lot of water at a pretty cheap price.

But Toronto's located on a big lake. We reasoned that water is probably more expensive and consumed at a more miserly rate in places where it's not so abundant. We're in Florida now. Most of the fresh water here comes from ground water contained in underground rock structures called aquifers. During a drought, if the ground water level is reduced due to over consumption, the aquifers become vulnerable to saltwater intrusion from the surrounding Atlantic and Gulf waters. This process permanently reduces the amount of available drinking water. We were surprised, therefore, to learn from the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department that the average residential water bill is actually a few dollars less than in Toronto, while the rate of consumption is more than double. There are a lot of swimming pools and thirsty lawns in south Florida.

Conserving water is a way of life with us because we can't afford to do otherwise. Maybe there wouldn't be a pending water crisis in North American cities if citizens had to lug a five gallon container a couple of blocks down the street and pay to have it filled every time they needed more fresh water.

David & Eileen