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Water is abundant in Wisconsin, but conservation is still necess

Jun. 4, 2008
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People look at Lake Michigan and it looks like an ocean,” said Pat Henderson, deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “And they wonder why they should conserve water.” But Henderson said that concerns about the availability of Great Lakes water are real.

He noted that the Great Lakes account for 20% of the world’s fresh water—70% exists in the polar ice cap—but climate change, industry, rising population levels and a lack of awareness are putting pressure on this critical natural resource.

“We want to make sure that we continue to have a lot of it,” Henderson said. “We shouldn’t take water for granted.” That’s why the newly enacted Great Lakes Water Compact, in addition to banning long-range water diversions to other parts of the country, also requires Wisconsin communities to conserve water.

All communities within the Great Lakes basin—that includes Milwaukee County, as well as parts of Kenosha, Racine, Ozaukee and Waukesha—will have to create water conservation programs, while communities outside the basin—New Berlin and the city of Waukesha, for example—will have to implement conservation policies before they ask to take water from the Great Lakes and pipe it to their communities. Communities outside of the basin that don’t want to utilize Great Lakes water will be encouraged to voluntarily establish water conservation programs.

“Our goal is to sustainably manage Great Lakes water,” Henderson said. But first, Henderson noted, the state needs to find out how much water is being used—“we don’t even have that information right now,” he said. Then, the DNR—with lots of public input, Henderson promised—must develop rules for water conservation programs that each community can implement, based on their own needs and resources.

“As we see the level of the lakes go down, we want to ensure that communities are good stewards of the water,” Henderson said. Already, communities in Waukesha County are restricting lawn watering during the summer to ease pressure on the available water there.

Understanding Your Water Footprint
Under the new compact, municipalities’ water works will be in charge of the water conservation programs. But individuals can also be good stewards of our water resources, of course. And a new concept—the water footprint—can help each individual understand how much water he or she uses every day.

The water footprint is built on the carbon footprint concept, which measures the amount of greenhouse gases produced by various activities, such as driving solo, flying and eating food produced in far-off lands. Similarly, the water footprint encompasses all of the water required to produce the food, goods and services used by any individual, community or nation. The water footprint of the United States, for example, is almost four times that of China’s, and twice the size of Japan’s.

“The water footprint is an effort to use a concept that people are already familiar with,” said Jessica Roach, national water policy coordinator for the environmental advocacy group Food & Water Watch. Roach’s organization—along with Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, the nonprofit environmental organization GRACE and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future—have developed a water footprint calculator at www.h2oconserve.org so that individuals can identify how much water they use every day, as well as how they can reduce their water consumption.

Scott Cullen, executive director of GRACE, said that many consumers don’t realize that common products contain “virtual water” that represents water imported from another part of the world. “You’re taking that water and bringing it here,” Cullen said.

And that water can have serious implications in other parts of the world or water-challenged agricultural states such as California. Cullen said that in drier areas of the globe, streams can be diverted for agriculture, dams often displace people from their homes, cash crops are grown instead of food crops and food prices can rise because of a scarcity of local produce.

A Few Tips
The H2O Conserve Web site also includes a host of tips on water conservation. Not surprisingly, reducing one’s water footprint often leads to a reduced carbon footprint, because less water and fossil fuels will be consumed through the course of one’s day.

“Just because you have a lot of it, that doesn’t mean that it’s limitless,” Cullen said. Cullen noted that an easy way to reduce one’s water footprint is to buy locally produced food that is grown in a sustainable manner, which cuts down on virtual water and fossil fuel-dependent transportation.

He also advised people to limit the amount of meat they eat— especially beef. In fact, each pound of beef represents an astounding 1,500 gallons of water. “Raising animals is incredibly water intensive,” Cullen said.

Roach, of Food & Water Watch, urged consumers to stop buying bottled water, especially in places like Milwaukee, where tap water is cheap and safe, because so much water and other precious resources go into the production of the plastic bottle.

According to the H2O Conserve Web site, “It takes more than 47 million gallons of oil to produce plastic water bottles for Americans every year. Eliminating those bottles would be equivalent to taking 100,000 cars off the road and preventing 1 billion pounds of carbon dioxide from being released in the air.”

What’s more, 86% of these plastic bottles are thrown away— not recycled—ensuring that they live on long after their contents are emptied. Bill Guiney, program manager for Renewable Energy Solutions at Johnson Controls, said that installing solar-powered water heaters in one’s home is an easy way to save energy and water.

“Solar energy and water conservation should be put together,” Guiney said. He noted that savings can be significant, and solar-run water heaters often pay for themselves after six to 10 years. “This is something we need,” Guiney said. “If we’re going to become truly energy independent, it’s got to start in our own homes.”

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.



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