Does Water Conservation Need Symbolic, Inconsequential Rituals?

Nestlé, for whom I have no brief regarding any of their businesses, is being attacked for bottling water in California during our historic drought; right perp, wrong charge.  I guess water conservation needs symbolic, inconsequential rituals, but I worry that doing silly things in the name of a good cause can be ill-advised. Restaurants are making a big show of not serving water unless requested; this isn’t completely off-base, considering the additional water used to wash the glass, but it’s totally de minimis.

Every drop of water that Nestlé doesn’t bottle in our thirsty state will be drunk.  It will either come from a faucet (the best place to get drinking water) or it will be bottled far away and hauled here in a truck burning diesel–or a ship burning bunker oil from Italy or Fiji, for Pete’s sake–and causing global warming.  The bottle will litter the landscape or the ocean, fill up a landfill, or be turned into a cheap suit, more bottles, or fuel.  The last three aren’t terrible, but they have their own carbon footprints.  Bottled water is a disgrace where tap water is safe and tastes OK, but not because of the water (especially when it’s just tap water, which it usually is).

Our local water agency just gave us a target of 35 gal/day per person for non-landscape water use (Debbie calculates that we are at 31, woo hoo!).  How much of that do you drink?  If you drink a quart a day, less than a percent, and if you are watering any garden, drinking water is, if I may say, literally a drop in the bucket.

If you don’t flush pee once a day, you’ve saved six times what you drink. Turn off the shower for a minute while you soap up  and it’s that much again.  Pass up three almonds and you’ve saved two whole flushes.  Skip a meat portion a week (not to mention a round of golf): now you’re really making a difference.

I’ve successfully driven bottled water out of events at my school in favor of a nice pitcher, and my students are much more likely to schlep a metal bottle that they refill from the tap than a bottle they bought full. That’s green.  But worrying about how much we’re drinking, local or otherwise, is a distraction.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.