When I was a young girl exploring the deserts of California and Arizona with my family, I learned about dry camping. Each night we had only a finite amount of water that we’d carried in by car or in our backpacks, limited stores not to be wasted by spilling or overuse. In those moments, guided with love by my outdoor-loving mother and father, I made a little go a long way. I felt the value of water as we measured portions out according to weight or volume. Using only what we needed taught me a satisfaction and connection to water I hadn’t known simply from turning on a tap.
As a Colorado River guide in my twenties and thirties, I felt the power of water first hand by rowing heavy boats in big whitewater. It could buck people from their seats–strong men and women, who’d been holding on tight one moment were tossed into the river the next. A deep, hidden river current could grab the oars from my grip as if I had no more strength than an infant. At other times the flow in the river took me just where I wanted to go, as if I were water’s biggest ally.
As a fluvial (stream) geologist for several decades, I’ve studied water in both modern and ancient environments. I’ve seen fossil evidence of animal and human migrations or death when water sources dried up. I’ve seen fossil bones lying in jumbled heaps where rivers carried them in flood. The power of water, what it gives as well as takes away, is plain to see in stone records from events through the ages.
Today many parts of the world are experiencing, or just pulling out of, deep, life-threatening drought. In the North American West, several years of below-average rainfall pushed agricultural communities to overdraw groundwater, those precious reserves that are only replenished–and slowly–when rainfall returns. In the southern United States, drought persists, making news with record-breaking aridity. Lack of rainfall has hit other parts of the world hard: in Somalia, for instance, 110 people died in one 48-hour period in March due to waterborne disease in failing water supplies; the United Nations predicts that 40 to 50 percent of the country’s population is in immediate danger of perishing due to drought-related famine. It’s a crisis of unprecedented proportion, 6 million people at risk from inadequate access to water. Immediate aid is needed, to the tune of several billion dollars’ worth of assistance.
Those of us who’ve never experienced a tap going dry find it hard to relate. We talk about the conservative use of water only in times of little rain, and then just when regulated. What’s really needed is a soul shift, the recognition that water is no different from our bodies, ourselves.
If the soul is our essence–the essential human self embodied in us, then the knowledge that our adult human bodies consist of up to 60 percent water must connect them to our souls through the direct physical experience of our actually being water. It’s nothing new; some cultures treat water with reverence and honor, knowing that not to have enough can kill the individual body that houses the soul.
For centuries, the long-lived Hopi people of the American Southwest have used their scarce water as sparingly as birds sipping at a pool, transferring rinse water among cooking pots and bowls to lengthen the time of its use. In part this intentionality is due to the ephemerality of water in their desert region; in part such care is taken because water is simply part of a tradition of respect and holiness. To the Hopi, water reverence renders the people both humble and blessed, reflecting back on their lives in a liquid version of karma. The sacred use of water is key to one’s experience of a life well lived.
On certain Pacific Ocean islands, where rising sea levels due to climate change are contaminating fresh-water wells with salt water, running a faucet for more than a few seconds draws too deeply from stores of harvested rainwater. A profligate visitor, not used to taking such care, is gently chided to respect the resource for the essential liquid it is. Waste of even the smallest size puts the entire community at risk.
In some European alpine inns, high elevations make water difficult to attain. Snow-melt is scant in summer months and must be purified. Other supplies must be carried in. In many lodges, metered tanks allow visitors no more than a few gallons a day for cleaning. Some visitors complain; others awaken to the value of a finite resource. Those who choose to view the awareness as a gift are joined in a journey worth making for its own sake.
In this way, water is a great teacher. There is peace and balance to be gained when using it with reverence. Sometimes we offer up ritual in observance of its greatness, as author Barry Lopez wrote in the essay, “Drought,” in River Notes: “I fasted and abstained as much as I felt appropriate from water. These were only gestures, of course, but even as a boy I knew a gesture might mean life or death and I believed the universe was similarly triggered.”
Try these five gestures to see how they affect your universe.
1. Drink and use fresh water with mindfulness.
Give it your deepest respect. Great minds may not always think alike, but when it comes to water and nature, evolved thinkers speak as a chorus. We’re enlarged, they say, when we expand our circle of compassion to embrace all living things. If protecting wildlife species by conserving their water-dependent habitats doesn’t speak to us, then at least we can remind ourselves that as the smallest creature thrives, so thrives the human race.
2. Open to the idea that water conservation is likely the new normal.
With growing populations and increasing climate uncertainty, efficiency measures for water use must be adopted across the board, not just by the heaviest users. Some people claim that they won’t conserve in their homes or yards until the big agricultural irrigators–the 80 percent using the most–put strict measures in place. So where does leadership begin? Why not with ourselves, with the smallest, most mindful actions? Rather than battling to go back to old ways of landscaping and irrigating, we can integrate thoughtful use as a way of life. We can choose not to plant water-intensive trees and shrubs, for instance. We can push for our communities to build infrastructure for recycled water. We can support legislation that requires water-saving devices in all homes and businesses.
3. Understand which river or well feeds your pipes.
If you know where your water comes from, you also know that much of it is also needed by fish and birds and other wildlife at the source. What starts on glaciated peaks, ends up in pipes. Maybe you love Lake Tahoe in California-Nevada, or the Yellowstone River in Montana, or the Merced River flowing through Yosemite Valley. The water in those beautiful places, where waterfowl and fish live, also is used for drinking water and irrigation somewhere downstream. What a different world it would be if we always, always, kept the wild river or mountain lake water sources in our hearts.
4. Visit the river that slakes your thirst.
In my hometown, our water is piped from the Russian River to the north, which draws from the Eel River even farther north. A swim in the Eel or a walk beside its banks is a journey into knowing what is at stake if we drain it. When you learn where your water comes from, everything changes. You act with new awareness. If you had a choice between your lawn or a water-fed wild place your children and grandchildren can enjoy, which would you choose?
5. Help protect water sources for wildlife in the parks and forests near you.
In places like Salt Lake City, Utah, where drinking water comes from mountain sources nearby, recreation can also be important. Skiers, hikers, and other visitors enjoy the trails and lakes, but signs remind them to observe certain rules to protect the water supply. Swimming, for people and pets, may not be allowed in some areas. Following the rules of water protection in these source areas is important to public health and safety.
A Native American tribe in California, the Yuki, said this of the integration of things in nature:
The rock did not come here by itself.
This tree does not stand here of itself.
There is one who made all this,
Who shows us everything.
Water shows us everything; no one of us stands apart from it. If there is a substance whose universality made all this, it is water–our lifeblood, our teacher, our guide.
Rebecca Lawton is an author, fluvial geologist, and former Colorado River guide. She is finishing her second novel, 49 North,
researched while she was a 2014-15 Fulbright Visiting Research Chair at the University of Alberta.