I’m reminded of a Beatles song this morning…”I read the news today, oh boy!”
And, oh boy, the news is not good. Business Insider reports that bottled water sales have now surpassed the sale of carbonated soft drinks. Now that’s great for our country’s health and our collective waistlines but it’s oh so bad for our environment. Bottled water consumption grew by 9 percent to 12.8 billion gallons in 2016. The most frustrating part of the bottled water trend might be the fact that half of bottled water is not from a mountain spring in a pristine forest somewhere in the Pacific Northwest or a remote tropical island. Nope. Bottled water is often regular municipal tap water, pumped through a filter and into a bottle at 2,000 times the cost of filling up a reusable bottle. Bottled water is even produced in drought-plagued areas of our country contributing to local water crises in places like California and Maine. Other baffling facts surrounding the bottled water trend include:
Bottled water is not held to the same quality standards as municipal tap water. Municipal tap water is constantly monitored by a local lab with standards set through the EPA. Bottled water has only moderate monitoring standards set through the FDA . For example, coliform bacteria testing is done once per week for bottled water and more than 100 times per month for municipal tap water.
It takes three times the amount of water to produce a plastic water bottle than it does to fill it. That’s 36 ounces of water used per 12 ounce bottle of water.
An estimated 17 million barrels of oil are consumed each year to produce and transport bottled water. That’s enough to power 1 million cars for a year!
22 billion water bottles end up in landfills each year and will take hundreds of years to decompose.
You can refill a 20 ounce refillable water bottle at any tap in Hampton Roads 1,500 times for the same cost as a single container of bottled water.
So don’t be a sucker. Don’t fall prey to the hype. Instead, pick up a reusable water bottle to fill with tap water to make a healthy choice for your body and our environment.
To learn even more about the true cost of bottled water, check out the documentary Tapped.
On a typical, cold, rainy February morning in 1992 at the General McArthur Memorial conference room, regional water utility representatives came together for the initial meeting of what would become the askHRgreen.org Water Awareness Committee. Coffee, donuts and bagels on the table provided sustenance to about 75 water utility directors, planners, administrative and budget employees from cities and counties throughout the Hampton Roads region while they discussed how to promote water conservation and wise water usage.
It just seemed ludicrous because the region is surrounded by water from the ocean on one side, to the bay, rivers and creeks on the other. Isn’t that plenty of water? The short answer is, no. Salt water doesn’t do it. The Hampton Roads region was growing rapidly at the time. While new water resources were being sought, current usage needed to be “stretched.” In a word, conserved.
16 cities and counties under the umbrella of the Hampton Roads Planning District made the fateful decision 25 years ago to pool resources and form an educational team to create the conservation education program known as the Hampton Roads Water Efficiency Team or HRWET for short. Our logo was the sun – Saving Today’s Water for Tomorrow’s Hampton Roads.
Today, HRWET is known as the askHRgreen.org Water Awareness Committee, one of four environmental educational groups – Fats, Oils, and Grease (FOG), Recycling & Beautification, and Stormwater Education – that make up askHRgreen.org.
We’ve gotten a lot done in 25 years and look forward to continuing our efforts to education Hampton Roads about the value, quality and availability of Hampton Roads tap water. Enjoy this trip down memory lane!
Blog post contributed by Jerry Hoddinott, Chesapeake Public Utilities and original member of the HRWET team!
If I were to ask you what areas of the United States are facing water crises, your thoughts would probably veer toward drought-prone southern California or Texas. New Orleans might come to mind, with its flooding issues and precarious below-sea-level vantage point. But we’re ok in Hampton Roads! Nothing to worry about in our water-rich neck of the woods; we’re surrounded by bridges and tunnels and rivers galore! And we’re definitely not like New Orleans with a “too much water” problem, right?
Sadly, Hampton Roads IS facing a water crisis- it’s just invisible. The Potomac aquifer, eastern Virginia’s largest water supply, is being overused and is shrinking beneath our feet. Groundwater-using industries are facing increasing regulations and new water-using industries are being told not to move to the region. The compacting aquifer is also contributing to land subsidence, which in turn is increasing the area’s susceptibility to the negative impacts of sea level rise. Hampton Roads is the second largest population at risk for the negative impacts of sea level rise, right behind infamous New Orleans. It’s not a pretty picture.
Engineers and scientists have turned “used” into “useful” at the SWIFT Pilot Facility in Seaford, Virginia.
So what do we do? How do we combat such an extensive, multi-faceted issue? Do we build flood walls? Elevate our homes on stilts? Move? There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and there are many individuals and organizations working on the problem. HRSD is one of those organizations, and it’s tackling the situation head-on with an initiative that not only addresses the shrinking Potomac aquifer and land subsidence, but one that will help achieve Chesapeake Bay restoration goals and support our economy at the same time.
HRSD currently discharges approximately 150 million gallons of highly treated water into the waterways of Hampton Roads each day. Rather than continuing to waste this valuable resource, the Sustainable Water Initiative for Tomorrow (SWIFT) would take the water that would otherwise be discharged into the Elizabeth, James or York rivers and purify it through additional advanced water treatment to produce drinking-quality water. The purified water would then be treated to match the existing groundwater chemistry and added to the Potomac Aquifer. Hydraulic modeling suggests that this could reduce the effects of sea level rise by up to 25 percent and positively impact nearly the entire Potomac aquifer, as far north as Maryland and south beyond the North Carolina border.
With SWIFT, the York River would no longer regularly receive discharge from HRSD wastewater treatment plants.
SWIFT would also benefit the Chesapeake Bay. Replenishing groundwater with HRSD’s purified water would effectively eliminate more than 90 percent of HRSD’s discharge to local waters – reducing the total amount of nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen reaching the Bay. And the homes and industries in eastern Virginia that currently remove approximately 155 million gallons of groundwater from the Potomac aquifer every day would have a renewable source of groundwater to rely upon rather than an increasingly restricted one.
Extensive environmental and economic benefits aside, why is HRSD pursuing SWIFT in the first place? Its mission is to treat wastewater effectively, not to produce drinking-quality water and add it to the ground. Increasing regulations play a part. HRSD is continuously making process-level upgrades to its thirteen wastewater treatment plants to remove more and more nutrients and other contaminants from the highly treated water it discharges. By leaping forward under the assumption that the increasingly stringent regulations will continue, the next logical step would be to purify its water to the point that it’s clean enough to drink. Subsequently dumping such a valuable resource back into surface waters that don’t need it when technology exists to use it in a way that is regionally beneficial…well that just doesn’t make sense.
HRSD’s SWIFT team toasts their successful production of purified water on September 15, 2016.
Secondly, HRSD is pursuing SWIFT because it recognizes that it’s part of the big picture. Land subsidence, shrinking groundwater supplies and rising seas are problems that impact ALL Hampton Roads’ residents, not just a select few. They are not problems that will go away if they’re ignored, nor are they problems with easy solutions. HRSD’s mission may be treating wastewater, but its vision is that future generations will inherit clean waterways and be able to keep them clean. SWIFT boldly meets that vision by protecting the Chesapeake Bay, securing future groundwater supplies, addressing land subsidence and helping the economy. Those are things I think we can all stand behind.
Blog contributed by Molly Bertsch, Community Educator at HRSD.
Many years ago, hurricane Isabel knocked out electricity throughout Hampton Roads and virtually every other private utility service for up to a week. Do you know what the water utilities across the area heard from their citizens? They said, “Thankfully the water and sewer did not go out.” They knew they could manage without electricity, TV, telephone, and internet. But they also knew that without clean and safe water and the sanitary sewer system, they could not last in their homes for more than a day or two.
In Hampton Roads, the drinking water system utilizes more than 6,500 miles of pipes to deliver safe drinking water to homes and businesses across the region. The wastewater system steps in to carry dirty water away when we send it down the drain. It takes more than 5,800 miles of pipes to carry our dirty water to treatment plants to be sanitized before it rejoins our local waterways. These systems work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year to bring clean, safe water to our taps and take it away after we use it.
But what if these systems were suddenly not available? What would life be like with no water for a whole ENTIRE day?
We use water for a lot more than just drinking.
We use it to wash dishes, grow food, flush toilets, and upkeep our yards.
It keeps hospitals in service, the aquarium full of marine life, and breweries brewing.
It is critical for day-to-day operations like fire protection and helping communities grow and prosper.
We here at askHRgreen.org value water immensely, and we’re dedicated to raising awareness about its importance to every aspect of our lives. By joining forces with people around the country to Imagine a Day Without Water, we’re hoping to remind you of the thousands of pipes buried underground in Hampton Roads that bring water to and from your home.
And while water falls from the sky and flows through our lakes and rivers, drinking water is far from free. Processing it, treating it, bringing it to and from your house costs local water utilities millions of dollars a year. By continually maintaining systems, upgrading pipes and deploying new technologies, local water utilities are able to prevent disruptions to daily life and protect the health of citizens and the economy.
Maintenance programs implemented by water utilities require the support and attention from everyone including citizens, community leaders, elected officials, business owners, workers, and more. Without strong voices advocating for this maintenance work, our aging pipes will continue to hide underground until something happens to remind us just how critical they are to our quality of life.
So join us as we promote the importance of our communities’ water systems by participating in this year’s national campaign to Imagine a Day Without Water.
What would you miss most on a day without water? #ValueWater
I never knew how long a day could be until I had kids. Early in the day I’m always so optimistic about the things I’ll get done once the girls are in bed: send some emails, mend my shirt, do a workout video. Maybe I’ll even start my 2-year old’s “first year” photo book. Ah yes, I have such good intentions until reality hits at about 5 pm. The 5-year old starts acting like she’s 2, the 2-year old strips down naked and runs around like a wild boar, and I realize dinner will be about an hour late. It’s all downhill from there. By the time my kids are asleep all I want to do is join them. That photo book is not happening. Again. But I’ve still got to do the dishes, laundry, and generally restore the house to a place that doesn’t resemble the path of a tornado. It seems like a lot to do at the end of a long day. But really, I’ve got it easy. Actually, I’ve got it easier than 663 million people. Let me explain.
It takes me about 15 minutes to do the dishes most nights: Load dishes, add detergent, push a button. Check. It takes even less time to do the laundry: Load clothes, add detergent, push a button. Check. By this point I’m normally feeling quite productive and decide not to bother cleaning the rest of the house. It will just look like this again tomorrow night, right? Instead I cozy up on the couch and stream some mindless show. I’ve got time. After all, what takes some people over 6 hours each day to do, I just did in under 30 minutes. The clean water that is piped to my house saved me the time I would have spent collecting water, the dishwasher and the laundry machine are doing all the work for me, and the dirty water from all this washing is going to be carried away by another set of pipes and cleaned at a wastewater treatment plant. All I’ve got to do is push a couple of buttons.
Single Family Rainwater Collection Tank in Rwanda. Image by Pete Isaac.
Toilet with Toilet Paper in Rwanda. Image by Pete Isaac.
Hand washing station in Rwanda. Image by Pete Isaac.
But 1 in 10 people in the world can’t sit on the couch because they don’t have access to the water and plumbing that would allow them to enjoy modern appliances. Forget about the couch. Women and girls trade time working and time at school to collect water. Believe it or not, 1 in 3 people don’t even have access to a toilet. That means more people have a cell phone than a toilet. When people lack clean water and sanitation, they have no system that reliably brings clean water to their home or takes the dirty water away, and that changes everything. Could you imagine a day without water? Without safe, reliable water and wastewater service? Most Americans take water, and the systems that bring it to and from homes and businesses, for granted. We turn on the tap, and safe drinking water reliably comes out. We flush the toilet, and we don’t have to think twice about how that wastewater will be taken away and safely treated before it is returned to the environment.
If you can’t imagine what that would be like, take a look at my friend Pete’s photos. Pete is a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Rwanda working with Les Compagnons Fontainiers du Rwanda (COFORWA), an organization focusing primarily on Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) projects. The photos on the left are water and wastewater infrastructure improvements in a rural community. The first is a single family rainwater collection tank, the second a toilet, and the third a hand washing station. And yes, you read that correctly, these are infrastructure IMPROVEMENTS. Before these were installed, families had to fetch water multiple times a day in a jerrycan. Materials to treat water, like chlorine, are typically inaccessible or too expensive, so water from this rainwater tank is either used as is or boiled before drinking to prevent illness. It makes my evening routine look like a vacation in paradise.
Our nation’s water and wastewater infrastructure is aging and in need of investment, while drought, flooding, and climate change all place extra pressure on our systems. As our pipes age and our communities grow, we need water and sewer systems that are capable of meeting our needs now and well into the future. The investments we make today to repair and upgrade our systems protect them so that future generations will not have to imagine a day without life-sustaining water.
On September 15, we join together with communities across the country to raise awareness and education for Imagine a Day Without Water. What better time to learn about water issues from a global down to a local level?
Watch HRSD’s SWIFT video to find out what HRSD is doing to ensure a sustainable source of groundwater for everyone in Hampton Roads and take a Virtual Tour of a local wastewater infrastructure improvement project happening now.
I appreciate what I have the most when I am sitting on my couch listening to my appliances do the work, but access to clean water and sanitation is more than just a convenience. It means more kids in school, fewer people getting sick, and for too many it can be the difference between life and death. We can do better. Water is essential, invaluable, and worthy of investment. So take a moment to give thanks, hug your toilet, and encourage others to value water. As they say, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.