Halfway through this week’s heat wave, I took the plunge and did what some of my neighbours might have thought ridiculous or environmentally unfriendly: I turned on the lawn sprinkler.
I took some comfort in knowing I wasn’t the only one. Through the evening, I could hear the gentle pft, pft, pft and steady hiss of other sprinklers and irrigation systems in the yards of odd-numbered houses.
Unspooling the hose and reaching for the outdoor faucet, however, is no longer the benign act it was a generation ago, when the onset of summer’s heat prompted many of us to give our flowerbeds, backyards, front yards, cars and kids a good soaking. Like the grocery-store plastic bag or garden-variety herbicide, the lawn sprinkler is, for some, a symbol of either (a) the pitifully uniformed or (b) the environmentally obtuse.
Having once been burned by the wisdom of eco-warriors whose advice was to allow lawns to go brown in the heat because they’d eventually turn green again, I turned twice shy and reached for the hose anyway. (That bit of advice holds for some lawn types, but is an adage of doom for more delicate grass varieties.) Two days earlier, the Toronto-based lobby group Environmental Defence had issued a report on water use in the Great Lakes region titled Down the Drain. It details the careless and chronic nonchalance with which residents of Ontario treat one of the greatest natural resources: the seemingly abundant and inexhaustable supply of fresh water in those lakes. London, of course, derives its water supply from two of them: Erie and Huron. Ontario, the report notes, is the single largest consumer of Great Lakes water.
The tone of the report is, as one would expect from an environmental-advocacy group, one of urgency. It warns that 580 billion litres of fresh water “are being wasted every year by homeowners,” with little regard for the finite limits of such a precious resource, adding that nearly half of that amount could be saved annually through the use of high-efficiency toilets and appliances.
The report pleads for more diligence by property owners, corporate water users and municipal water systems in taking additional steps to ensure the “waste” is reduced. Municipal water systems, the report notes, waste an average of 13% – and as much as 30% – through leakage and loss.
All of which is useful and interesting, but just a tad misleading. It’s true that water is a finite resource – finite in that there is only so much of it. The water we flush, spray onto our lawns, use in our washing machines and lose through our leaky municipal systems isn’t “wasted” in the sense that time or food are wasted and can’t be recovered. Water returns to the natural environment through drainage systems, aquifers, rivers and streams. It evaporates, condenses and takes solid, liquid and vaporous forms. Like energy, it can be displaced, moved and changed, but neither destroyed nor created. There is nearly the same amount of water on Earth as there was a billion years ago. It can, however, be polluted – and that’s the greatest danger.
Rather than warn against the way we “waste” water, it would probably be more accurate to talk about our need to improve the efficiency with which we use it. Here there’s plenty of room for improvement, in all the ways Environmental Defence describes.
In London, by the way, the municipal water system’s rate of loss is at about 8% – well below the report’s averages.
But here’s the more startling local number, according to Pat McNally, the city’s general manager of environmental and engineering services and city engineer.
“With water conservation, low-flow toilets and the fact that we’ve been moving to more full-cost pricing, we have seen a decrease in demand over the past five or six years of between 16% and 18% . . . despite the growth in the community.” Pricing, proactive maintenance and smart consumer choices have all played a part, he says.
With fresh water, there are really just two imperatives: protecting its purity and improving of efficiency with its use. On the latter, at least, Londoners seem to be making progress, BP and the Gulf of Mexico notwithstanding.