Recklessness Revealed

            The latest test of our individual and collective steadfastness to carry on in the face of crisis and associated pressures has brought home another pressing reality – our water supply.

            The current boil water order has created, in my mind, a whirlpool of other concerns – namely water consumption by humans. My thoughtless, casual turning on of the tap whenever I wanted or needed and taking as much water as I felt like is, simply put, outrageous.

            The reality check happened while I was washing tomatoes.

            But first, if we can go back in time a bit, COVID-19 presented us with such questions as, “Is the supply chain virus-free?” and “How do I wash fresh fruits and vegetables that I know others have handled with unclean hands?”

            I’ve always taken the washing of fresh produce very seriously (and still do), but it took on a new dimension with COVID-19. A major component of washing anything is fresh, clean water. In the throes of the pandemic, our public drinking water’s quality wasn’t an issue. I merrily and with splashing abandon washed produce like they were tiny newborn babies, lathering them with plenty of soap and freshwater rinses.

            I never took into consideration freshwater consumption until we got our water bill. But still, we are lucky enough to be able to pay and happy to do so for the privilege of having clean, refreshing water whenever and in whatever quantity we wish. As we made sacrifices in nearly every other aspect of our modern on-the-go lifestyles, water and its clean availability wasn’t one of those sacrifices, it was plentifully enjoyed.

            Last week, the water from the Mattapoisett River Valley, which is routinely tested for the very purpose of ensuring it is safe for consumption (humans and animals that is), was found to be contaminated. It was shocking, but not the end of the world. Heck, I grew up without a hot water heater. Boiling water for cleaning purposes was an everyday, day-in, day-out necessity. I told my husband not to worry, I know how to handle this problem.

            But a monster wave of reality hit me in the face as I washed those tomatoes to make sure they weren’t covered in COVID-19 germs – 12 cups of boiled, then cooled water went down the drain in the process. Twelve cups! What was I doing using that much water to wash tomatoes? And then, I thought, “If I’m using that much to wash fruits, how much am I using to wash myself?” I am a bit bigger than a tomato, after all.

            All that got me thinking about how much water the average human uses over the course of a day living on planet Earth in a developed country. It does, in fact, matter what part of the planet you find yourself. America has historically had plenty of fresh water. Now, however, there are challenges. Drought in the southwest and in California, our dependence on beef cattle, which requires tons of feed – which requires tons of water; industries such as textiles require lots of water, and the list of demands on water by industry and commerce is endless. It is just not sustainable at the current pace.

            Consider this: In developed countries such as ours, 17 gallons of water are used for an eight-minute shower; toilets installed prior to 1982 use 7 gallons with each flush but a mere 1 gallon in newer systems (well, that’s good news), and 20 gallons for every load of washing we do. Yikes! And that’s all before we factor in meal preparations and associated cleanup (average 6 gallons per dishwashing machine cycle).

            The boil water order doesn’t include abstaining from taking showers. You just have to make sure you don’t get it in your mouth, in open wounds, or in some other internal part of the body. So, because I’m a bit freaky about germs and organic cells swimming around in my water, I went back to the 1950s tub baths of my youth. Boil water, place in tub, and then wait until it is sufficiently cooled so as not to scald the skin off your bones.

            I’ve gotten my body-washing water use down to about 13 quarts, or 3.5 gallons, but it is neither easy nor convenient and requires a strong arm to carry the water from the kitchen to the tub. Thank you, Paul.

            I’ve watched the documentaries that talk about the struggle of African women whose job it is to collect water every day for their families. We’ve all seen the videos of women carrying children on their backs and water jugs on their heads. But now consider how masterful these women must be in using the water they carry home. It can’t be more than 2 or 3 gallons at most. They must figure out how much of the water will be used for consumption by the family and how much will be used for cleaning.

            These people have been born into societies that deal with water consumption very differently than we do here. We are the lucky ones.

            As the days of the boil water order mount, I can only imagine the stress the Mattapoisett River Valley District Water Commission is under. I’d venture to say that those charged with finding the source of the contamination and taking steps to purge the system so we can go back to turning on the taps with confidence are doing their best.

            Not unlike the reality of trying to find ways to physically and mentally survive a world where COVID-19 threatens life, I’m finding ways to use this latest assault on modern living to change bad habits.

            I’ll find a way to wash apples and tomatoes to a standard I’m comfortable with without wasting clean water. I’ll find a way to keep my body clean without using 17 gallons of clean water every day. I’ll feel good about my efforts and the learning experience therein. I will genuinely try. But, moreover, I will never ever again take fresh, clean water for granted.

This Mattapoisett Life

By Marilou Newell

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