Friday, May 29, 2009

Water, water everywhere?

The world is heading for “water bankruptcy” in the next few decades, according to this article that came out of the Davos forum last week. This prediction is even scarier when you read that it’s going to come true just based on the way we use water now, even in the absence of climate change predictions. So what does that have to do with living on a boat?

There are only so many ways to get your drinking water when you live on a boat. Some high-end boats can desalinate their own from sea water, using expensive high-maintenance technology that only works if the source water is very clean. Some others catch rain water. Still others, including virtually all the marina liveaboards I know, have water tanks on their boats that they fill from garden hoses or taps on their docks.

No matter what system people use, the hassle involved in monitoring and refilling our tanks makes us much more aware of water use and waste than we ever were before. When we lived in a house on land, we turned on the tap, the water flowed, as much as we needed, clean and nearly free. Even though water here in the marina is still virtually free, the hassle factor changes our mindset completely. I’ve mentioned before that in summer, each boat slip has its own water tap. But these taps would freeze in winter, so “winter water” consists of one tap at the end of the dock, in a special hose that sits deep under water below the freeze level, tied to the dock with a rope. You pull the tap up from underwater with the rope, then call the marina to turn the water on, fill your tank, then they turn the water off and you lower the tap back underwater again. The tap is about 100 feet from our boat, too far for our garden hose to reach, so we team up with other liveaboards, chain all our hoses together, and fill everyone’s tanks in a “water party” on a warm weekend day once or twice a month. The more water you use, the faster you empty your tank, and the more often you go through this exercise.

Strathy lives aboard with his young family in Canada and writes a blog titled We Live On a Boat; he would find our inconvenient winter water system an upgrade. In one recent post he mentions as an aside that “We also consume much less than the average four person family, simply because we don’t have an unlimited supply. For instance water; I have to haul all our water to the boat in jugs during the winter. Because of that, I keep a very close eye on every drop that comes out of our taps and can really turn into the soup-nazi if I think for a second that my water is being wasted. (NO WATER FOR YOU!!!)” Hauling jugs of water for a family of 4? Over the ice-covered docks in a Canadian winter? Wow!

So exactly how much water do we use? Statistics indicate that the average household in the U.S. uses 100 gallons, per person, per day. In the West, some cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas use as much as 200 gallons per person per day, as shown in figure 19 of this report. Some of that goes to watering the lawn and washing the car; still, indoor water use is 70 gallons per person per day, broken out as shown here on EPAs website. On the boat, we decrease our household fresh water use by using sea water to flush our toilet, and take our clothing to the laundromat, so we use less water than the land-based, but by EPAs numbers, we would still expect to use 35 gallons per person per day. Our water tank is considered “large” by standards of a boat our size, and we don’t have to be quite as rigorous as Strathy, but if we didn’t do something toward conserving, we’d be doing the garden hose dance every two days. Yikes! I’m not going to list a series of “how to conserve water” tips (other folks do that better, here or here) or wax enthusiastic about the joys of Navy showers (turn on the water, wet yourself down, turn off the water, soap up, turn on the water, rinse off), but think about it, okay?

(originally published February 1, 2009)

An Optical Illusion?

It was cold and silent as we walked down the dock in the gray pre-dawn this morning. No birds - gone for the winter. No people - most of them have left for the winter, too, their boats hulking under white shrink-wrap. No little splashy sounds of moving water, it's immobilized under a skin of ice. I wanted to hurry inside for warmth but was stopped by this fallen oak leaf. It looked so much like a gecko sunning himself, and for a moment I wasn't in Maryland on the chilliest day so far this winter, but on a Caribbean island.