Living Downstream

Living Downstream

The constant thrum of rain today on our brand new roof made me both grateful (no more water dripping from a cracked skylight into the 2nd floor hallway!) and mindful of what I learned at a Rain Barrel Workshop last week.

The workshop was co-sponsored by the Lancaster County Conservation District, and Live Green Lancaster, a nonprofit organization that’s working on pressing environmental issues in Lancaster. One of those issues is the quality and sustainability of our drinking water supply. Though I consider myself fairly environmentally conscious, I have to confess that I haven’t given nearly as much thought to our water consumption as I have to our energy consumption. The information provided by Fritz Schroeder (Live Green’s Program Director) and Matt Kofroth (Watershed Specialist at Lancaster County Conservation District) was eye-opening and more than a little disconcerting. Here’s what I learned:
• Most Lancaster residents get our drinking water from the Conestoga River and the Susquehanna River.
• When rainwater flows across parking lots, roads, sidewalks and other impermeable surfaces, it picks up oil, chemicals, and other pollutants creating polluted “stormwater” (rainwater that isn’t absorbed into the earth). Stormwater is the source of most of the pollutants that end up in our streams.
• In Lancaster city, the sewer system is a “combined system” that carries both stormwater and sewage from homes and industry, and sends it all to the city waste water treatment facility. That treatment facility has a limited capacity for processing all of the incoming water. When we have heavy rains, the facility can’t handle the incoming volume of water, and the overflow goes directly into the Conestoga River. They estimate that roughly 1 BILLION gallons of UNTREATED sewage and stormwater ends up in the Conestoga River every year.

Matt summed all of this up with this mantra: “We all live downstream!”

These few basic facts were enough to convince me to install a rain barrel (or two) here at the house. Rain barrels connect to the downspouts to capture and store rainwater coming off of the roof. This reduces the amount of stormwater flowing into the sewer system, and the stored water can later be used during dry spells to water trees, flowers and grass. The stored water can also be used for various cleaning tasks (though NOT for cooking, drinking or bathing).

We had a rain barrel at the log cabin we lived in in Virginia – but there we had a well and septic system, and we had other reasons for wanting a rain barrel.

Matt and Fritz provided a few other sobering water usage factoids that gave me pause:
• the average family of four consumes 400 gallons of water PER DAY (an average of 100 gallons per person per day)
• it takes 9 gallons of water to produce a slice of wheat bread (considering all of the water needed to grow, harvest and process the wheat, and make the bread)
• it takes 11 gallons of water to produce one orange and 44 gallons of water to produce one egg
• 2 pounds of chicken require 800 gallons of water to produce, and 3400 gallons of water go into making 2 pounds of beef

Whew! I had no idea. But now that I do, I’m a lot more conscious of how I use (and waste!) water in little everyday ways without even thinking. Luckily, along with the sobering facts, they also provided
ideas for lots of simple changes each of us can make to reduce our water consumption and protect the quality of our water supply.

It was an excellent workshop – educational, sobering, motivating and action-oriented. I signed up to get two rain barrels through their program. They’ll arrive in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, as Earth Day 2011 (April 22) approaches, the mantra they shared will remind me to do my individual part, because: “We all live downstream.”


What are you doing for Earth Day this year?

Postscript: I also learned that it takes 2 gallons of water to produce a single sheet of paper. So, please don’t print this blog!!

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: city life lancaster pa sustainability

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