By Sheila Read
“Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious and pure.”
~ St. Francis of Assisi
Water is essential to life. In the Church, the water of baptism symbolizes the Holy Spirit bringing us to new life in Christ. Yet despite its importance, most Americans take access to clean water for granted.
I lived in North Carolina for several years before I learned where my drinking water came from and the creeks and river into which the runoff from my property drained. It was not until the drought of 2007-2008 that I began to think about how I used water. As I saw the local waterways dry up and the plants in my garden wither, I began to change habits such as lengthy showers or letting the faucet run while washing dishes. During the drought, Falls Lake shrunk dramatically, leaving wide beaches and threatening the drinking water supply of 450,000 people in the Raleigh area.
Worldwide, lack of clean water is becoming a growing public health issue. More than 2.4 billion people, or one-third of the global population, live in areas chronically short of water, according to the Pacific Institute. And with a changing global climate, patterns of precipitation are changing, with extreme droughts and heavier rainfalls predicted to become more common.
Pope Benedict XVI has emphasized that access to clean water is a “universal and inalienable right,” quoting the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. “Inadequate access to safe drinking water affects the well-being of a huge number of people and is often the cause of disease, suffering, conflicts, poverty and even death,” the Compendium states.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops connects preserving the quality of water with Catholic Social Teaching on care of creation and caring for the poor. “To restore the purity of air and water, to halt the loss of farmland, to sustain ecological diversity in plant and animal life, concerted human action will be needed over many decades,” the bishops wrote in Renewing the Earth.
Caring for the poor and caring for the Earth are directly related, as it is the most vulnerable among us that suffer the most from environmental degradation because they lack the means to move from areas that are overexploited or contaminated by pollution. “Christian love draws us to serve the weak and vulnerable among us. We are called to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless. We are also summoned to restore the land; to provide clean, safe water to drink and unpolluted air to breathe,” according to Renewing the Earth.
Local Water Issues – Quantity and Quality
The Raleigh area is facing increasing challenges in both the quantity and quality of water available, said Bill Holman, director of state policy for Duke University’s Nicholas School for Environmental Solutions. The Southeastern United States has historically been blessed with ample rainfall most years, though it also has been subject to fairly regular periods of drought. The region is in a moderate drought now.
In addition, the dramatic population growth in the Raleigh area in the last 20 to 30 years also places stresses on the local water supply. And if extremes of precipitation indeed become more frequent, North Carolina will be challenged to develop a more robust water storage capacity, Holman said.
“Climate change makes a tough problem tougher because what we expect with climate change is more intense droughts, and when rain comes, more intense storms,” Holman said. “My own experience is we seem to be having a ten-year storm not once every ten years, but two to three times a summer.”
The Falls Lake reservoir also faces problems from pollution, especially from nutrients from fertilizers that wash off lawns and farms and sediment from construction sites. The Neuse River in Eastern Wake County was rated in 2007 as the 8th most endangered river in the United States. As a rough guide, properties north of Strickland Road drain into Falls Lake, while properties south of Strickland drain into Crabtree Creek and then the Neuse River, Holman said.
How can we be more mindful this Lent about respecting God’s gift of water?
Consider abstaining this week from wasting water by:
- Limiting showers to four minutes. A 10-minute shower can use 25 gallons of water.
- Avoiding letting water run during food preparation and dishwashing.
- Fixing leaky faucets and toilets.
Consider adopting practices in your yard to save water and/or avoid runoff of pollutants:
- Avoid or limit use of lawn fertilizers.
- Reduce the amount of lawn in your yard. Replace grass with drought-tolerant native trees, shrubs or perennials.
- Install rain barrels.
For more tips on water conservation, see the City of Raleigh’s Water Conservation Tips.