Everything takes water.
From agriculture to engineering and manufacturing to electricity, humanity depends on those two hydrogen atoms attached to a single oxygen atom.
Lately, however, our fate appears grim as pollution and salinization threaten what was once thought to be a limitless fresh water supply. Millions of people around the world are without access to clean water. Futurists claim that the next giant wars will be fought over water, not oil.
Here in Savannah, with its shimmering creeks and sparkling ocean, there seems to be plenty of water, water everywhere. But that doesn't mean citizens shouldn't be paying attention.
"We can't separate our local water issues from our global water issues," implores Margosia Jadkowski, Environmental Services Planner for the City of Savannah. "You don't have to go very far from home to see water shortages."
The last decade's extreme droughts have left the middle of the state and parts of South Carolina parched, and water quality remains a relevant topic. The city draws the majority of its water from the Floridan Aquifer, a confined natural underground well that stretches across the entire state of Florida as well as parts of Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama. Billions of gallons are pumped per day from it for urban and industrial use, though recent intrusions of saltwater into the aquifer have necessitated cutbacks. Supplemental sources, like the Savannah River at the intake at Abercorn Creek, are also in potential danger of salinization with the proposed harbor deepening.
What this means is we don't have water to waste. While Jadkowski assures that the Savannah's water system is in good shape compared to other cities where water and other utilities have been privatized ("We're accountable to our residents, not to shareholders," she explains), she also advocates for public awareness for our most precious resource.
"Being a responsible steward of our resources is part of the definition of what it means to be a good citizen and a good neighbor." says the trained geologist and environmental policy wonk.
A regular presenter at the Earth Day and Food Day festivals, Jadkowski engages folks of all ages to conserve water in manageable ways by shutting off the sink while brushing your teeth and keeping pipes free of clogs by not dumping fats, oils and grease (a triple threat collectively known as F.O.G.) Operating from a small office on Factor's Walk with a view of the freighters floating by on the river, she also oversees the city's regular prescription pill collections to prevent folks from flushing hazardous materials into the water system.
To encourage locals to use water responsibly, Jadkowski has also developed several outreach programs to educate citizens on conservation. Her department gives away free Water Conservation Kits and heads up the city's Free Low-Flow Toilet Program. Replacing leaky old toilets with higher-efficiency models can save a household up to 35,000 gallons a year — and a significant reduction on the utility bill.
"It can be hard to incentivize conservation," she says. "The Low-flow Toilet program has been successful because it's real water savings we can measure."
Though some are in a flurry that water rates will go up $1.50 a month in 2014, it's still far cheaper to drink: Jadkowski points out that savings also come when residents realize the superiority of drinking out of the tap. While many believe drinking bottled water is healthier, all of those plastic bottles clog waterways and create pollution. What many don't know is that EPA's regulations for tap water are far more stringent than the FDA's for bottled water, and Savannah's water is some of the cleanest in the world. Tossing back the recommended eight cups a day out of the tap costs about fifty cents a year. The same amount from a bottle? Around $1400.
With the help of Environmental Services colleague Laura Walker, Jadkowski has also implemented school curriculums to help a new generation of conscious water users learn not just the how of conservation, but the why.
Sustainability and the Savannah River Watershed is an interdisciplinary high school curriculum that brings together biology, earth science and social studies for a comprehensive view of what a sustainable watershed could look like. Jadkowski admonishes that Savannah is an excellent place to teach students about water thanks to its unique tide, flat river bottom and "dendritic" system of waterways (referring to the root-like maze of creeks and tributaries intersecting the marshes and islands.)
Defining sustainability as "the intersection of the environment, society and the economy," Jadkowski uses her place-based curriculum to "take standard concepts and frame them in a localized way." So far she has presented it at Islands High, Windsor Forest High and Savannah Country Day School.
"Margosia did a great job of relating a variety of water issues that the city is dealing with," says Marsha Lucas, who teaches high school chemistry and environmental science at SCDS.
"She began by taking them on a Google trip down the Savannah River and discussed the importance of keeping the river clean as related to the ocean. The deepening of the harbor was an especially relevant topic which allowed her to explain the importance of an Environmental Impact Statement."
Lucas says that the curriculum helped her students make the connection between what goes down the drain and the environment, informing them about the clogging effects of F.O.G and the dangers of flushing medications.
"She stressed conservation, sustainability, recycling and reusing and did an amazing job of relating to my students," affirms Lucas.
Jadkowski and the City of Savannah have also published an activity coloring book for younger minds. Saving Savannah's Water follows Salty the Pelican as he learns how to protect the watershed, bringing third graders along for the ride. The concepts of salinization, conservation and sustainability are clearly communicated, aided by Cami Sanders' art.
The idea is to grow awareness at all levels not just about direct water usage (flushing the toilet, washing clothes, etc.) but also the indirect water usage involved in the food we grow and our electricity sources. (Your average shower uses 60 gallons. The water cost of a single hamburger: 660 gallons.)
The city makes Jadkowski and her programs available not just for school visits, but also to educate neighborhood associations and civic organizations.
"The goal is to instill an ethic of conservation in our residents," says Jadkowski, adding that every drop makes a difference.
"We always have a huge amount of power as consumers."