You notice something when there is less of it.

Back in February when I was hiking in Big Bend I knew exactly how much water I was consuming. When you’re in a desert, you have water on your mind. And lots of time to think random thoughts. I’m finally getting to blog this a couple of months later.

I finish one litre before setting out in the morning. I use a small portion of that to mix in with my powder milk and granola for breakfast and drink the rest down while packing up and getting ready. I drink my next litre while hiking about 10 miles and with lunch. It was still pretty cool during the day back in early February so I didn’t need to replenish a lot of water. By late afternoon we arrive where we were going to camp for the night. I use about two litres between then and going to bed. I drink about a litre and use the rest to cook dinner. A tiny bit goes to cleaning dishes, brushing teeth, and sponging off.

So four litres per day kept me comfortably alive and hydrated, not counting the water in the whiskey. I’m calling this one unit of minimum daily water (MDW). Water is heavy. My backpack with four days of food usually weighs in at around 11 kg (24 lbs). Four litres of water is an additional 4kg (9 lbs). A day’s worth of water is 25% of the weight I have to carry.

Though we were pumping and filtering water from a creek during our recent trip to the Ouachita National Forest, I kept track of our water usage. Mine was about four litres a day again, or one MDW. Vivian’s was slightly less. Evan hardly drank any. We never carried more than a litre because there was a creek always nearby.

At home, we domestically consume about 100 gallons a day per person, the most in the world. That is 379 litres. Some drier western states ironically have higher usage, with Nevada and Utah coming in closer to double the average. But it’s not because we drink 100 times more water at home than I did while hiking. We typically consume most of it for showering, flushing, and washing. A gallon of water at HEB costs about a buck. But a gallon of clean water out of the municipal water mains costs less than a cent. So there is very little financial incentive to cut back on our water consumption. During winter storm Uri, millions didn’t have access to running water. And many more (including us) were under a boil-water notice for days. When you’ve got to get your water in gallon jugs from HEB you’re suddenly like me in Big Bend – you’re down to your 4 litres per day plus what you need to flush the shitter a couple of times. People in Ethiopia and Mozambique use the least water in the world – about 15 litres (less than 5 gallons) per day on average, about 20 times less than us. And it’s not because Ethiopians and Mozambicans are uber water conscious. They unfortunately don’t have ready access to cheap and plentiful clean municipal water.

The water puzzle gets weirder when you think about total water usage. I did mention that walking in the desert gives you plenty of time to ponder.

Besides drinking water and using it to wash, almost everything we eat or use requires water to grow or make. The coffee required to brew a single cup requires 130 litres to grow. A pizza margarita requires 1,600 litres, mostly to grow the wheat. Beef is the most water intensive food, coming in at a whopping 16,000 litres per kilogram. It is inefficient because we must first grow something using water and photosynthesis, and then feed that to the cow and then we eat the cow. Cows are more inefficient at turning water into meat than goats or sheep or chickens. But it could be worse. Imagine if we favored lion steaks. Then we’d have to feed cows to a lion before eating the lion.

Globally, we use about 75% of the fresh water that we extract from lakes, rivers, and springs to grow things we eat. Energy production requires a lot of water too. When we burn fuels to make electricity, huge amounts of water are used to heat and cool things. But if we are careful and don’t pollute the water it can go back into circulation. Not so when we drill for oil and gas both of which use vast quantities of water that is too polluted and will require thousands of years of filtering by nature to make usable again. Fracking (fracturing) literally uses the force of water laced with chemicals to break shale rock deep underground to release the gases stored in the rock. A typical fracking job requires 15 million litres of water or six olympic sized swimming pools full of water. The resulting polluted water either remains underground or is typically disposed off by drilling a dry well and pumping the water into it. That is 3,785,000 MDWs (enough to live in Big Bend for almost four million days or 10,000 years!). Solar and wind farms require enormous amounts of water to build solar cells and steel and fiberglass turbines. But after that they don’t need water to operate.

An empty plastic water bottle requires seven litres of water to make. A sheet of paper needs 10 litres. Making a car costs about 400,000 litres of water.

Scientists and economists call the total water usage our water footprint. It is the total amount of water needed for the production of goods and services and to live. Figuring out a country’s water footprint means adding all the water used plus the water inherent in products imported, then subtracting the water in exports.  Americans have the biggest per capita water footprint. Interesting things happen when you consider where goods are made or grown and where they end up. When Uncle T exports soybeans to China, he is also exporting American water. Being the largest exporter of cereal grains means that America exports huge quantities of consumed water. Like other natural resources, fresh water isn’t distributed evenly over the world. So there isn’t anything inherently bad about exporting water if the exporter is rich in water. California and Israel grow and export a lot of vegetables and fruits. And they don’t have a lot of water. Someday we may decide what to grow or make and what to export or import by considering our water footprint.

Uri is just a memory. I’m back home from Big Bend. I won’t think about this till the next time I’m not around a faucet dispensing clean, almost free water. May be I’ll eat a ribeye and buy a new car and take a long shower while pondering about what kind of a planet we will leave for our kids. It doesn’t take a hydrogeologist or a walk in the desert to guess that water or the lack of it will play an important role in the future.

Walking Ouiser

Remember when Ouiser and her friends were banned from playing at the school yard down our street? Life hasn’t been the same since then. She waits patiently every afternoon by the front door, waiting to go meet her friends. As the afternoon proceeds she gets less patient.

We’ve found some alternative trails and areas where she can have fun without needing to be on a leash. Though she has to take a chance on who she meets there, the presence of a creek or a lake makes up for that. The main drawback is that Vivian can’t walk there with her friends. Here is Ouiser in St. Edward’s Park and Redbud island (Vivian used to think it was called “Red Butt” island when she was little).

Spring Break

Who goes to Arkansas for spring break anyway.

We decided to take a chance and piggybacked on a trip planned by our friends Chris and Nina, and their children who are Vivian and Evan’s age and have known each other since pre-school (Jo stayed back to help Carol with her knee replacement surgery). Monday morning found us waking up in an Airbnb at a racehorse rescue stable. Then we arrived at the southern end of the Ouachita National Forest and embarked on a 18 mile three day backpacking trip.

We were never far from a babbling brook, and often in the middle of a fast flowing creek. On any given day there were several creek crossings where the water came up to Evan’s knees. Spring had not yet arrived. The valleys were full of naked trees and the trail was covered in a carpet of leaves. Our pace was purposefully slow – we hiked about two miles an hour and between four and eight miles a day. The little ones’ packs weren’t too heavy but the two older kids carried full packs. However, having water available next to you all day meant that all our packs were relatively light.

Being beside a creek also means that there’s entertainment for the kids all day. Free of their electronics and devices they skipped rocks, read books, sketched, chatted, had mock sword fights, played 20 questions, and explored. They were also pretty helpful without asking. Evan made fires for the evenings, Vivian cooked, they pumped and filtered water, set up and took down their tents, and packed up their camping gear. They also learned the right way to poop in the wild.

At home, Evan and Vivian only have to walk as far as the fridge or the pantry if they want a snack. On the trail I had got enough food but not extra, and Vivian seemed acutely aware of that. If she ate her cheese and her Kind bar right after breakfast she’d have only one helping of salami and crackers to keep her going till dinner. We discussed that 20% of the world’s children face some form of food shortage and live with hunger every day. Though having to pick between when she got to eat her expensive and highly nutritious snacks is in no way similar to living in hunger, she understood something about hunger in a way she hadn’t grasped before.

On the long drive back to Austin, I asked them what they’d like to eat when we got back. Vivian carefully considered her culinary options one by one. But Evan said with a smile “ramen noodles and Swedish Fish”. It’s what he had for dinner while camping every day!

Memories of Snowpocalypse

On Friday, Jo and I went to the grocery store hungry and ended up with twice the protein we normally buy because we shopped separately and each of us loaded up. By Saturday, it had been below freezing around here long enough that the ground was pretty cold and ice was beginning to collect on the trees. Saturday also marked another ice storm in Texas 17 years ago – the day I asked Jo to hang out with me on a more permanent basis and she said yes. On Sunday morning, as I walked to Central Market, long stretches of the sidewalks were icy and the trees glittered like crystals. The streets were almost empty and the store was uncrowded, so I got last-minute roses and king crabs to celebrate Valentine’s Day. That night, as we gathered around the dining table to work on Jo’s Golden Girls puzzle, the snow started falling gently, and unlike a couple of weeks before, it stuck. Even the streets, usually reservoirs of stored heat, turned white. The temperature dropped into the low single digits (in F). The cats and Ouiser and the kids woke up to a brilliant sunny President’s Day Monday morning with six to seven inches of beautiful dry powder outside.

On Tuesday, Vivian turned 14. Schools were cancelled. Karen brought us chocolate brownie mix that Vivian baked for her birthday treat. Ava gave Vivian a beautiful vase of white roses. Evan made her a birthday card. Nicolle and family had lost power in New Braunfels and decided to shelter at Lariat Ridge instead, which we could tell still had power because the remote security camera was still working. But their all-wheel drive Subaru didn’t make it up the last big hill and they walked the final three quarters of a mile to find that there was no water. The pipes from the well to the house had frozen and shattered. So they melted snow.

Shit started to fall apart. Power providers who depend on oil and gas started seeing disruptions in their supply of fuels due to freezing pipes and a competing high demand for gas from residential customers. Generating equipment started freezing over. Wind turbines in the cold and windy west and high plains froze. Millions of people started losing electricity and then water. Temperatures inside homes without power plummeted down to the 40’s (in F). Grocery stores were either closed or empty. The roads weren’t drivable.

On Wednesday morning we heard that Manju (Mummy) had passed away earlier that night.

Things didn’t get any better Thursday or Friday. But by Saturday, temperatures were above freezing for the first time in more than a week.

By Sunday it started warming up. One Monday morning everything was still white but by that evening most of the snow was gone. Schools remained closed because staff and teachers were in the same boat, many without power or dealing with plumbing wrecks. Remote school wasn’t an option either because WiFi requires power.

We were lucky to have power and water throughout and a working freezer full of food. Vivian and Evan liked having an unexpected 10-day long school break. Eventually things shuffled back to normal. The long lines outside grocery stores disappeared and people stopped buying an extra jug of milk and another carton of eggs for neighbors and friends. One night it got warm enough to run the air conditioner. Strangers stopped asking each other how they were doing at street corners. After a few more days, the only reminders were thawed piles of toppled over cactus in front yards and Ted Cruz jokes.

It was a week or two to remember.