Long before Governor Jerry Brown ordered mandatory water restrictions to ensure Californians cut back in epic drought—and even before the drought itself—the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, took on ethical water use as an article of faith.
In 2008, as the congregation worked to earn certification as a Green Sanctuary, members zeroed in on what they could do for water. They began with small steps—a water-efficient dishwasher in the church office, for one—and ultimately made real strides. The church invested in drip irrigation and switched out thirsty plants with natives. The congregation tapped a member to chair a local water taskforce. It sent others to testify at state Senate hearings on California’s “Human Right to Water” bill. The church’s green committee brought in speakers to talk about the importance of living with less water in a changing climate. They even got members to pledge to one less flush a day; the 1,000 or so gallons saved daily would add up.
Spread across communities, ethical water choices do add up. In fact, a widespread ethic for water was the single-most important part of the answer for how parched metros such as Perth, Australia; Singapore; and San Antonio, Texas, turned around their water fortunes amid crisis. In Australia’s severe drought of the early 2000s, one of the nation’s best-known scientists, Tim Flannery, pronounced that Perth could become “the twenty-first century’s first ghost metropolis,” its population forced to abandon the city for lack of freshwater. In large part thanks to a new water ethic that has Aussies shunning lawn sprinklers and wineries irrigating grapes with recycled wastewater, just the opposite is true. Perth has become a worldwide model for adapting to its dry home.
From the recent news that some Southern Californians have been tapping even more water in the drought, to a growing scourge of harmful algae in the Great Lakes and along beaches and springs in my home of Florida, it’s clear that the traditional players—water managers and water lawyers, even engineers and environmentalists—cannot save our water for future generations and ecosystems on their own. Water needs the rest of us. Places of worship—along with other institutions such as universities—are well-suited to help spread a budding water ethic across America. The UU church in Palo Alto is just one of a growing number of U.S. worship places taking on water—often amid a dearth of political leadership. Congregations that have long worked on clean-water projects as an obligation to the poor in places like Haiti are now also tackling water sustainability back home—helping their communities use less and pollute less. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has developed Vacation Bible School curriculum around water, blending hands-on testing in local creeks with teachings on the water challenges of the Third World.
Houses of worship are particularly good showcases of green infrastructure and low-impact design, which clean and store water in decentralized ways, like rooftop solar panels. In Milwaukee, the Islamic Society and Trinity Episcopal and Tippecanoe Presbyterian churches have joined with the local sewer district and environmental NGOs to retrofit impervious surfaces to stem pervasive flooding and its pollution that runs to local rivers and Lake Michigan. Students in the Islamic Society’s Salam School used to look out their second-floor classroom windows at an ugly stretch of gravel ballast covering a 6,000-square-foot gymnasium roof below. Today, their vista is a green and red rooftop garden of sedum, low-growing succulents that bloom through spring and summer with star-like yellow flowers.
At St. Johns Episcopal Church in southwest Florida, parishioners planted a lush rain garden as a model to show citizens how they could help keep storm water pollution from flowing into Naples Bay. In Maryland, members of Towson Unitarian Universalist Church are likewise building a native rain garden on a slope near their sanctuary. When it’s finished, they’ll host a workshop to teach the larger community how the plants, river rocks, and earthen berms keep pollutants from washing into the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Transforming America’s relationship with water requires this depth of public involvement and understanding. A generation ago, a burgeoning anti-litter ethic moved from the personal to the big picture as people put pressure on beverage makers and other industries to change practices, removing tons of pop-off tabs and other litter from our byways and waterways. The same will prove true for water. Once citizens come to view water through an ethical lens, they’ll expect the same of the products they buy and the representatives they elect. People will choose not only water-friendly landscaping plants, but water-friendly foods. They’ll decline to re-elect politicians who protect polluters over water-quality.
Back in California, Congregation Beth David of San Luis Obispo worships in the first LEED-certified synagogue, embodying the Jewish doctrine of tikkun olam (repairing the world) with a design that uses dramatically less water and energy. Outside, four olive trees mark a landscape of native plants. The olive branches harken an unprecedented gesture of unity during a recent record-dry fall in Israel, when Christians, Muslims, and Jews gathered together in a valley between Jerusalem and Bethlehem to pray for an end to drought. Literally a chemical bond, water is also one of the deepest bonds among people. Ultimately, a water ethic will strengthen that bond as it brings to the fore our shared circumstance and our dependence on water.
Journalist Cynthia Barnett is the author of three books on water. They include the Beacon Press title Blue Revolution, which calls for a water ethic for America, and her new book Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. Ms. Barnett’s talk, “Putting Faith in a Water Ethic” from the University of Florida’s frank conference for public-interest communications can be viewed here.