Gauge Your Water Footprint

By Lynnwood Andrews and Courtney Dragiff

All over Vermont this summer, wells ran dry, lawns turned brown, and water levels dropped visibly in streams and lakes. But in the past 60 years the state’s annual precipitation has increased by almost half a foot, according to the Vermont Climate Assessment. Where is all that water when we need it?

Yet, the Vermont Climate Assessment states that average annual precipitation has increased 5.9 inches since 1960.

Wetter or drier, our water patterns are changing markedly as our climate changes. And that seems very likely to continue, scientists report.

More precipitation will fall in winter, especially at the higher elevations, but increasingly it will fall as rain instead of snow. More drought will occur, typically in summer, but also more prolonged droughts spanning years.

Already, average December stream flows have increased, while April and May flows have decreased.

A year ago on Hallowe’en, five inches of rain drenched parts of Vermont, yet since then we slipped into moderate drought across eastern Vermont. The year 2016 saw the worst drought here since the 1960s. Soil southern Vermont was the driest in the nation.

How are we to remain resilient? We need to know our water footprint, and we need to take steps to lower it. We need to understand the effects of extreme rain events and drought and mitigate them.

Water Footprint

According to the Water Footprint Network, your water footprint “measures the amount of water used to produce each of the goods and services we use.” It comprises three types of water – blue water, which is taken from surface or groundwater, such as from a well or reservoir; green water, which is rainwater stored in the root zones of plants; and grey water, which is the water used in converting polluted water, such as sewage, to meet water quality standards.

Reducing your water footprint requires understanding your consumption of each type of water. You can calculate your water footprint at the website of the Water Footprint Network. Knowing how much water is consumed in the production of the things you buy informs your choices. For example, beef, coffee and cotton production use high levels of water, whereas, chicken and tea have lower levels.

Extreme Rain

Rainstorms are predicted to become even more intense, continuing a decades long trend; that leads to more run-off and considerable damage to natural and built environments alike.

Rain does not get the chance to soak into the ground to replenish soil moisture and groundwater levels. Fast run-off scours stream beds, ruining habitat for plants, fish, reptiles and amphibians, dependent on moderate, predictable stream flows. Soil erosion increases. Roads and culverts bridges and dams are washed away. Cellars flood.

Mitigating against intense rainstorms requires slowing the water down to give it a chance to soak into the soil before reaching ditches and streams. It also means slowing the water down in streambeds. Solutions that enhance natural water systems include creating riparian buffers, protecting and restoring wetlands, reducing turf, increasing the organic content of soil and restoring streams to their natural state. Ways to slow the water down near your home include permeable paving, rain gardens, swales, converting turf to meadow-style planting, and grey and rain water collection systems.

Drought

Regular summer droughts, such as we experienced this year, as well as longer term droughts are bound to become more frequent.

Measures to guard against extreme rain increase groundwater and soil moisture levels and so mitigate against drought.

Further water conservation measures include water-efficient appliances and devices. Rainwater collection and storage systems have improved considerably beyond simple rain barrels and cisterns, though even these are effective. Mowing practices that minimize harm to pollinators and other animals also increase soil moisture.

Set your mower to 4 inches. Mow no more than every two weeks. Let areas of your lawn become “meadows and mow them only once/year either in late October, or in early April. Leave mowing debris in place – do not rake.

Resources

Originally published in Winter 2020 Norwich Times