Big crowd, big ideas kick off World Water Week at Sealth

Story and photos by Jason Grotelueschen
Reporting for West Seattle Blog

More than 125 people gathered at Chief Sealth International High School Monday night for the opening evening of their World Water Week festival, featuring a resource fair and notable guest speakers focused on a worthy theme – raising awareness of water’s value and the crucial need to provide quality water for people locally and worldwide.

The central event of the evening (pictured above) was a presentation by Robert Glennonauthor of “Unquenchable” and a law professor and water-issues expert at the University of Arizona. Sealth’s events for World Water Week are being led by Sealth senior Molly Freed and her social-studies teacher Noah Zeichner (who we’ve talked about previously on WSB; Freed was also on KOUW radio yesterday). Those two, along with others at Sealth who worked tirelessly to make the evening happen, were given praise and kudos by both Glennon and special guest Congressman Jay Inslee  for their efforts. We took the photo below just before Glennon’s speech got started:

 (From left: Congressman Jay Inslee, Sealth teacher Noah Zeichner, principal John Boyd and student Molly Freed, and speaker Robert Glennon)

We talked with Glennon before his presentation, and he commended Freed for her passion on water issues, saying “I’m here because Molly sent me a letter and asked me. It’s that simple. I don’t get a lot of letters from high school students, so I told her I’d make it happen.” Glennon also praised Seattle for being a progressive community that has “always impressed me” with its forward-thinking regarding water conservation, using less water even as population has risen in recent decades.

(In-depth coverage continues after the jump – including video of the entire auditorium event)

He cited “green infrastructure” and good drainage practices as examples of positive work being done here, as well as residential contributions such as rain-collection barrels. He stressed, however, that Washington state “can still do better” to tackle issues such as pollution in and around Puget Sound, and plummeting water tables particularly in eastern Washington where agricultural use is heavy and water is more scarce.   

Prior to Glennon’s talk, there was a 45-minute “resource fair” at Sealth in which people could share ideas and get information about water conservation and allocation issues, at booths such as this one from King County:

Here’s Zeichner and Glennon, during the resource fair:

There were plenty of familiar faces in attendance, including J. Paul Blake, City of Seattle Director of Community Relations Development, seen here with Glennon:

As the resource fair wrapped up, the crowd moved into Sealth’s auditorium for a 90-minute program to kick off Sealth’s World Water Week activities. Congressman Inslee – whose father taught and coached at Sealth – took the stage and commended Sealth for their events, saying “it’s a joy to see students and teachers leading on such a critical issue for our region and for the world.”

Inslee added that saltwater and freshwater are both crucial to the state, and that it’s important to deal with the issues at hand. For freshwater, that means “it’s time to stop wasting it, and start using it in a sensible and reasonable fashion – we’ve treated it as if there’s no limit.”  He cited examples from his political career in central Washington, working to support salmon and wildlife as well as farmers with the Yakima River Enhancement Bill, which created incentives to stop wasting water. For saltwater, Inslee mentioned the troubles that “ocean acidification” presents for oyster growers, among other critical environmental impacts. Inslee said the time is right for students and the community to get involved, and he presented the school’s library with a copy of the book “Apollo’s Fire,” which talks about America’s clean energy opportunities and challenges. 

Next up were Sealth Asst. Principal Lupe Barnes and Principal John Boyd (pictured below), who thanked the volunteers and families for their involvement with the week’s events.  Boyd talked about how the school’s new building itself was designed and built to be “environmentally friendly” with roofing and drainage systems that minimize impact on the surrounding land.  

Barnes then introduced Cecile Hansen, chair of the Duwamish Tribe for more than 30 years, who encouraged people to take care of the land in the same way the indigenous people of the Duwamish Tribe have always strived to. “We have to be great stewards – to take care of it. I applaud what you’re doing this week,” said Hansen, pictured here:

Hansen said the name “Duwamish” means “people on the inside,” meaning inside Elliott Bay and its surrounding rivers and bodies of water, and that the region’s water is of vital importance to her people.  To that end, the Duwamish Tribe is deeply involved with the ongoing cleanup of the Duwamish River, so that fishing can be allowed again. “We are truly  blessed in the Pacific Northwest,” she said, ending her remarks with the blessing “I raise my hand to you.”

Next on stage was Christopher Fontana, executive director of Global Visionaries, a non-profit organization that “empowers young people” and had worked with event organizer Molly Freed on several of her projects. “Still in 2011, young people do not get respect they deserve,” Fontana said, but commended Freed on her work and invited her to the stage.  

Freed thanked the crowd for coming, saying “for some reason, being passionate about these issues isn’t always considered ‘cool’ in high school,” but emphasized the incredible support she’s received from the Sealth community. She had been able to travel to the Aspen Ideas festival and to other events to meet with people, and  “learned something amazing – adults actually care what teenagers think!  I asked my heroes questions, and they responded with respect.”  

Freed then introduced a special recorded audio message from Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau and founder of the Blue Legacy non-profit organization. In the message, Cousteau said “World Water Week is a wonderful time to learn about issues” facing our environment both locally and globally. Cousteau also thanked Freed for her leadership and for “starting a conversation about water.”

Freed’s teacher and co-organizer Noah Zeichner then joined her onstage to introduce Robert Glennon, their keynote speaker who Freed said took “a genuine leap of faith to be here tonight, and we are so glad that he did.”

Glennon opened by praising Zeichner and Freed – “gosh, how do I follow them — what inspirational leaders they are!”  He reiterated that Seattle is “a pioneer” in doing good things with water, but that we can always do better. His presentation covered the nature of our country’s water crisis, what can we do about it, and three things our country could be doing but are not currently doing.   

WHAT’S THE CRISIS? – In a nutshell, we’re running out of water and “we must do better.” Glennon cited examples from Las Vegas including the new $9.1 billion-dollar City Center project, on 76 acres of the Vegas Strip. It’s a grand vision, but it has “only one problem and it’s a big one – Las Vegas has run out of water.” City leaders are considering numerous proposals including paying people as much as $2 per square foot to rip out their lawns, to save water.  Other ideas include building a desalinization plant on the Pacific Coast to serve Tijuana and San Diego, and then Vegas would purchase their existing water rights. Yet another idea would transport water from south to Las Vegas from Utah, but the church leaders who own that water are hesitant. “As a lawyer who follows water rights,” Glennon said, “it doesn’t get any better than a battle that pits Mormons against Sin City.” Glennon said many people are quick to point to the Vegas Strip, such as the Bellagio’s grand fountains, as examples of ridiculous excess with regard to water. But in reality, Glennon said, “The Strip is an illusion; it uses only 3% of Las Vegas’ water” because most of it is recycled. To emphasize how tricky the problem is, Glennon said Nevada farmers use 80% of the water (typical of most western states) to support an agricultural economy with about 6,000 jobs – that’s the same number of jobs produced by a single casino on the Vegas strip. 

Glennon cited other examples (such as Atlanta) of water issues, and said he likes to think of our country’s water supply “as a milkshake. If a new straw goes in, another straw should come out.” However, this isn’t happening because our population is growing and because “people are moving from where the water is, like Michigan, to where it isn’t, like Nevada.”  In terms of the energy crisis, the issue is how to balance water supplies with energy supplies. For example, in terms of biofuels, Glennon said it takes 4 gallons of water to refine 1 gallon of ethanol, but a jaw-dropping 2500 gallons of water to produce enough corn to make 1 gallon of ethanol in the first place.  Logistics are also an issue – Glennon said one-fifth of all the energy in California is dedicated simply to moving water around.  Even “energy-efficient” industries such as the Internet use 2-3% of our nation’s energy (for electricity and cooling) and that number is only going to rise.

WHAT ARE WE DOING ABOUT IT? – Glennon said the natural inclination of humans is to simply look for more water. “We humans have an infinite capacity to deny reality – we’re looking for a silver bullet.” The problem is that water is a finite resource, which has been recycled and reused since the beginning of time. But it’s the endless search for water that leads to both “real” and “surreal” solutions, as Glennon describes. 

  • Moving water: A leader in Colorado wants to move water from Wyoming to Colorado Springs – over the Rocky Mountains.
  • Enough dams: There was a time last century in which the U.S. was building dams constantly – no longer a viable option at a large scale, says Glennon, because we’ve already dammed and diverted most of our primary water sources.  
  • Groundwater depletion: Glennon cited some stark examples of this issue – the Ogallala aquifer depletion in the Plains, the Ipswitch River in Massachussets drying up because of overpumping from neighboring wells, a farmer’s field dropping a couple dozen feet in elevation because the groundwater below was gone. Especially in rural areas, almost anyone can still drill a high-volume well in most parts of the country, called an “exempt well,” and use an enormous amount of water.
  • Cloud seeding:  The idea of “seeding” clouds to make it rain simply isn’t viable, Glennon said. After 6 decades of cloud seeding, “there is no evidence that it works.” 
  • Desalination: The idea of converting salt water to freshwater certainly has its merits, Glennon said, and seems to be the most obvious solution given our planet’s abundance of salt water. 

WHAT SHOULD WE BE DOING ABOUT IT? – Glennon said that desalination does have its strong points, but he spent some extra time talking through some of the problems of desalination:

  1. Expensive – the “membranes” required for it to work are not cheap
  2. Requires a lot of energy – which in turn often means using more water
  3. Leftover salts – when the process is done, we still have to dispose of the “briny concentrates” that remain. Dumping them back into the ocean may threaten wildlife and plants. 

Reusing and reclaiming water – Glennon said this is an important idea. In Tucson, 10% of water is reclaimed, and isn’t used for drinking but for watering plants and lawns and for light industrial use.  Reusing water makes a lot of sense as a viable solution, but is costly because it requires a separate system of pipes and valves – one system for drinking/consumption, and one for the rest. This is easier to establish in new suburbs and developments, but much tougher and more expensive in urban areas in which streets and existing infrastructure often must be torn up first.

Conservation – Using less water is a good thing, Glennon said. Southern California doesn’t do this well, and imports more water than anyone else on earth.  Seattle has done better (population has increased 20% but water use has gone down 20%) as have other “green infrastructure” cities such as San Antonio, Tucson and Albuquerque.

Glennon said the ideas above are good ones, and will help, but there are 3 things in particular that he’d like to see America address, to tackle the problem head-on:

  1. Fix the American toilet – Glennon admitted that this is a “tough sell,” but the numbers speak for themselves and we have to figure out how to use less water to dispose of human waste. Of the water that flows into the typical American home, we use only 10% to cook and drink. We use one-third of it outside (watering and cleaning, etc), and of what’s left inside, we flush one-third of it away.  The EPA is also drawing attention to the problem of “emerging contaminants,” which basically are the remains of prescription drugs that pass through our bodies and get back into the water system, but then can’t be filtered out by water-treatment methods.
  2. Pay for water – Another tough sell, Glennon said, but the reality is that we pay less for water than we do for cell phone service or cable TV.  Our water bill doesn’t really count as “paying for water” because we’re only paying for the logistics of moving and delivering that water. In many communities, price tiers for additional/excessive water usage actually decrease as you use more water, which is the exact opposite of how it should be. Glennon said that we should recognize the human right to have water, cover that cost, and charge for the rest. If we allocate 12-15 gallons per person per day, that’s only 1% of the typical per-person water use for the average American, and we have to be smarter about that. There are no water meters in Sacramento, the capitol of California, for example – these are key issues to address.  
  3. Be smart about water reallocation – Glennon reiterated his belief that if someone “adds a straw to the milkshake,” then we must acknowledge that and encourage another water user to “take their straw out.” This isn’t an anti-business principle or a no-growth policy, he said, rather it’s a “reallocation plan” that helps us to be realistic about using  market principles to encourage reallocation of water. He used the example of Geneva Steel, a struggling Utah company that sold all of its facility assets for $100 million.  But this was actually less than the $102.5 million that the company received for its water rights – this happened because the state of  Utah said “no more ‘wink wink, nod nod” about the value of water – it’s a hugely valuable resource, especially in the West.  Farmers can help address this issue by planting more water-efficient and high-value crops.

In conclusion, Glennon aid “the crisis is real, no doubt about it,” but that right now we need the “moral courage and political will to act.”

During Q&A after his presentation, an attendee asked about what really caused the Ipswitch River to dry up in Massachusetts, in an area that receives more rain than Seattle. Glennon said it was an issue with groundwater pumping —  new suburban development outside of Boston, built upon “exempt wells” that weren’t regulated.  Glennon said it may seem strange for groundwater to affect rivers, but he offered this riddle — “Where does water in a river come from if it hasn’t rained recently?” The answer is groundwater – the water moves laterally across the water table to feed into rivers, but if the water table is depleted, then that doesn’t happen.

Another attendee asked “who bought the steel plant’s water for $102.5 million” and Glennon said it was the Central Utah Water Conservation District, which is a water wholesaler that then resold the water rights to developers. Those developers then ended up paying for every penny of the water, “as it should be,” said Glennon.  He added that the City of Seattle prices water differentially (higher) if you’re a new user, which is a good thing  because people who already live there likely have already paid to have the infrastructure developed.

A student attendee asked a question that Glennon called “a great one” – wouldn’t our food prices go up if we charge more for water, because such a huge percentage of water goes to farmers?  Glennon said there’s a chapter in his book called “the future of farming” that addresses this – the reality is that family farmers are getting out of the business. The ones who remain need to do things better. In some areas of the west, low-value crops like alfalfa (which are primarily fed as roughage to livestock) are grown in the middle of the summer and require huge amounts of water to irrigate them – Glennon said this makes no sense, and the water could be used in better ways to help grow the food that consumers really want and need. 

FULL VIDEO: Here’s our video of the auditorium presentation, in its entirety:

5 Replies to "Big crowd, big ideas kick off World Water Week at Sealth "

  • Linda in NYC March 22, 2011 (3:26 pm)

    Fantastic recap of the evening! Thanks!!

  • cjboffoli March 22, 2011 (5:03 pm)

    Nice report Jason.

  • nzeichner March 22, 2011 (10:09 pm)

    Thanks for the great coverage!

  • GKS March 22, 2011 (11:06 pm)

    So proud of Molly and Mr. Zeichner and everything that they have accomplished so far! I also commend the West Seattle Blog for their fantastic coverage. Chief Sealth is a school that deserves recognition for their students, teachers, staff, and their fantastic programs. Im glad they are receiving amazing coverage and praise.

  • Richard N March 28, 2011 (1:44 pm)

    I’m surprised to not see any mention of hot water rediness as a solution to saving water in the thousands of gallons each year. Today’s hot water circulators are quite advanced and a simple 20 minute DIY projects for majority of homeowners. They eliminate the waste and wait time of waiting for hot water at sinks and showers that many of us are very familiar with each and everyday. A family of 4 that waits 1 minute for hot water at their tap wastes an estimated 15,000 gallons each year. Ten homes thats 150,000 gallons. One hot water circulator allows the homeowner themself to optimize their hot water circulation system to their specific activation time, activation type, water temperature and does NOT require re-plumbing the home. It uses the homes existing cold water line to return water back to the water heater. After installing one you can’t help but feel good knowing your family will no longer be wasting water down the drain multiple times a day. And, it took only 20 minutes. I challenge you to search youtube for “hot water circulator install” and try convincing yourself that the 10 year old kid shown installing a hot water circulator is doing something you can’t do.

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