Do kids take water for granted?

As California struggles with a drought that has lasted for months and West Virginia slowly regains potable water after a chemical spill, one writer wonders if kids understand where water comes from when it flows from the tap. 

Jason Halley/Chico Enterprise-Record/AP
Water begins to collect in Lake Oroville at Lime Saddle Marina in Paradise, Calif. as rain returned to help with drought conditions Saturday, Feb. 8.

Here’s a timely suggestion for parents of young children: As the kids grow up, do whatever you can to help them develop an appreciation for water.

The chemical spill in West Virginia and severe drought conditions in California have focused a lot of national attention on the subject recently. By the time today’s toddlers are in college it’s likely that water will be a hot-button issue for every person on Earth.

A lot of Americans have grown up during the past half-century assuming that water is always available, in any amount. That belief starts early. As infants gain awareness of their surroundings, they often become intrigued and then fascinated by plumbing fixtures. Mom or dad turns a knob and liquid flows out of a metal tube and just keeps going and going, almost like magic. 

I’m not suggesting the immediate implementation of strict rules for every faucet in the house. A nice full bathtub and toys that float create wonderful childhood memories. I have plenty of them myself.

But at some point, you need to control the flow and it’s a habit that can be hard to change. I know several people who still have that semi-magical attitude; they believe water will always stream out of the tap in unlimited amounts because, for them, it always has. Every household in the US needs to send this notion down the drain.

By the time kids have finished elementary school, I think they should have practical knowledge about the everyday world around them, and parents should be providing a lot of that information. So if your children suddenly asked you where the household water comes from, do you have the answer?

Knowing the source is important because it opens the door to lots of other water questions kids should be thinking about. One good starting point is to take a close look at one day of water use in your household. You don’t have to take measurements. Just grab a pencil and paper and make a mark every time someone washes their hands, gets a drink, rinses out a glass, fills the dog dish, or uses the bathroom. 

Look at the result and then consider all the other people in your area who are also tapping the same source. Think about how much water is used all over your city every day, in all of the restaurants, supermarkets, car washes, drinking fountains, and fire hydrants. The number of water users in every community is enormous.

Thinking about water use may be the most important realization every family needs to make about water: In each city, a whole lot of users are sharing a limited supply and all of them have a stake in making sure it gets used wisely.

Notice I haven’t said anything about looking for ways to change household behavior and cut down water use. That discussion is one that families should have among themselves and set their own priorities. 

I like to point my water-saving advice toward taking basic steps. Try to get everyone focused on turning off faucets promptly. Don’t run the dishwasher if it’s only got a few items on the top rack. Think about the source every time water is flowing into your house. 

It’s also compelling to ask your kids this question: What if we turned on the tap one day and just a small trickle came out? What’s the absolute minimum amount of water you would need to get through the day?

Two excellent books are available for anyone who wants to learn more about water and how we use it. The first, “Water: A Natural History” by Alice Outwater, looks at how the settlement of North America and the growth of cities has changed natural water systems and created serious pollution problems. 

The second book, “Drinking Water” by James Salzman, shows how water has played a crucial role for cities throughout history and how public perceptions of drinking water have changed during the past 50 years.

You can say the same thing about water that realtors like to say about beachfront property: nobody’s making any more of it. It plays a crucial role in our lives every day, but having water available when we want it isn’t a guarantee. The subject is as vast as the oceans, and your kids will be wading into it someday. Help them get their feet wet.

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