The California Drought Versus the Ice Bucket Challenge

Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois participated Friday with supporters in Chicago. Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois participated Friday with supporters in Chicago. Christopher Dilts/Quinn for Illinois

By now, the words "Ice Bucket Challenge" should send a shiver down your spine the way, uh, ice would when, well, poured on top of your head.

Because by now, if you haven't heard of the Ice Bucket Challenge, you might as wellread this, donate to the ALS Association, and then go grab a bucket, fill it with ice and water, and dump that freezing mass onto your skull.

Or... maybe not, because some say that's not such a good thing. Think about it: For every bucket holding gallons of water and ice dumped, that water and ice are pretty much being wasted. Twitter's caught on to this with the #droughtshaming hashtag, which used to just target those leaving their lawn sprinklers on and the like and have since been targeting the Ice Bucket Challenge participants:

Even celebrities — who love the Challenge — have caught on:

Of course, they've got a point: The campaign, according to The Washington Post, has used an estimated 5 million gallons of water so far. (Jason Ruiz for the Long Beach Post says it's used about 6 million gallons and The Grist... doesn't reach an estimate.) The ubiquity of the videos has even led to satirical posts about California fining those participating in the challenge

"Fresh water is one of our nation's most precious resources," Jim Gulliford, executive director of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, told The Wire in an email interview. "It is a resource that should never be undervalued or wasted. This becomes even more important when areas of our country are suffering from drought."

Gulliford is referring largely to the drought in California, which has led to increased water-wasting patrols this week to inspect and handle water usage.

But 5 million gallons, Gulliford said, is a small amount compared to how many gallons we waste in other, more regular ways.

"If we are interested in water lost or wasted each day, we should be less concerned with water used to draw attention to the insidious disease ALS and more concerned with water leaking from common household faucets," Gulliford said, adding that a faucet dripping eight times a minute wastes five gallons of water a week. "If the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has raised public awareness regarding the importance of not wasting potable water, let's channel that concern in a more positive way and fix leaking faucets."

In a statement to The Wire, the Environmental Protection Agency agreed:

EPA fully supports the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. The agency would also encourage participants to be creative in utilizing water, such as holding the challenge in a garden that needs watering, or finding ways to capture water for reuse.

Even California's Department of Water Resources information officer Doug Carlson told The Wire that the charity work of the Challenge is overshadowed by the true causes of the drought and the habits residents need to focus on changing.

"In the severe crisis we're in right now, people should reduce the water they're using," he said, adding that the department has not given the Challenge any thought in light of the drought. "People waste more water than [the 5 million gallons] needlessly watering their lawns."

On the opposite coast, Chris Gilbride, communications director at New York City's Department of Environment Protection, told The Wire the city's residents alone use about 1 billion gallons of drinking water a day, far more than the 5 million reached by Challenge participants in about three weeks of dumping and sloshing.

Indeed, there are many ways to look at the math. If it's 5 million gallons of water wasted so far in three weeks, that's a tiny amount compared to the 320 gallons of water used by an American household per day. Then, given 117,538,000 households according to the last census, that's 37,612,160,000 gallons used in one day. Five million out of more than 37.5 billion gallons equals about .01 percent. 

That's literally close to nothing.

Steve Fleischli of the Natural Resources Defense Council put it best in his interview with The Wire:

The average American uses about 90 gallons per person per day, so [5 million gallons] would be about the daily water used for about 56,000 people, or the annual use of about 150 people, or enough water for one person to use for 150 years.

It is a lot of water overall, but there are other ways to approach it... The best thing to do is to just write a check instead of doing the challenge. I think the people's intentions are good, and it's good that people are supporting the cause, but think of how much better you could feel by writing the check.

Among the varied approaches Fleischli proposed include doing the challenge in the shower or doing it on the lawn, therefore allowing the water to be reused. Some approaches that he liked, he said, were creative, like the videos of people who did itusing sand to bring attention the drought and to ALS.

If you're not convinced, Reddit took the matter into its own metaphorical hands, with a user reaching the following conclusion under the question: "How much water has the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge wasted?":

Comparatively speaking, very little. People use much, much more water for everyday activities than they do for the ALS ice bucket challenge. The most obvious example: you use as much water in one minute in the shower as you would use for one bucket of ice water. (The average showerhead uses about five gallons per minute, while the average bucket holds the same amount.) And most people take showers every day, for often quite a bit longer than one minute. 

It's settled then: When nominated for the Ice Bucket Challenge, just write a check. And then turn off your lawn sprinkler. 

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