We All Live on an Island – Part II

The “Smart Guide to Island Housekeeping” also has guidance about water conservation, probably with stateside tourists in mind. On St. John, fresh water is supplied by the skies. There is no groundwater, no glacier, no roaring river. Homes and businesses collect rainwater in large cisterns. From there, an electric pump circulates the water through the building’s plumbing as needed. Many homes, like the one we stayed in, have state-of-the-art filtration systems to ensure that the water is safe for drinking. Our host had bottled water on hand, but we drank the tap water and suffered no ill consequences.

For generations, these rain-fed systems have supplied all of the water that locals have needed. But that was before the advent of visitors whose idea of vacation often includes fifteen-minute showers, clean beach towels daily, and freshwater pools when the Caribbean isn’t good enough. What happens when the appetite for water outstrips what the skies can deliver?

Hidden away where most tourists never wander is the island’s desalination plant. Using diesel fuel shipped in by barge (or so I was told by a local who seemed to know what he was talking about), this “water factory” sucks in sea water, cleans it of its salt, phytoplankton, fish eggs, pollutants, and whatever else floats in the local seas, and provides it to local residents by pipe or tanker truck. Encountering one of these tanker trucks on the island’s notoriously steep, narrow, winding roads is something you don’t quickly forget – St. John wasn’t built for that kind of traffic!

The “Smart Guide” emploers “On a small island without any rivers, lakes, or deep wells, water is precious.” That is true on many levels. According to the Cruz Bay Realty website, the rate for desalination water comes to about ten cents per gallon – about thirty times what I pay in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. So, it is certainly precious in the economic sense of the word. But the guide clearly means a more soulful kind of precious as well. It points out that as visitors we need to be respectful of the people who live on St. John year-round, many of whom work very hard to maintain a very modest lifestyle. If we need high-energy, high-cost desalinated water to maintain our ideas of vacation luxury, they are the ones who pay the price with additional barge traffic in their ports, tanker traffic on their roads, and desalination waste products in their waterways. They live on an island and can’t easily escape the impacts.

On St. John, a small island with limited resources, the impacts of our actions are felt in relatively immediate terms. But really, we all live on an island. A luscious blue and green island floating in a vast solar system sea. Our actions, our casual but thoughtless over-use of resources, have an impact. That impact is usually felt disproportionately by those with modest resources. But in the end, we’re all passengers together. One island. One people. One planet. No escaping.

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