This is not about amazing artifacts or priceless gems. This is about modern ways of life and culture shock. This is about an exhibit that locals probably walk right by without any real interest. An exhibit that school kids groan about and then only look at so they can write their reports and move on with their lives. But it is an exhibit that I, an out-of-towner, experienced as a window into an alien world. It is the exhibit about water management at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), in Portland, Oregon.
You see, I was raised in eastern Colorado. Our average yearly rainfall is somewhere between 12 and 14 inches. The climate is technically a semi-arid steppe. This is a place where reservoirs provide the water for almost all of the population. If not a reservoir, then a well. The need to conserve water and allow it to flow into either reservoirs or aquifers is so great that the state has made it a crime to capture the rain in buckets or barrels. The key is to capture the water where its use can be carefully monitored. This is how I was raised, how I have always lived. Water is a precious resource.
Then, one year, I went to Portland with my family. Being life-long learners, we couldn't pass up a visit to a museum like OMSI. I only remember three things from our visit, but only the one comes to mind every time it rains. The exhibit that so captivated me was a whole room about how to get rid of rain water! It broke my (almost) desert-dweller brain. “Get rid of rain water? What do you mean get rid of it? You've gotta hang onto that water! Trap it in a reservoir, keep it safe, don't make it go away as efficiently as possible!” I don't know how long I stood there, stunned, until I noticed the statistic that explained everything. Portland, Oregon gets an average of 36 inches of rain per year. Three feet of rain. That's three times the amount of rain we get in northeastern Colorado. They don't need reservoirs. Or wells. Their lawns and gardens get water from the sky, not sprinklers. They get their drinking water from the Columbia River; a large deep river with a substantial flow. By fall, the rivers I grew up with can be crossed without getting one's ankles wet. It was a completely different way of life that I had never been exposed to or thought about.
So, what brings it up, now? I'd always lived in the suburbs, using city-supplied water. We'd had lawn watering restrictions before, but never really had to think about it beyond that. Last month I moved to a small cabin on an acre of prairie. Now our water comes from a well, and there are restrictions on what we can do with it. The permit for the well is listed as household use only, meaning we're not allowed to even water flower beds. Why not? The aquifer we're tapped into is really big, you'd think it wouldn't matter. Well, remember those reservoirs I mentioned? Water that goes into aquifers comes from the mountains, seeps into the ground, and keeps the aquifer full. Unless someone upstream traps it in a reservoir first. So now we have much less water going back into our aquifer so that people in the Front Range urban corridor can have the water they need. Since we all need to have food to eat, the farmers that grow the food have first dibs on the bulk of the well water. That leaves us non-farmers with only enough water to run our households.
This May has been a very wet month on the Colorado plains. We've gotten more than 5 ½ inches just in May. This is good because it will seep into the aquifer and be available later. However, it takes that water a while to seep through the densely packed clay soil, leaving us with large puddles that stick around for some time. When one of those puddles started encroaching on the cabin's foundation, we found ourselves having to switch to “get rid of the water” mode. Really all we could do was dig a small channel away from the house and pile the dirt up to make a dam to keep the water from flowing into the crawl space. It's not a fancy or permanent solution, but then we don't typically get almost half our year's rain in one month. It also gave me another window into a wetter climate, and reminded me again of that most interesting exhibit. I now have a bit of both worlds floating around in my brain. I’ll always be an (almost) desert dweller, but I don't have to panic about an inconveniently expanding puddle, either.
That's why I think that water management exhibit was the most interesting I’ve ever seen. I’m still using things I learned from it, and thinking about it, twelve years later. Sure the ancient artifacts and sparkly gems are fascinating, but in the end they don't really have all that much impact on a person's everyday life. So maybe, next time you're at a museum, don't just walk by the exhibits that make your inner school kid groan, take a few minutes to see what they have to offer. You never know when one of them just might be the most interesting museum exhibit you ever see.