Rain, Water and Water Conservation on St. John

St. John has been having a lot of rain this last few weeks. Some of it has been associated with tropical storms and some just plain rainy days.

The guts are running cisterns are filling up and mosquitoes are hatching. My cistern is actually overflowing. Time for a nice long shower, wash the clothes and do the dishes. Looks like more rain coming.

Notwithstanding these wet rainy days, in general St. John is a dry place. When I first came to the islands in the 1970s the attitude toward water was one of serious conservation.

It wasn’t so easy to get water in those days, so people really conserved. If you ran out of water, you might have to wait a while before you could get a truck to bring you more. On St. John, the situation was especially critical. Although there were some wells that could provide limited amounts of water, most water for delivery came on a barge that arrived every once and a while from Puerto Rico.

It wasn’t fun to run out of water. No flushes meant things could get quite stinky, as was the case with no showers and the kitchen sink could fill up with dishes in no time at all.

To conserve water, you took a shower by turning on the faucet just long enough to get wet and then quickly turned it off. Then you’d soap up completely after which you’d turn on the water just long enough to get the soap off. Same with brushing your teeth, shaving or washing dishes. You didn’t run the water while you were doing something else.

Flushing the toilet was only resorted to when absolutely necessary. It was hard to find bathrooms in guest houses, restaurants and other facilities frequented by tourists that didn’t have some sort of message posted begging the user to save water, especially in regards to flushing. Some were pretty cute, I remember, like “On this island in the sun, we seldom flush for number one” or “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.”

These measures could be very effective and people rarely ran out of water, even during prolonged dry spells.

Nowadays the situation has changed radically. St. John has become a place dominated by large luxury homes, most of which are rented out short term to tourists. With prices often more that $1,000/day there’s not much use in telling visitors not to flush or to take short showers. These homes often use more water in a day than native families and residents who still live in modest homes use in a month and probably more water than most of the world’s population uses in a year.

Years ago, the idea of building a swimming pool for your home would have been greeted with laughter. “Why would you build a swimming pool on an island with so many world class beaches?” Today, a swimming pool is just about obligatory (as is air conditioning) for that vacation rental or second home. Given the great surface area of swimming pools, the amount of water lost to evaporation is considerable and is another factor leading to the demand for water.

Today, however, there is a water desalinization plant to provide water, which supplies areas serviced by water lines and which can be delivered to homes in large water trucks. Rainwater is supplementary, but no longer is the source of most water used on the island’s large homes and hotels. Most of the time people can get water delivered when they need it, but not always.

The problem is that as more and more luxury homes come on line the demand for water is ever increasing and WAPA can barely meet demand on St. John today. Rationing at the water plant is already quite common during dry spells or when there is a problem with the water makers at the Caneel Bay Resort or the Westin so it looks like we’d better start thinking about water conservation once again, because it very well may not be there for you, if you run out.

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