Climate Change Connections: Water

The most common substance on Earth needs our protection.


“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” —C.S. Lewis

In considering the effects of climate change on water, the bottom line is that they are inextricably linked. This is so broad a subject that it is not practical to address its enormity in a small column. With that in mind, I will narrow it down to us who call ourselves “Islanders,” we whose very culture is based on water because we are completely surrounded by Vineyard Sound, Nantucket Sound, and the Atlantic Ocean. I will further reduce the expanse of this relationship of water and climate change by focusing on our freshwater supply, contamination, and conservation.

Before I begin, I have some uncommon facts about this common substance:

  • Approximately 400 billion gallons of water are used in the U.S. per day.
  • If everyone in the U.S. used one less gallon of water per shower or bath, we could conserve 85 billion gallons of water per year.
  • A person can live for about a month without food, but only a week without water.
  • The average swimming pool takes 35,000-50,000 gallons of water to fill.
  • A full-size oyster can filter more than 25 gallons of water per day!

In researching my subject, I found that there was so much I needed to learn, so of course I went to the experts:

  • Bill Chapman: superintendent of the Edgartown Water Department
  • Scott Ellis: Water Commissioner in Edgartown, Plumber
  • Liz Durkee: Author, editor, Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s Climate Change Coordinator

Bill explained that most of our drinking water is drawn from the underground aquifer that lies beneath the towns of Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, and most of West Tisbury. He noted that we are extremely lucky to have this large aquifer that produces 1.5 billion gallons a year and can sustain much more than that, but, at the same time, he said we must be mindful of conserving and find preventative ways to protect our water supply, “preventative” being the buzz word.

Liz stated that even though we have plenty of water now, there are certainly reasons to conserve water. She noted that climate change will increase droughts, and that rainfall will be getting heavier, which means less water percolates through our soils into the aquifer.

Scott, Liz, and Bill all pointed to development as a cause for concern for our water supply, because more development means more water use. The size of houses and the use of lawn irrigation needs to be addressed.

Pools also factor into this picture because of the large amount of water needed to fill them. In 1993, the first year of pool permits in Edgartown, there were four. From 1993-2023 there were 719 pool permits issued in Edgartown. There was a 53 percent increase in the average number of permits in the last five years compared to the prior five years.

Liz stated that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is conducting a carrying capacity study of the Island that will look at current and future water usage, taking into account anticipated climate change.

Contamination was another topic that all three were clearly vocal about in discussions about sustainability and conservation. They all had concerns about keeping the aquifer pristine and contaminant-free because it is very vulnerable to pollutants like fertilizers, fuel spills, cooking grease, engine oil, paint, etc. Liz had concerns about chemical contamination, like PFAS, known as forever chemicals because they don’t break down over time. Bill and Scott both expressed their dream of a regional sewer system that could be in place for the whole Island so that contaminants could be controlled.

It is clear that climate change means increased drought in summer and early fall and other stresses on our fresh water. Climate change means more storms and heavier rainfall, which can overcome the capacity of our soils to absorb the water so it can percolate into the aquifer. Climate change means conserving water and protecting it from contaminants.

These circumstances don’t have to be daunting. We can start where we are and change the ending.

Here are some suggestions for climate change action pertaining to conservation of water:

  • Use a pistol-grip nozzle when watering plants, washing cars, or washing boats at docks. Avoid watering sidewalks, patios, and driveways.
  • If you have a pool, use a cover. You can cut the loss of water through evaporation by 90 percent.
  • Do not flush anything down a toilet except toilet paper, even if the package says “flushable.” What you flush (“flushable” wipes for example) might make it down the toilet, but anything but toilet paper will clog up the pump station, and then it takes a lot of time to take the pumps apart to get them working again.
  • Follow your town’s lawn-watering hours. In general, water your lawn in the early morning or early evening to avoid excess evaporation.
  • Take showers in place of baths.
  • Fix leaking faucets and toilets. A leak of one drop per second can waste up to 2,400 gallons per year, and a leaky toilet can waste as much as 200 gallons per day.
  • If you are a homeowner, install water saving fixtures and toilets.
  • In order to protect the aquifer, dispose of hazardous waste at the M.V. Refuse District located in Edgartown, which also serves other towns.

Don’t forget: There is a tree planting event in Oak Bluffs at Niantic Park on Saturday, April 20, starting at 9 am.

If you have climate change news or ideas email Doris Ward at