When Patricia Terry replaced the grass in her Torrance front lawn with cacti and succulents, she not only saved water, she got to know her neighbors better.

“I’m not an expert in any way; we’re just having fun with it,” Terry said of the transformation. “We just went to Home Depot and picked out stuff we liked.”

Since the change, the mail carrier “has been telling me about his succulents. Another neighbor three doors down that I had never known invited me to her house to show me what she had done in her own garden,” Terry told the Episcopal News recently.

“Now, when she has extra avocados and tomatoes, she drops them at my house, and that makes me feel better about where I’m living and how I’m living,” Terry said. “Sometimes in our communities we stay in our homes and don’t even know anybody on our block.”

It’s the “how I’m living” part that inspired Terry to make the change in the first place, she said. “If we can start making small changes we can be better prepared for others that are necessary, to make sure everyone has safe drinking water and food and not have wars over these issues.”

She was inspired after reading The Big Thirst: the Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman (Free Press, 2011) with other members of St. Cross Church in Hermosa Beach.

Terry is also a member of the Program Group on Global Partnerships (PGGP) who, along with the diocesan peace and justice and Middle East ministries, wrote a water-awareness resolution that was overwhelmingly approved in 2012 by diocesan convention delegates.

The resolution called upon all Southland congregations to make a three-year commitment to raising their water consciousness.

Reading The Big Thirst was a first-year commitment; studying the theology of creation and water’s place in it was the second year suggestion and this year, 2014, congregations were invited to undertake a transformational project to increase “awareness of the need for water conservation and environmental sustainability.”

The Big Thirst’s tough truths

Consider these statistics from the book:

  • The average American uses 99 gallons of water a day at home; that’s 750 half-liter bottles of water, the most common size “in which we buy our indispensable Poland Spring and Evian”;
  • One out of six people in the world has no dependable, safe drinking water;
  • Most of our water use is hidden — the electricity we use at home requires 250 gallons of water per person each day. A single day’s meals for a typical American require 450 gallons of water;
  • Water is more indispensable than we appreciate — it is essential to launching the space shuttle, it is the reason microwave ovens can cook, and manufacturing microchips requires a kind of exotic water so clean that it isn’t safe for humans to drink.

The good news, says author Fishman, “is that most of what we know about water isn’t really wrong, because we don’t know that much.

“The bad news is that the invisibility of water in our lives isn’t good for us and it isn’t good for water. You can’t appreciate what you don’t understand. You don’t value and protect what you don’t know is there.”

That invisibility changed and awareness of the sacredness and meaning of water in their lives grew, as St. Cross participants wound their way through Fishman’s study guide questions, Terry said.

“They really opened up the subject in ways that maybe people haven’t talked about, although you know instinctively that this is important,” Terry said. “It was very moving for people.”

Other resources supplemented the book study, including two documentary films; Tapped, a study of the bottled water industry, and Flow: For Love of Water, about the privatization of water. Both are available free online.

Now the congregation, which tills four beds in the Hermosa Beach Community Garden, is hosting an April 27 Earth Day event, and parishioner Andrew Welch, as an Eagle Scout service project, is developing a self-sustaining garden along the back fence of the church parking lot, she said.

“I can’t claim that as a result of reading The Big Thirst,” Terry said of the garden, “but I think that when you raise consciousness, ideas and inspiration come to people in their own lives and how they want to live and the statement they want to make with their time and effort.

“It becomes part of your culture. It begins to be something in the back of your mind that wasn’t there before.”

Trinity Church in Santa Barbara had already created a Sustainable Trinity committee in 2010 but still undertook a four-week study of The Big Thirst, incorporating local experts as community resources, according to Jean Lange Davis.

It was attended by about 30 people, she said. “We tried to bring it home to them, where they live and what the particular issues are” while making theological connections.

Sustainable Trinity was established to help reduce the church’s carbon footprint through water conservation, recycling and composting. Participants hope to share resources with others, and are working with EcoFaith Santa Barbara, a coalition of local and regional faith communities and individuals, Davis said.

Given the extreme drought conditions, the committee and the church want to do as much as possible to help, including working with other congregations, she said.

“Any water issue is important in Southern California, and the Sustainable Trinity committee is interested in sharing information and ideas related to any number of environmental issues. We chose water mainly because the diocese recommended it.

“At the beginning we were hopeful that other congregations would join us, but that really did not happen.”

But, she added, “I think individuals were prompted to look more closely at their water usage and how they as families and individuals could be more conservative with their water usage.”