Dear Umbra,

I live in the Sonoran Desert and we are in the 21st year of a drought. Overall my water and carbon footprint are small…. except for that 17,000-gallon pool that came with the house. For many years, we used the pool extensively in summer. Now, just a handful of times. So I am contemplating having the pool removed. The problem is that the cost is quite high: Probably $10,000 for removal, plus $5,000 for landscaping. My annual maintenance “cost” for the pool, meanwhile, is usually at most $500. I want to be a good steward of our natural resources, and yet $15k is… a lot of money. What do you think I should do?

— Price Optimized Overflow Limiter

Dear POOL,

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I’ve unearthed some interesting technical details about digging up pools, but before I fill you in on those we should step back and figure out what you are really interested in learning here. Are you interested in the wide open question of how best to spend your money to help the world writ large? Or are you narrowly focused on minimizing your own carbon emissions and water use?

The latter is what philosophers call the “personal virtue” approach — the whole “be the change you want to see in the world” ideology. It’s appealing because it allows you to act right now: It’s your money, your pool, your choice, 

But there are also big problems with the virtue approach, especially when you start tallying the costs: It’s totally inefficient and inequitable to spend lots of money getting yourself close to ecological perfection while the rest of the world swelters and suffers. At the extreme, this is the kind of thinking that leads billionaires to build zero-carbon doomsday bunkers in New Zealand.

Emma Marris — a writer who does a fantastic job dissecting our philosophical assumptions about wildlife conservation — pointed out to me that there’s a real danger in focusing too much on the either/or questions of green consumption. Focusing on individual choices has proved beneficial for people getting rich off the fossil fuel economy, Marris said in an email, because they haven’t had to worry about their own systems being changed. Instead, “everyone was too busy figuring out how many times you had to use a reusable coffee cup before it was greener than a disposable one.”

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There are a lot of other philosophical approaches that can help out when the personal virtue approach falls short — and these other approaches tend to expand the circle of consideration to your community, to the rest of humanity, and to future generations. I suspect that when you ask how to be a “good steward of natural resources,” you are asking about this bigger picture. What might do the most good for the most people? 

The answer to that question depends on your individual situation, and that’s where the technical details come in. First, there’s a huge difference between the problem of water conservation — which is mostly a local problem — and climate change, which is global. As Jenny Price, historian and environmental polemicist, told me, while your carbon footprint may be relatively small compared to your neighbors, it’s “ginormous” when you consider all the emissions made by the government to protect and support you. In that context, minimizing your personal carbon footprint is almost irrelevant compared to what you can do if you invest your time and money in improving your local politics, or building up the capacity of your community to organize and adapt.

When it comes to water, however, the calculus is different. Because water is (pretty much) constrained to its watershed, local action really does matter, said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program in Albuquerque. And it’s clear that in your part of the world, pools do use a lot of water: One published life-cycle analysis found that in Phoenix, the average pool uses about 20,000 gallons of water a year. That’s a little less than a lawn — which are even more notorious water hogs. Keeping a cover on your pool can prevent most of the water loss from evaporation, but surveys of satellite photos suggest that very few people consistently use covers.

The good news is that the programs helping individuals make water conservation choices have worked to save the groundwater in Fleck’s community. “Had we not done all the lawn-ripping-out, our use of aquifer water would be unsustainable,” he emailed. “Thanks to tearing out lawns, our aquifer provides a stable safety reserve. We’re less vulnerable to climate shocks.”

So ripping out your pool really could help — at least on a local level, with your community’s water supply.

Gary Woodard, a former University of Arizona water researcher who now serves as a water consultant to various cities, has been studying pool removal. And to his great surprise, he has found that lots of people who live in your area want to get rid of their pools. In Tempe, Arizona, for example, homeowners removed seven pools for every five they built as of 2015. In other southern Arizona cities, the total number of pools has still increased due to population growth, but the percentage of houses with pools has dwindled. “The closer I looked, the more surprised I was,” he said.

It is possible some of these people tearing out their pools are doing it because they care about the environment, like you. Removing a pool does indeed significantly reduce your water and energy consumption. But for a lot of people, it just makes financial sense. The $10,000 fee you mentioned is on the high end — that’s about how much it costs to remove all the concrete. If you just knock a hole in the bottom of the pool and tear out the top 3 feet before filling it in, it’s more like $3,000 to $4,000, Woodard said. It’s even cheaper if you just fill it in. It can take as little as two years for homeowners to start recouping the expense of removing a pool, thanks to reduced utility bills and eliminating maintenance costs. The financial case only gets more compelling as pools age and start requiring repairs.

So my advice would be to make some connections — if you haven’t already — with experts to see if the economics might work for you. And regardless of the answer, don’t let those connections and your newfound expertise go to waste. If you are interested in pool removal or water conservation in general, help Woodard — who proposed an interesting program for pool removal in the city of Tucson — get that idea implemented, or join one of the groups in your area working to inform and incentivize people like you. You are the target audience, so your experience would be invaluable. Alternatively, it might make sense to campaign for public swimming facilities, which use 60 percent less water and energy per household than backyard pools. You see where I’m going here. It’s fine to maximize your personal eco virtue. But you’ll really start to change the world for the better if you can take that interest into the public sphere.

It sounds like your pool is a big honking reminder of your water consumption that you see every day, which makes you feel uncomfortable. If it’s worth the money to you to resolve that feeling, then by all means, fill it in, or sell your house to someone who was looking to build a new pool anyway. But if you really want to help a wider circle, channel your discomfort into action that will make greener options cheap and pleasurable for everyone. 



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