How do you measure the cost of a toxic spill that turns off the tap?

Known as 'buffalos', water tanks from Northern PA were arrive at a steady pace at West Virginia American Water on January 10, 2014 in Charleston, West Virginia. 

A saying of Ben Franklin's has special resonance in Charleston, W.V., "When the well's dry, we know the worth of water." Or, when it's been contaminated. Even for residents who don't run restaurants, or need hospital care, the inconveniences added up over five days.

Amanda Hardman appreciates her good luck. She's got a car, so she can get to distribution spots for bottled drinking water. Better yet, her husband has an old house outside of town with a well. Fifteen people from three different households are making the trek for showers.

But the water tank there is limited, so it brought home some everyday lessons in water conservation: "You know, not to leave the water on while you brush your teeth," she says. "Not to leave the shower on while you shave your legs."

And that taking a shower is worth a 30-minute drive each way -- even if that means other chores don't get done, and social life grinds to a halt.

Economist David Zetland wrote "The End of Abundance: Economic Solutions to Water Scarcity." He says West Virginia residents have -- at least temporarily -- flipped to a Third World experience of water. The real cost isn't just the bottled water and the paper plates. It's the time spent getting basic needs met.

"In the developing world, young girls don't go to school because they spend their entire lives gathering water," he says.

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

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