Fighting to Conserve Water at Sea
Bells signal the start of cleaning stations, and Sailors aboard the U.S. Navy's forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) pause as the ship's executive officer informs the crew that the self-service laundry is being closed due to a potable water shortage on board.
The self-service laundry isn't the only thing in danger when water on the ship runs low at sea. Replacing trays and dishes with paper plates on the mess decks is the next step taken to conserve water used by the scullery (the ship's dish-washing station), and in dire situations "water hours" may be implemented to severely reduce crew showers.
Sailors at sea face a constant struggle to conserve potable water. Despite the ability of the distilling plants on board to make approximately 400,000 gallons of fresh water from the sea every day, conservation is still an ongoing battle for the crew of more than 5,000.
To put the amount of water in perspective, the average four-person household in the U.S. uses approximately 400 gallons per day according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
In order to help conserve water, George Washington employs Sailors like Machinist's Mate 2nd Class Grant Willey who stands a water control watch deep in the bowels of the ship. From his watch station he sees some of the simple things Sailors can do to help win the battle against waste.
"Probably one of the best things [Sailors] can do comes with brushing [their] teeth and shaving," said Willey. "Like everybody says, you don't have to have water constantly running. People just let it run while they are shaving. It is not necessary."
Conserving potable water is important because not only do the Sailors themselves need it to survive and stay clean, but also many of the systems essential to the George Washington's mission require potable water to function. For example, the ship's catapult water brakes and the jet-blast deflectors rely on fresh water to function. All the systems used to launch and recover aircraft add up to thousands of gallons per hour of water usage during flight operations. And when it comes to priorities, these essential systems get precedence.
The Sailors of George Washington's propulsion plant, who man the water control watch, monitor gauges in damage control central and log the amount of water in the holding tanks. They pay special attention to water usage during specific times throughout the day, such as first thing in the morning or early evening.
One important tactic in the battle to conserve fresh water is to look for signs of leaks, by noticing abnormal spikes in the amount of water leaving the tanks day-to-day, or even hour-by-hour.
"We probably lose 200 gallons of water a day just because valves don't get tightened all the way down," said Machinist's Mate 1st Class James Gale, reactor propulsion plant leading petty officer.
The ship ultimately has to take steps to bring water levels back up if it drops too low. However, when these steps are taken, crew services suffer.
"The first thing to go is usually the self-serve laundry," said Gale. "After that, a thing like the ship's scullery has to be shut down, and if that fails the crew has to cut back on showers."
"You just have to deal with it until [the water level] comes back up," said Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class Andrew Nasielski. "I've seen it go down for a week to a week and a half; it's not fun at all."
Although most high-usage periods throughout the day are routine, some things are hard to prepare for and use a lot of water.
"We use more water when the work day is over; people tend to take more showers," said Willey. "The meal hours are when we use a lot for the sculleries. Another [source of major water consumption] is aircraft wash-down."
Washing aircraft at sea is vital to minimize corrosion caused by exposure to salt and is done by hand, which can take hundreds of gallons of water for each jet or helicopter. The problem is compounded by the fact that the carrier usually has up to 75 aircraft aboard.
George Washington Sailors stay on top of the battle of water conservation by focusing on attention to detail and doing simple things to keep the potable water that systems and services depend on from leaking back into the ocean.
When Sailors achieve even small victories in the war for water, visible signs of success, such as a long line to use the self-service laundry, are a welcome sight.