Why the Ice Bucket Challenge Gives Me the Chills

Can one responsibly participate AND be water smart … even in an epic drought?!

If you’re like me, your Facebook newsfeed has been filled with videos of friends, family, and celebrities taking part in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (#alsicebucketchallenge).

The campaign is a true testament to the power of social media, which allows people to share the things that inspire them or make them laugh – or, in the case of the ALS challenge, both. And everyone from Bill Gates to Tom Cruise to George W. Bush has gotten in on the action.

People describe this philanthropic phenomenon as: fun, hilarious, innovative, impressive, and viral; but also: wasteful, frustrating, and offensive. And both have valid points.

As someone who spends nearly all waking hours working for nonprofit organizations, I'm impressed by the challenge’s ability to motivate and inspire people who might not otherwise get involved in philanthropic efforts. It has created incredible awareness about a terrible disease and raised huge amounts of money for important research and patient care.  But part of philanthropy is being accountable – you never want to do more harm than good.

And that’s where I come in.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has raised more than $40 million for ALS charities. But it has also wasted more than 5 million gallons of water – roughly equivalent to the daily water use of 56,000 people.

For those of us living in water scarce parts of the country and in communities where the threat of running out of water is real, watching people carelessly waste such a precious resource seriously gives me the chills.

GIF of every map of California released by the U.S. Drought Monitor since 2011, created by the Los Angeles Times. (Credit: Los Angeles Times)

I try not to get too preachy about these things – and this is not another anti-Challenge blog – but I do think we all need to be more conscientious about the mark we leave on the world.

Sure, it’s easy to think, “I’m just one person. How much impact is my ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (or 20 minute shower or overwatering my lawn or not fixing my running toilet) really going to have on my community’s water supply?” But the truth is: more than you think! 

If even 10 percent of Californians did the Ice Bucket Challenge, they’d waste about 18 million gallons of water. On the flip side, if those same people cut two minutes off their showers, we’d save that same amount of water. Here are some more ways you can save and reduce your water footprint.

Interestingly, a recent study by NRDC and the Pacific Institute showed that Californians have the potential to save about 40 to 60 percent of the water currently used in our homes and businesses.

So, what if we used Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat to show others how to participate in the ALS challenge in responsible way – one that respects our environment? NRDC was challenged by EDF and this is what we did.

And here are some other ideas for people who’d like to accept the Ice Bucket Challenge but don’t want to waste water:

  1. Outside help. Live near a river, lake or ocean? Consider using that water instead of fresh drinking water. Or get crazy and use sand. (That's way more of a challenge than ice water.) And you'll have reminders of your good deed for weeks to come as you find sand in everything you own.
  2. Shower power. Not near a body of water? Capture cold water while you’re waiting for your shower to heat up. Then take that bucket of cold shower water out to your garden and do the challenge there. Double Bonus: you can take a shorter shower because your hair will already be wet and you've watered your garden for the day!
  3. Creative thinking. Find an innovative alternative to water. Charlie Sheen dumped the money he planned to donate.

Did you do the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in an environmentally responsible way?  Post your #WaterSmart Ice Bucket Challenge video on Twitter using #My20percent.