Megadroughts ahead? Let’s all cut water use by 20%
We can make a difference right now with a few household adjustments — our ecosystem may hang in the balance.Posted Feb 6, 2014
For millions in developing nations, obtaining enough safe water to sustain a family is a daily challenge. In North America, abundant aquifers have been an easy luxury to take for granted. But Californians heard an edge of urgency in their governor’s voice last week, as Jerry Brown described the state’s dwindling reservoirs and parched rivers. He called this drought California’s worst on record, and urged a voluntary 20% water use reduction. Between the fires raging in Los Angeles county, and the threat of extinction for coho salmon due to dried-up spawning tributaries, the declaration of a state of emergency is well justified.
“We are on track for having the worst drought in 500 years,” said B. Lynn Ingram, professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.”
Californians are hardest hit right now, but they are not alone. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows the current drought cutting a wide swath across the west coast and southwestern states, and into the Midwest as far east as Illinois. Parts of Hawaii are affected, and even New England and Florida show patches of “abnormally dry” warnings. Some climatologists believe “megadroughts,” multi-decade dry spells, in combination with human-caused temperature increases, may permanently destroy forests in the Southwest and elsewhere, and could severely impact human inhabitants. Farmers will feel the crisis first, and when farmers suffer, all of us who depend upon them suffer.
What does it take to reduce our water use by 20%?
Simple adjustments start in the thirstiest areas of our homes: the bathroom, yard, laundry room and kitchen, in that order. Some industry-wide conservation guidelines have been instated for plumbing manufacturers, making any new construction or renovation a step greener than our grandparents’ homes. But to address the current crisis and prepare for a changing future, we can go farther. Super-efficient fixtures are now available, for example, some so affordable and easy to install you may wonder why you haven’t yet adopted them. Simply bringing conservation to the forefront of our minds while we go about our routine can help more than we might expect.
Tailor these tips to your current lifestyle to find your personal 20%. Most modifications are easy, inexpensive, and painless.
First Step: Eliminate leaks!
~ Stop the leaks. Good intentions and high-tech fixtures will fall flat if leaks — accounting for 13.7% of home water use — are not investigated and resolved. A shocking one trillion gallons of water are squandered annually by household leaks.
~ Find the small drips. Most fixes, such as replacing a worn toilet flapper or faucet washer, cost only a few dollars and don’t need a plumber. Every drip counts, and adds up fast. Don’t forget to check outdoor spigots and hoses while you’re at it.
~ Check your toilet for leaks by squirting food coloring into the tank — check the bowl in twenty minutes for any traces of color — if yes, you have a leak.
~ Read the meter for leaks. For a whole-house check-up, write down the exact number on your water meter during a time when no water will be used, and check back in two hours. If the numbers are not identical, you have a leak. For more, try the EPA’s WaterSense guide to detecting and fixing leaks.
If you find and fix a leak, it could save up to 10% overall.
Tune up your toilet. (27% of indoor water)
~ Convert to dual-flush. Did you know you can quickly transform your toilet to dual-flush without touching a single wrench? Invented in Australia and proven to reduce water usage by up to 67%, dual-flush toilets offer a low-volume flush option when a full flush is not needed.
~ Upgrade your toilet tank mechanism. Standard fill valves are calibrated for the largest bowls, and will continue to run water even after your bowl has refilled. Smarter water-saving mechanisms will calibrate to your toilet, saving 36% of water, and even detect leaks!
~ Displace excess tank water. If you’re not ready to renovate your bathroom for a water-saving toilet, a low-tech fix reduces your tank’s volume without diminishing performance: try a “tank bank”, or make your own with two liter-sized plastic bottles filled with water and a few inches of small stones for weight. Immerse in the tank out of the way of the flushing mechanism.
~ Raise flush-awareness. Some families have already instituted Governor Jerry Brown’s request to reduce frequency of flushes, skipping liquid-only flushes and never using the toilet to dispose of trash.
Any one of these changes can save up to 10% overall.
GreenScaping Outdoors (up to 40% of residential water use):
~ Rethink your landscape. Yard and garden use accounts for 30% of water consumed nationally, but drier areas use the most water for outdoor plants. Rethink your landscaping to incorporate more low-maintenance native plants and less water-guzzling grass. A true “GreenScape” may not be green year round, but will instead participate in the seasonal shifts of the local ecosystem. Those in drought regions can choose to let their lawn go dormant in the dry season.
~ Choose drought-resistant grass seed for new lawns. If you are overseeding your lawn, patching bare spots, or starting a new lawn, consider the newer low-maintenance, drought-resistant grass seeds which will thrive with less water than older lawn seed varieties.
~ Don’t let the hose run. Drip-systems are far more efficient for gardens or planters. Wash your car with a bucket. Teach children to play with a container of water rather than a sprinkler or hose.
Incorporating drought-tolerant landscaping or installing a drip system can save 10% overall.
Mindfullness in the Laundry Room and Kitchen (34% of indoor use):
~ Run washing machines and dishwasher full. If you must run a smaller laundry load, adjust your machine’s water level appropriately. If you habitually under-fill your washing machine, switching to full loads could save you up to 10% of your total indoor usage.
~ If your washing machine is older than 10 years, consider the benefits of replacing it with an Energy Star model, which will pay for itself over time in water and electricity savings.
~ Don’t let it drain away. Place a pot or dishpan in the sink to capture lightly-used water (switch to a plant-friendly soap; you can use that water for plants, mopping, or even toilet flushing. Wash vegetables in a container of water, rather than under a running tap.
~ Let your dishwasher do its job. Instead of pre-rinsing dishes headed for the dishwasher, use a rubber spatula to scrape food scraps into the compost. Modern dishwashers don’t require rinsing, and skipping it can save up to ten gallons per load.
~ Install faucet aerators. The standard flow of over 2.2 gallons per minute will be reduced instantly to 1.5 gallons by screwing on a low-flow aerator. If you already use an aerator, trade up to a model that will save even more. New aerators that use only 1.0 gallon per minute, or even 0.5 gallons, can be satisfying and effective.
A combination of reducing number of laundry loads, and lowering faucet-volume with aerators or rinse-reduction, can add up to 10% overall.
Green your bathing routine. (17% of indoor use)
~ Go low flow. Just like faucet aerators, low-flow showerheads can offer more than 30% volume reduction, to as low as one gallon per minute. Some models will even prevent waste while you’re waiting for the shower to warm up.
~ Pause shower. Most of us now know that turning off the tap while brushing teeth and lathering hands can save over 3,000 gallons per year. If you pause your shower’s spray while washing and turn it back on to rinse, you can double those savings.
~ Reduce shower time. Invite everyone in your family to time their showers with a kitchen timer, and engage in a friendly competition to see who can cut down the most. Aim to cut a 10-minute shower down to 7.
~ Reduce shower frequency. Doctors now recommend a weekly, rather than daily, bath for young children. If needed more frequently, try lowering the water level.
Reducing shower volume with new hardware and/or voluntary shortening can save over 5% overall.
~ Composting toilets, though not permitted in all locations, are the ultimate water-saver.
~ Collecting and using rain water for gardening will decrease your dependence on local water systems. For more information, read our article Harvesting Rainwater for Residential Water Security.
How much have I reduced?
Start with the biggest impact changes. For instance, pair one toilet-volume reduction with one landscaping measure: there’s your 20%! If you live in an apartment, reducing shower-volume, increasing washer load-size, adding sink aerators and running your faucet less for rinsing can easily add up to 20%, since outdoor use is zero. Some of the smaller adjustments are so easy you may be inspired to keep going.
Your water bill is an easy way to track your success. For quicker feedback, monitor your water meter during an average week before and after making your changes. Enjoy calculating your progress!
In the land of plenty, changing cultural water-use behavior requires a wake-up call. Most of us have spent our whole lives turning taps and spigots without a second thought. Though we may pay a token water bill, the true cost of our water has long been hidden. The United States consumes the most water per capita worldwide: 2,842 cubic meters per year, compared with 1,089 in India. We can all reduce by 20% without touching our quality of life. Once attuned to minimize waste, the only change you may notice is a sharper eye for more conservation opportunities.