March 22 is World Water Day, a great day to remind ourselves that nearly one billion people don't have access to safe drinking water... and that even those of us who do really ought to work harder to safeguard our most precious natural resource.
There are all sorts of great technologies for sourcing, purifying and recycling water, systems that can help us make the most of over-subscribed water supplies. But the most efficient way of helping our water resources go farther is reducing our water use -- good, old-fashioned conservation.
Besides the tried and true methods that we have all heard on how to save water (turn off the tap when brushing your teeth, install low-flush toilets, shower with a friend) here are some that may not be so obvious:
Read your water bill.
In business there is a saying that you can't manage what you don't measure. Your water meter is a good place to start in the effort to conserve water. And there is other useful information included in your monthly statement from the water utility. As water reserves dwindle, water rates will steadily rise meaning saving water will save you even more money.
In the world at large, about 70% of water used by mankind goes for irrigation, 20% for industry and 10% to public consumption. The average home is a microcosm of this with 70% of the water going to irrigate lawns and gardens, 20% for bathing, clothes-washing and toilet flushing, the rest for drinking and cooking. Better management of home water for irrigation -- like xeriscape landscaping, choosing low water vegetation, and drip irrigation practices -- can save the largest expenditures of water in a home.
Eat more vegetables.
Not only is this healthy (read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food), but getting more nutritional value from non-meat sources saves a lot of water. It takes a little over 100 gallons of water to produce one pound of corn while a 16-ounce steak is equivalent to 2000 gallons of water (think about over 30 55-gallon drums of water sitting on your plate!) based on the amount required to feed, raise, slaughter, and transport the beef.
Buy things that last.
Besides water embedded in food products (see www.waterfootprint.org) our throw-away society has produced landfills full of discarded products, making them vast reservoirs of entombed water. Landfills have an additional impact when their runoff contaminates groundwater reserves.
It takes a tremendous amount of water to cool nuclear power plants, to pump oil from its underground deposits, to scrub coal-fired furnaces, and to grow and process biofuels. Save electricity and you save water.
It takes an enormous amount of water (not to mention energy -- see above) to produce paper, aluminum and glass by extracting virgin raw materials from the earth. Our society should take William McDonough's advice from his book Cradle to Cradle and design every product to become the feedstock of another product after its useful life.
According to Michael Webber in his 2008 Scientific American article, "Catch 22: Water vs. Energy," driving 100 miles in a gasoline-powered auto consumes between seven and 14 gallons of water. And while alternative fuel vehicles like hybrids, hydrogen fuel-cell and ethanol cars use less petroleum, they deplete significantly more water than traditional automobiles. Walking, riding a bike, taking public transportation all help with water conservation.