Wendy Pabich's book Taking on Water: How One Water Expert Challenged Her Inner Hypocrite, Reduced Her Water Footprint (Without Sacrificing a Toasty Shower), and Found Nirvana (Sasquatch Books) is out now
Water is getting scarce. This year has brought extreme drought, low snow packs, and record low stream flows in a number of river systems. We see Las Vegas waging water war with the open ranch lands to the north, Atlanta in protracted battles with downstream states over its primary water supply at Lake Lanier, and water tables beneath the San Joaquin Valley--the source of 40 percent of the nation's fruits and vegetables--dropping. A recent study by the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) suggests that by mid-century, half the counties in the U.S. will be facing water scarcity.
For any one of us, these problems can feel overwhelming. We may sense that our own role is negligible, our power to make change inconsequential. And, it's easy to find fault with government policies, corporate behavior, and farming practices.
Yet, taken together, our aggregate behavior is the source of these problems. An individual home can waste 10,000 gallons of water a year to leaking fixtures; as a nation, we lose one trillion gallons of water to leaks. We buy 450 million pair of blue jeans every year, each of which requires about 2,200 gallons of water to produce, mostly to grow cotton for denim. That's a total of 990 billion gallons of water, or enough to provide copious domestic water supplies to almost 10 billion people. And the list goes on.
While this may all seem distressing, it also implies a potent truth. As consumers, we have the power to change our own behavior. We can make choices about what and how much we purchase, and we can influence what types of products and services are sold in the market--all of which can lead to increased water use efficiency and decreased water demand.
What follows is a list of a dozen strategies you can employ to reduce your direct water use and your overall personal water footprint, thereby decreasing our aggregate demand on national and global water supplies.
Here are 12 ways to reduce your water usage:
Small drips add up to a lot of water. EPA data suggest that running toilets, dripping faucets, and other household leaks can waste more than 10,000 gallons of water each year in a single home. Nationwide, our houses leak more than one trillion gallons of water. So, review your monthly water bills to determine whether water usage during winter months is more than 3,000 gallons per person, in which case, you may have a leak. Read your water meter at the start and end of a couple hour time period when no water is being used. Any movement in the meter most likely suggests a leak. Drop food coloring into the tank in your toilet. If any coloring shows up in the bowl after 15 minutes, you’ve got a leak. Examine faucet gaskets and pipe fittings for signs of water. If you’re concerned about an outdoor irrigation system, hire a professional to inspect it. Once you’ve identified any leaks, replace the flapper on your toilet and washers and gaskets on faucets, use Teflon tape to secure showerhead seals and other plumbing connections, and, if necessary, replace leaky fixtures. This one should be a no-brainer. Fix your leaks!
Old washing machines can be one of the worst water wasters in a home, using as much as 45 gallons of water per load, and accounting for about 20 percent of total indoor water use in a typical home. A family of four might use 12,000 gallons of water per year doing laundry. Newer energy- and water-efficient washers, particularly front-loaders, by contrast, can reduce this water use by one half, saving thousands of gallons of water each year. It also makes sense to run your washing machine full and to wear your clothes as many times as you can before washing them. You’ll also save energy, use less detergent, and reduce fabric wear.
We use tremendous volumes of treated drinking water—and copious amounts of energy—to flush away our sins. U.S. EPA data suggests that each day in the United States our toilets consume more than 4.8 billion gallons of water, or nearly 30 percent of the water we use in our homes. In the process, almost 2 percent of the daily U.S. energy budget has been consumed in treating this wasted drinking water before it shows up at our home and in processing the wastewater after we flush it down the toilet. The typical older toilet uses 3.5 gallons of water per flush. Newer, low-flush toilets use 1.6 gallons per flush, reducing water use by more than one half. Replacing our toilets (and flushing less often) could save the nation trillions of gallons of treated drinking water each year.
Upgrading to a water-efficient dishwasher is another easy way to save water. The rule of thumb is that a dishwasher uses about half as much water as does washing by hand, with the standard dishwasher using about 11 gallons per cycle. Some newer, more efficient dishwashers can use less than 3 gallons per load. Using an efficient dishwasher and running it full saves you time, water, energy and money.
Across the country, faucets account for more than 15 percent of indoor water use or more than one trillion gallons of water annually. By simply installing aerators on faucets, you can decrease this water use by 30 percent without sacrificing performance. This low-cost solution is so easy, it should be mandatory.
If you grew up in the arid Western U.S. or had a grandmother, you’ve probably been admonished to turn off the sink when you are brushing your teeth, or shut off the shower when you are lathering up. To help you here, you can buy showerheads with built-in shut-off buttons or retrofit your existing shower with a similar gadget so you can easily turn off pre-mixed water while you lather or shave, and turn it back on when you’re done. Rather than letting hot water run down the drain while you are not using it, you can save water, energy and money. And, you can do this without sacrificing a beloved shower.
Meat on our dinner plates takes a tremendous amount of water to produce. Data from The Water Footprint Network tell us it requires about 1,799 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, 468 gallons per pound of chicken, 576 gallons per pound of pork, and 880 gallons per gallon of milk. Copious volumes of water are needed to grow feed for animals, and then additional, but smaller, amounts are used to care for animals, process meat, and distribute and sell animal products. By contrast, raising vegetables and grains requires a fraction of the water. Carrots require 6.5 gallons of water per pound; an apple uses 18 gallons of water; peas, 10.2 gallons per pound; blueberries, 13.8 gallons per cup; and potatoes, 119 gallons per pound. Our meat-heavy diet is bad for our health, and it’s bad for our water supplies and our lands. Studies suggest that shifting towards a vegetarian diet could reduce our national food-related water footprint by more than a third.
In the United Kingdom, the World Wildlife Fund and Waste & Resource Action Program calculated that embedded water in food waste in the U.K. accounted for one and a half times the volume of water that people actually used in their homes. About 40 percent of all food in the U.S. goes to waste. Much of this food is tossed in the garbage because it is past its sell-by date (which is often mistakenly believed to represent the date food should be eaten by, when in fact it represents the date food should be sold by), not as fresh as it once was, or because consumers purchase more food than they can eat or allow food to spoil. It is estimated that fully one-quarter of U.S. water consumption is used to produce this wasted food. Finally, as estimated in a study by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the energy required to produce this discarded food is on the order of three hundred million barrels of oil. By being judicious about our food purchases and careful about using food before it goes to waste, we can save water, energy, and money, and reduce greenhouse gases and toxic loads to our ecosystems.
Electricity requires water: one kilowatt-hour of electricity takes about 25 gallons of water to produce. The typical household in the U.S. uses more than eleven thousand kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. About one half of this energy goes towards heating and cooling our homes, and another one quarter to providing hot water. We can change out incandescent to compact fluorescent light bulbs, shut off lights, install energy efficient appliances, and insulate water heaters. Those who are more ambitious can build passive solar homes, generate alternative energy, and build outdoor solar showers. Less electricity used means less water used.
Consumption is one of the primary factors that determine the total water (and every other) footprint of a nation. We, as Americans, have the highest water footprints in the world. All told, each American consumes about 750,000 gallons of water embedded in products and services—food, clothing, shoes, gasoline, electronics, internet service. Take those beloved blue jeans as an example. If we each purchased one fewer pair every year, bought recycled jeans from a thrift store, or wore them for a longer period of time before discarding them, we would contribute to global savings of hundreds of billions of gallons of water each year.
As much as half of our drinking water in this country is being used to irrigate our yards. Most common watering practices are highly inefficient, applying too much water at the wrong time and in the wrong places. Rather than being used by plants, much of this water—sometimes as much as half of it—is lost to evaporation and runoff. Watering manually with a hand-held hose uses about one third less water than watering with an automatic irrigation system. If you are using an automatic watering system, increase its efficiency by installing drip lines, efficient spray heads, and rain and soil moisture sensors. Avoid over-watering, which not only wastes water but is unhealthy for plants, and use alternative sources of water, including grey water and rainwater collected in rain barrels, to further reduce your water consumption. Finally, water judiciously: water in the early morning to avoid mid-day evaporation, segregate lawns from plantings that require less water, position sprinklers so they are not watering pavement, and water plants according to their needs.
Our strange obsession with turf grass appears to be part of the American psyche: a study by NASA documents that our lawns cover forty million acres and rank as our largest irrigated “crop.” U.S. homeowners spend tens of billions of dollars annually for lawn care and landscaping, pump untold quantities of chemicals into our ecosystems, and use nearly 3 trillion gallons of water—equivalent to the annual flow of forty-six Mississippi Rivers—to irrigate these green spots. This behavior begs the question: If we are concerned about food supply, why are we growing Kentucky bluegrass? There are many lovely alternatives to lawns. Edible plants provide high-nutrient and as-fresh-as-they-come vegetables, fruits and herbs, while avoiding the environmental costs of transportation and minimizing food waste. Xeric, or drought-tolerant, plants require little to no water once they’ve been established. Short groundcovers require no cutting but enhance soil and in some cases, add nutrients by fixing nitrogen and even provide food. Perennial and annual native wildflowers and meadows add color, texture and habitat, and require no mowing and less water. Permeable and pervious hardscape materials like concrete, stone, and decomposed granite, can add form and interest to your landscape, while at the same time reducing stormwater runoff and increasing infiltration into the underlying aquifer. And, even if you can’t do without a small patch of grass, you can minimize your water use by segregating low water planting from the grass and watering each zone accordingly. This allows you to avoid the trap of watering all your plants to satisfy the lowest common denominator—water-hogging Kentucky bluegrass.