Did you know that America faces a water-supply crisis? Less than 2% of the Earth’s water supply is fresh water, and yet we’re using and polluting our water faster than we can replenish our clean supply.
Today, the average American uses approximately 140-160 gallons of water per day directly for cooking, eating, bathing, etc., and another 1500-1800 gallons of water a day embedded in the food we eat, energy we use, products we buy, and services we rely on.
So, it’s more crucial than ever that we reduce our water usage as much as possible so we have enough for tomorrow. Here’s how…
The Nature of the Water Crisis
There is no doubt that we are running out of fresh water—even in the United States. But we are not running out of water itself. The nature of this planet and the water cycle make it a pretty closed system. All the water on the planet simply cycles and moves very slowly to new places, moving from ice to seawater to clouds to rain to underground springs to rivers and so on.
The trouble is that we have disrupted the water cycle by paving and plowing everything, heating everything up with our smog, and wasting so much water on incredibly inefficient uses, that we are simply running out of fresh water.
The problem is so bad in some parts of the world (like California) that millions will be displaced from their homes within the next decade or so because of lack of water. Meanwhile, millions of other people are being displaced because of massive flooding or Permafrost melt.
Wasteful over-consumption of water for agriculture, power generation, fracking, industry, and homes has led to reduction of precious groundwater, threats to rivers, and mortal danger to many of the nation’s lakes. Much of the blame for this state of affairs lies with uncontrolled growth in the nation’s South and Southwest.
For example, desert cities such as Las Vegas have no water of their own, yet use huge fountains as decorations. And Phoenix households draw down the finite resources of ever-shrinking Lake Mead.
So, we have a water cycle woefully out of balance. There is still plenty of water on the planet, but only if we can figure out how to affordably make it fresh. This is where a combination of strategies is needed:
- greatly reducing our fossil fuel usage to save the huge amounts of fresh water used in drilling and refining;
- restoring forests and especially grasslands to help recharge aquifers and reduce flooding;
- making all surfaces as permeable we can through things like raingardens, greenroofs, permeable paving, and lot reclamations to allow recharge of aquifers and reduce flooding;
- massive water conservation efforts including fixing plumbing leaks and installing waterless toilets, greywater recycling and drip irrigation systems;
- wide-scale rainwater reclamation through rainbarrels and cisterns, where there is little permeable recharge area;
- purifying and recycling waste water;
- and lastly, desalination.
Desalination offers little immediate hope for creating fresh water because it is a very expensive and ecologically challenging technology. So we need to do other things now to decrease our fresh water consumption.
Some conservation measures, such as installing greywater systems or waterless toilets, are technological fixes we can all do at home today. Others, such as offering appliance rebates, restructuring sewer systems or recycling waste water, will require us to lobby our local and federal government officials.
Most importantly, we need to give people incentives to do the things we already know how to do to use less water, like fixing leaks, upgrading appliances, using drip irrigation instead of sprinklers, or using low-flow showerheads.
Saving Water Starts at Home
Saving water is even more important if you live in a dry climate where there are water restrictions or drought conditions, like San Diego, Phoenix, or Denver. But even if you live where rainfall is plentiful, a few easy changes can save you at least $200 per year on your water and sewer bills, and help protect ground water supplies and reservoirs from depleting too quickly.
Be Water Aware
It’s important to be aware of the “footprint” we create with how we live our lives, and you might be surprised by just how much water you are using every day. Start by calculating your water footprint to see just how much water you and your family use each day. Then, once you know, you can choose the best strategies for reducing your usage.
Ditch the Hand Washing
Believe it or not, most modern dishwashers use less water than if you hand-washed your dishes. (The only exception to this would be if you washed and rinsed your dishes in two half-full sink basins with the stoppers in—or better yet—two separate, small plastic tubs, so you could both conserve water and then reuse the greywater in your garden.)
If your dishwasher was built before 1994, consider buying a new energy- and water-efficient Energy Star-qualified model, and you’ll save more than $30 per year in electricity and water costs. These newer dishwashers will scrub your dishes clean and so you don’t have to rinse them off ahead of time in the sink.
Many states and municipalities offer rebates or tax incentives for upgrading your dishwasher: Find out if you qualify.
By attach low-flow faucet aerators to your kitchen and bathroom faucets, you’ll save up to $80 per year on utility bills. If you turn the sink off while you brush your teeth or scrub your hands, you’ll save even more!
Slim Down Your Showers
If your showerhead blasts more than 3 gallons per minute (most do), switch it out for a low-flow showerhead. Most low-flow showerheads feel as nice as the high-flow ones, but can reduce your water usage to 1.5 gallons per minute. We like this one in particular; it’s got great pressure.
Since you’ll also save energy (due to less hot water use), you’ll shave about $80 per year off your utility bills.
You can save even more if your shower takes less than 5 minutes, and if you turn the water off while you shave or lather up!
Tame Your Toilets
Compared to a pre-1993 3.5 gallon-per-flush toilet, a toilet marked with the EPA WaterSense label will use 1.3 gallons or less, saving up to $90 per year. Many cities offer local rebates if you change out your toilet to a low-flow or dual-flush model.
If you don’t need a new toilet, you can cheaply convert your existing toilet by placing a plastic bottle full of sand or a toilet tank bank into the tank to displace some of the water.
Another option is to retrofit your tank with an inexpensive dual-flush conversion kit that will use less water when all you need to flush is urine.
Ever wonder why we use fresh, potable water to flush the toilet? What a waste!
This greywater recycling system in combination with a low-flow, dual-flush toilet could save you hundreds of dollars and thousands of gallons a year!
Watch Your Washing Machine
Nearly 22% of indoor home water use comes from doing laundry. Always wait till you have a full load before washing your clothes, and adjust the water levels appropriately.
Most front-loading washing machines are energy- and water-efficient, using a little over 20 gallons a load, while most top-loading machines, unless they are energy-efficient, use 40 gallons per load.
If your washing machine is more than 10 years old, a front-loading, high-efficiency Energy Star-qualified washer could save you about $150 per year between electricity and water bills.
Many states and municipalities offer rebates or tax incentives for upgrading your washing machine: Find out if you qualify.
Every day in the U.S., nearly 30 percent of household water is devoted to outdoor use. Of that water, about 50 percent is lost to evaporation, so anything you can do to save water outside your home will also save you a lot of money.
The first step to reducing landscape water use is to get rid of your lawn! A water-wise xeriscape using drought-tolerant, native plants is a lovely, green alternative to water-guzzling grass.
For your vegetable garden, consider installing a series of rainbarrels—or better yet, an above- or below-ground cistern—that can capture rain water from your rooftop which you can then use to water your lawn and gardens for free.
The average home rooftop can shed hundreds of gallons of water in a single rainstorm, so make sure your rainbarrel system or cistern can handle as much as you can afford to capture.
You can also install a micro-irrigation system (pictured, right) that targets just your plants and reduces the runoff and evaporation that wasteful sprinkler systems cause. Many of these drip irrigation systems are very affordable, easy to install and highly efficient. Put them on a timer, and they can even water your outdoor potted plants while you are away!
Finally, no matter what system you use, always water plants and gardens in the early morning or evening when there is the least sun to evaporate the water. Be sure to water the soil, not the leaves of your plants, so that precious water goes right to the roots. (This will also help reduce the spread of disease in your garden.)
Mind the Hidden Water in Your Purchases
A gallon of gasoline takes nearly 13 gallons of water to produce, so combine your errands, carpool to work, or take public transportation to reduce both your energy and water use.
The further food and other goods travels to get to you, the more water is required. When you buy local, you’re reducing the hidden water expenditures from the supply chain, as well as supporting your local economy.
When you shop online, try to choose a warehouse closer to you and wait a little longer for the item to arrive (as opposed to 2-day shipping), so it’ll take less water for your purchase to get to you.
When you need new clothes, consider that cotton is one of the thirstiest, dirtiest, GMO crops out there. It can take more than 5,200 gallons of water to produce 1 kg of conventional cotton, equivalent to a T-shirt and pair of jeans. Do you really need another new t-shirt?
By buying less clothing, shopping at used clothing stores and swapping or recycling your clothes, you’ll not only be saving water, but you’ll be opting out of the highly toxic fashion industry, which is the second most polluting industry in the world, after oil.
Organic products may use less water, depending on where they come from. For example, rain-watered organic cotton from Brazil uses just 10.6 gallons of water per pound to manufacture, compared with the 782 gallons of water needed to grow a pound of organic cotton in drought-stricken California.
Smaller organic farms and ranches are also often very mindful of water usage, and will often use drip irrigation, riparian buffers and other water conservation measures.
Grass-fed or pasture-raised, organic meat, eggs and dairy requires significantly less water to produce than industrial, grain-fed varieties.
A regular cup of coffee takes about 55 gallons of water to produce, with most of the water used to grow the coffee beans. When you buy coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas and other foods grown in the tropics, look for the green frog seal from the Rainforest Alliance. Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms make it a priority to conserve water and forest habitat as well as protect local waterways.
Ban Bottled Water
It takes 3 liters of water to produce a one liter bottle of water. This is outrageously wasteful!
Only 15 percent of plastic water bottles get recycled, however every single day 66 million bottles end up in landfills or in the ocean as litter. And the bottles themselves can leach BPA or phthalates into the water, slowly poisoning you and your family.
The most affordable, healthy and water-saving option is to fill a glass or steel reusable water bottle with filtered tap water. (Most bottled water is just filtered tap water anyway, so why pay 1000 times more to have it bottled in toxic plastic by some company far away?)
The cost of a quality home water filter will make your tap water as good as any you would buy at the store—plus you can use it for cooking, too—and will pay for itself very quickly. (Where to find online.)
- Why You Should Finally Give Up Bottled Water for Good
- Why You REALLY Need a Water Filter (And How to Choose the Right One)
This article was excerpted from my book Sustainability Starts at Home – How to Save Money While Saving the Planet. For more money-saving, planet-friendly tips, pick up a copy today!
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