What if you had to choose between washing your clothes or taking a shower? Or watering your lawn or washing your car?
Right now, these are real choices for millions of people living in communities stricken by drought due to climate change. They may also be looming choices for those of us for whom drought is just one or two missed rainy seasons away.
Where is it already bad? Anywhere out west. “The local water agency began choking” off water supplies to some homeowners deemed water wasters in drought-stricken Calabasas, California,” the New York Times reported recently. “Their showers will henceforth slow to a trickle. Sprinklers will be rendered unusable. Good luck refilling the pool.”
El Paso, Texas, a city of nearly 700,000, gets its drinking water from the Rio Grande, “now called the Rio Sand in places,” reports Weather.com. “Phoenix could be affected by a mega-drought,” Andrew Ross, a sociology professor at New York University and author of Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, told Yale Environment 360. “They are in the bullseye of global warming.”
Look east and you’ll find water shortages too. Miami’s “drought” may actually be caused by too much water—sea water, that is. Rising sea levels are starting to infiltrate the city’s aquifer with salt water, while increased flooding could flush toxic chemicals from hazardous waste sites into the aquifer as well. Either development could mean less clean, fresh water to meet citizens’ daily needs. Even Atlanta’s water supplies are under siege. The US Drought Monitor reports that 73% of the Peach State is now experiencing “abnormally dry” conditions. Topsoil is losing moisture and fire risk is increasing. Atlantans have their fingers crossed that they’ll get a good soaking soon.
Whether your community is in drought or worried about one, it makes sense to use water more efficiently. But what does that actually mean?
To start, value water for the precious, scarce resource that it is. If it didn’t come out of the tap so easily, if we had to pull water up out of a well or walk long distances to fill buckets in a river the way some people do, we’d probably cherish our H2O a lot more. What’s clear is that we can’t wait until water is difficult to get to do more to conserve it.
To do that, think big picture: Use less water, and use it more efficiently. Water is just like energy in that regard. We need it—but wasting it has serious environmental and human health consequences.
Water’s also like energy in how many devices and tools are available to help us be water wise. EPA created the ENERGY STAR program to help consumers waste fewer fossil fuels and buy more efficient appliances. Similarly, EPA’s WaterSense program offers an abundance of recommendations that will reduce overall water consumption without impacting quality of life. As with energy, when you save water, you’ll save money.
How to Save Water
- Fix your home’s leaky faucets and taps, both indoors and out. The average family can waste 180 gallons per week, or 9,400 gallons of water annually, from household leaks. That’s equivalent to the amount of water you’d use to wash more than 300 loads of laundry. Many leaks just require new or tightened bolts and are simple to fix. Find instructions on YouTube if needed.
- Bathrooms use more than 50% of all indoor water. I retrofitted all my faucets and shower heads with low-flow but high pressure devices that meet WaterSense’s standards for efficiency (look for their blue label), and if I could do it, anybody can. I have three showers in my house, and they all have a pull cord on them attached to a device that tapers the shower down to a trickle when it’s not actually being used. It’s great if you or your kids like to turn on the shower and walk away for 5 or 10 minutes to do something else.
- Replace old water-wasting toilets. I replaced old toilets with WaterSense models that save close to 5 gallons of H2O per flush. EPA says the average family can save 13,000 gallons of water and $130 in water costs per year by replacing old toilets with the new WaterSense options.
- Outdoors, the smartest thing you can do is replace your thirsty lawn for a garden full of drought-tolerant native plants. Installing a simple drip irrigation system that delivers water directly to plant roots rather than sprays it into the air to evaporate, will not only save water, it saves time spent moving hoses and sprinklers.
- Wash full loads of dishes or clothes, which will save you both water and energy with every load. This seems like a no-brainer, but it happens in most households.
- As for washing your car? The water-wise way to do it is not at home, but at a car wash that recycles the wash water, though here’s my little secret: When it does rain, I go out and wipe down my car with dry towels afterward. I use no water doing that, and it doesn’t cost a dime.