How to cut back on water
There are creative ways to recycle and reuse water, but as with most issues of sustainability, the best option is to simply use less.
“There’s a fixed amount of water,” Kai Olson-Sawyer, senior research and policy analyst at the Water Footprint Program. “As the demand goes up on water, more and more straws go into the drink, there’s more competition over that shared water resource.”
Though drought-prone areas in the West tend to be more sensitive to water issues, water is a finite resource even in the rainiest areas.
“No place is immune to drought,” Olson-Sawyer explained. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in Maine, Arizona or Nebraska. Every place experiences drought at some point or another. It’s always good to be as efficient as possible in terms of water use.”
Your water use also significantly impacts your local aquatic ecosystems because that is where the water that comes out of your tap is likely sourced.
“The water you use at home is significant especially in your local watershed,” Olson-Sawyer said. “Do you want to have good fishing spots, clean and healthy lakes and rivers and wildlife? To maintain a healthy ecosystem, you have to maintain and protect the water resources.”
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the average American uses between 80 and 100 gallons per day. Those gallons add up in surprising ways. A load of laundry uses between 25 and 40 gallons depending on the efficiency of your washing machine. Outdoor watering uses an estimated two gallons of water per minute.
“The choices you make at home matter,” Olson-Sawyer said. “They could be small steps at your house, but they add up can make a difference in the aggregate.”
Fix leaky faucets
Olson-Sawyer said that one of the best and easiest steps you can take to quickly reduce your water footprint is to find and fix leaky faucets around your house.
“If you have a leak, can be thousands of gallons over the course of a year if that water is just slowly trickling out,” Olson-Sawyer said.
Use your toilet water wisely
According to the USGS, every toilet flush uses, on average, three gallons of water.
“When in comes to in-house, the biggest direct water user is actually toilets,” Olson-Sawyer explained. He said to avoid tossing stray garbage, like tissues or floss, and flushing it down the toilet. “Definitely don’t toss things in the toilet and use it like a trash can,” he said. “It’s also not good for the wastewater treatment plant.”
If you are open to less orthodox methods, Olson-Sawyer said you could also consider not flushing every time the toilet is used.
“‘If it’s yellow, let it mellow’ really does have impact if you have a limited water supply,” he laughed.
Turn off your taps
Adjusting your water use during your daily hygiene routine seems small, but the effects add up quickly. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, turning off the tap while you brush your teeth in the morning and night can save 8 gallons of water per day. Turning off the tap while shaving can save 10 gallons of water per shave.
Showers are usually more water efficient than taking a bath — the USGS estimates that the average bath uses 36 gallons of water, while showers use about five gallons per minute. Limit your showers to a few minutes, and consider switching to a water-efficient shower head, which uses only about two gallons of water per minute.
You can even take more creative measures to showering in a water-efficient way.
“If you’re letting water warm up in your shower you can put a bucket underneath and catch a gallon or two to use around the house,” Olson-Sawyer suggested.
Wash dishes in a (full) dishwasher
One of the best ways to reduce water use in your kitchen is to opt for machine dishwashing instead of washing your dirty dishes by hand. Washing a load of dishes in the dishwasher instead of hand washing uses an estimated 37 percent less water.
“Dishwashers actually save a lot more water than hand washing,” Olson-Sawyer said. “When you do wash the dishes, make sure it’s full. Then, you reduce the number of loads, which is more efficient.”
Also, skip the pre-rinse. Tests conducted by the Consumers Union show that rinsing is not only unnecessary, but it also wastes up to 20 gallons of water per load.
Clean clothes carefully
The environmental impact of fashion is already quite steep, but being more judicious about how frequently you wash your clothes will not only save water, but it will help extend the life of your clothes.
“For clothes washing, you probably don’t need to do it quite so frequently,” Olson-Sawyer said. “When you’re washing clothes, use cold water instead of hot. Heating water is really energy intensive.”
Make sure your appliances are also water-efficient. According to the USGS, older washing machines tend to use around 40 gallons of water per load, while newer, more efficient machines average 25 gallons. If you want to go the extra mile, hand washing clothes only requires about 5 gallons of water per load.
Water your garden more efficiently
When it comes to watering your garden, timing matters. Water early in the morning or late at night to prevent water from evaporating once it hits hot air.
Even though watering by hand may be relaxing, it is also not always the most efficient way to hydrate your plants.
“A lot of people irrigate their garden by hand or they set up a sprinkler,” said Mark Uchanski, associate professor of horticulture and extension specialty crops specialist at Colorado State University. “Those aren’t necessarily the most efficient ways of irrigating.”
It may be a larger upfront cost, but a drip irrigation system will not only help you save water but it will ensure the water is going right to the roots where your plants need it.
“Drip tape, though it does require a little more purchase, applies water right where it needs to go so it is not lost to evaporation,” Uchanski said. “It tends to deliver smaller amounts of water instead of just flooding it.”
In general, you should also try to avoid overwatering your plants, which is not only wasteful but can compromise the quality of your crops.
“Traditionally, we think if you cut back the water you’ll hurt the quality, but that’s not always true,” Uchanski, who works with research about the impact of water use on crops, explained. “We’ve seen some differences when you reduce water use, but you can reduce more water than you might think you could get away with and still have a quality crop.” Some tomatoes, he said, will even have better flavor if you cut back on irrigation.
“In a backyard situation could consider doing mini-experimentation,” Uchanski suggested. “Try two cultivars of tomatoes this year and cut back. Not all vegetables and fruits need to be pampered all the time.”
Collecting, storing and reusing rainwater in your garden is a great way to reduce your overall freshwater use.
“When it comes to outdoor water use, really the best thing you can do is make the best use of rainwater as possible,” Olson-Sawyer said. “You can have rain barrels, cisterns or some kind of rainwater harvesting system. It can be very useful especially in the summertime months, when there might be a few weeks where there’s not so much rain and you can really use the water.”
Some municipalities and states do not allow rainwater harvesting, so check local and state regulations.
“That sort of things does vary state to state,” Olson-Sawyer admitted. “Obviously, you want to obey whatever laws or mandates are in your locality or your state.”
Uchanski said that while rainwater harvesting is “a really great way of using less municipal water,” but there is a bit of a learning curve to properly harvesting rainwater in a way that is relatively sanitary. He recommended getting a “first flush system,” which will shunt off the first rinse of rainwater that includes bird droppings, dust and other debris and drain it separately.
“Once it gets rid of that first flush, it’s pretty clear from that point forward, at least for irrigation purposes,” Uchanski said. “Keep the light levels down [where you store it] and use an opaque container.”
Recycling greywater, or the lightly-used water that has come in contact with dirt, soap and other materials but not fecal matter, for irrigation. The plants actually appreciate the added nitrogen and phosphorus from soap and other household cleaning supplies, whereas local watersheds would suffer from the runoff.
Like with rainwater harvesting, some states limit or prohibit the use of greywater, so it is essential to contact your local government first to check greywater regulations by you.
If greywater is permitted in your area, you can try to create your system of bringing using water out into your garden, but it is best — and often most efficient — to contact a local plumber to help set up a system in your home.
Improve the soil health in your garden
Improving the health of the soil in your garden will not only help your plants, but the increased organic matter in the soil will help it retain water better.
“That organic matter is better for moisture storage,” Olson-Sawyer said. “It retains more nutrients, helps grow the plants. It’s also good because it reduces runoff, which can be polluting with a lot of fertilizers or pesticides.”
“That improved soil situation can help with water retention, so the water you put on stays in place better,” Uchanski added. “Certainly a healthier soil will deal with water better and won’t break apart and run off and move the soil and the water with it.”
Compost also helps increase the organic matter in the soil.
“Compost helps from a microbial standpoint. It provides that organic matter that we certainly need a lot of out in the west, helps in almost every situation,” Uchanski said. “Do the same thing and act like a sponge and hold water so what you do apply stays in place for longer.”
Mulch also helps the soil retain moisture, which means you have to water less. It can also be useful as a season extender or a weed blocker.
“For vegetables, using mulches to hold water and moderate how quickly the soil dries out can be a really good approach,” Uchanski said. He added the mulches are also useful for the same purpose in ornamental landscapes.
Contact your local cooperative extension to test your soil and determine what sort of amendments are needed to ensure the best health of your dirt.
Choose drought-adapted plants
Certain plants have been bred for dry conditions. While you certainly do not have to plan all your crops around water efficiency, having a few less water intensive crops, especially for the drier microclimates around your yard, will help reduce your overall water use in the garden.
“If you have a dry difficult spot, instead of fighting against it, why not plant a species that is drought adapted and comes from a similar type of environment and would do well under those tough dry conditions?,” Uchanski said. “Then the plant and the genetics are doing that work and not you with a hose.”
Adapt open water feeders for livestock
If you feed your animals with open water feeders, you might be losing water to evaporation. Uchanski recommended drip water feeders or bottle feeders instead.
“If evaporation is an issue, open water feeders for animals is probably something that can be adapted depending on the species,” Uchanski said. “I’ve toyed around with drip system for chickens as opposed to something where they’re going to splash it out. There are little things like that that can make a difference.”
Reduce your virtual water use
Olson-Sawyer, who helped develop the Water Footprint Calculator, explained that there are actually two types of water use: direct and virtual.
“Direct water use comes out of your tap and you see it in your house, but virtual water is the water that goes into everything you buy, use and eat,” Olson-Sawyer said. “We take a very comprehensive approach.”
You can make some lifestyle changes that will reduce your overall water footprint that indirectly involve water. For example, you can eat less meat. Raising livestock takes a toll on our available water resources. According to the Water Footprint Network, it takes about 15,400 liters of water to produce one kilogram of beef.
“For the average person, [their water footprint] is about 50 percent or more tied to diet,” Olson-Sawyer said. “The more meat you eat, the more processed food you eat, the more water intensive food you eat, the higher your water footprint tends to be.”
Reducing food waste will also shrink your water footprint because of the considerable water resources it takes to grow fruits, vegetables and grains.
“Composting is a smart thing to do,” Olson-Sawyer said. “It takes a huge amount of water to make that food, so there’s no need to waste that food.” Since compost also improves water retention in the soil, it helps you double down on the reduction of your water footprint.
Reducing your energy use will also help shrink your overall virtual water footprint. Many power plants use water to create the steam that generates energy, so the less energy you use, the less water will be pulled from local water ecosystems to bring energy to your home.
“When you save energy you also save water, when you save water you also save energy,” Olson-Sawyer said. “Most forms of electricity generation and energy production uses large amounts of water, so it consumes a lot of water in generation and production cycle. When you flip a switch, we you turn off light, you save water.”
The most important aspect of saving water, however, is making the mental shift to value water more in your daily life.
“It’s really kind of a behavioral thing,” Olson-Sawyer said. “To value water and not to disregard it to make it seem like it’s worthless.”
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