There is no resource more precious than water. There is also no resource that is misused, abused, misallocated, and misunderstood the way water is. Safe drinking water, healthy and intact natural ecosystems, and a stable food supply are a few of the things at stake as our water supply is put under greater and greater stress.
The picture might look grim, but opportunities to be more efficient abound. Many people have had water-saving etiquette pumped into them at one point or another, so hopefully we can make a good case for conserving the stuff with practical, everyday water-saving strategies as well as some more high-tech approaches.
Top Water Conservation Tips
- No drips
A dripping faucet can waste 20 gallons of water a day. A leaking toilet can use 90,000 gallons of water in a month. Get out the wrench and change the washers on your sinks and showers, or get new washerless faucets. Keeping your existing equipment well maintained is probably the easiest and cheapest way to start saving water.
- Install new water-saving fixtures
New, low-volume or dual flush toilets, low-flow showerheads, water-efficient dishwashers and clothes washing machines can all save a great deal of water and money. Aerators on your faucets can significantly reduce water volume; water-saving showerheads can cut the volume of water used down to 1.2 gallons per minute or less, and some even have a "pause button" to let you stop the water while soaping up or shampooing. Our interns recently pointed out that "spending about $30 on low-flow showerheads and faucets is estimated to save 45 gallons of that 260 gallons of water [used in a typical household per day], almost 18% of your usage. Splurging on a low-flow toilet could save another 50-80 gallons of water a day. Together, those changes nearly cut in half the household's daily use, saving a considerable amount of water - and passing that savings on to your water bill, as well as your water heating bill."
- Cultivate good water habits
All the water that goes down the drain, clean or dirty, ends up mixing with raw sewage, getting contaminated, and meeting the same fate. Try to stay aware of this precious resource disappearing and turn off the water while brushing your teeth or shaving and always wash laundry and dishes with full loads. When washing dishes by hand, fill up the sink and turn off the water. Take shorter showers or, as the old joke goes, shower with a friend. To put things in perspective, take a quick look at your next water bill when it arrives. It probably won't be costing you too much, but the average household consumes multiple thousands of gallons each month. See if you can make this number go down. If you're the graphing type, go nuts.
- Stay off the bottle
By many measures, bottled water is a scam. In most first-world countries, the tap water is provided by a government utility and is tested regularly. (You can look up your water in the National Tap Water Quality Database) Taste tests have shown that in many municipalities, tap water actually tastes better. Bottled water is not as well regulated and studies have shown that it is not even particularly pure. A four-year study of bottled water in the U.S. conducted by NRDC found that one-fifth of the 103 water products tested contained synthetic organic chemicals such as the neurotoxin xylene and the possible carcinogen and neurotoxin styrene. (Grist) Much bottled water doesn't come from "Artesian springs" and is just tap water anyhow. Not only is it more expensive per gallon than gasoline, bottled water incurs a huge carbon footprint from its transportation, and the discarded bottles are a blight. It's no wonder that some people even think it's a sin. If you want to carry your water with you, get a bottle and fill it. (Look here for some advice on durable, non-toxic container options.) If your water at home tastes funny, try an activated charcoal or ceramic filter. Here is a comparison of home-use water filters from Grist. One of our personal favorites is the Soma filter.
- Go beyond the lawn
Naturalize it using locally appropriate plants that are hardy and don't need a lot of water. If you have to water, do it during the coolest part of the day or at night to minimize evaporation. Here is a useful calculator that can help you figure out landscape water use. Xeriscaping is a method of landscaping that utilizes only native and low water plants. It is an especially appropriate approach for states like California and Arizona where people often plant lawns like they live in Florida despite living in the desert.
- Harvest your rainwater
Put a rain barrel on your downspouts and use this water for irrigation. Rain cisterns come in all shapes and sizes ranging from larger underground systems to smaller, freestanding ones. Some even glow!
- Harvest your greywater
Water that has been used at least once but is still clean enough for other jobs is called greywater. Water from sinks, showers, dishwashers, and clothes washers are the most common household examples. (Toilet water is often called "blackwater" and needs a different level of treatment before it can be reused.) Greywater can be recycled with practical plumbing systems like the Aqus, or with simple practices such as emptying the fish tank in the garden instead of the sink. The bottom line? One way or another, avoid putting water down the drain when you can use it for something else.
- At the car wash
Car washes are often more efficient than home washing and treat their water rather than letting it straight into the sewer system. But check to make sure that they clean and recycle the water. Better yet, try the waterless car wash.
- Keep your eyes open
Report broken pipes, open hydrants, and excessive waste. Don't be shy about pointing out leaks to your friends and family members, either. They might have tuned out the dripping sound a long time ago.
- Don't spike the punch
Water sources have to be protected. In many closed loop systems like those in cities around the Great Lakes, waste water is returned to the Lake that fresh water comes out of. Don't pour chemicals down drains, or flush drugs down toilets; it could come back in diluted form in your water.
Water Conservation Facts: By the Numbers
- 2.5 gallons: The amount of water per person much of the world is allocated.
- 400 gallons: The amount of water the average American family uses per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency
- 70 percent: The amount of worldwide water use that is allocated to farming; most of these farming irrigation systems operate at only 40 percent efficiency. According to a 2002 article by Lester Brown, aquifers are depleting all over the world--in China by 2-3 metres per year. In the US, the Ogallala aquifer is shrinking rapidly. In India, aquifers are going down by 3 metres per year, in Mexico by 3.3 meters per year.
- 263: The number of rivers that either cross or demarcate international political boundaries, in addition to countless aquifers. According to the Atlas of International Freshwater Agreement, 90 percent of countries in the world must share these water basins with at least one or two other states. Major conflicts such as Darfur have been connected to water shortages, and lack of access to clean water.
- 88 percent: Of deaths from diarrhea are caused from unsafe drinking water, inadequate availability of water for hygiene, and lack of access to sanitation. More than one in ten child deaths are linked to diarrhea; this translates to 800,000 deaths each year.
- $11.3 billion: The amount of money required to provide basic levels of service for drinking and waste water in Africa and Asia.
- $35 billion: the amount of money spent on bottled water in the most developed countries in the world.
- 1.5 million: Barrels of crude oil used for making PET water bottles, globally. This is enough oil to fuel 100,000 American cars for a year.
- 2.7 tons: The amount of plastic used to bottle water. 86 percent become garbage or litter.
Water Conservation: Getting Techie
Where does it come from?
The water cycle is the process by which water circulates around, over, and through the Earth. It is driven by the sun, evaporating water from the oceans, rising through the atmosphere and condensing as pure water or snow. About 505,000 cubic kilometers of water fall on the earth each year, 398,000 over the oceans. The pure water is stored as ice, as water in lakes, and in aquifers that have taken thousands of years to fill. 97% of water is stored in the oceans; 2% in the ice caps; only 1% is in lakes, groundwater or other useable sources. We draw on surface water (lakes and rivers) subsurface (groundwater through pumping) and a small amount is made (very expensively) through desalination. Read more about the water cycle at Wikipedia.
What is done to it?
Sometimes very little. Where the water sources are pure, like in New York City, very little is actually necessary. Other municipalities put their water through a three stage system of Primary Treatment (collecting and screening), Secondary Treatment (removal of solids and contaminants using filters and coagulation), and Tertiary Treatment (carbon filtering and disinfection). It is then stored in reservoirs or water towers so that it can be gravity-fed through the system.
Is it really pure?
While the consensus is that, overall, tap water is better than bottled water for you and the environment, there are some concerns. Older houses and apartment buildings may have lead plumbing which can contaminate it via pipes, solder, and old brass fittings. There is also a growing concern about low levels of antibiotics from agriculture and people disposing of medication down the toilet. Gender-bender hormones from birth control pills, along with phthalates from vinyl, are entering the water system and changing the sex of fish, lowering the sperm count of men, and doubling the number of annual male breast reduction surgeries.
Where does it go?
Too often, waste water is just dumped. Often it enters combined systems that are overwhelmed when it rains. Where there is sewage treatment it is of variable quality, but a properly run modern plant can produce results that are fairly effective. The systems are designed to mimic natural treatment processes where bacteria consume the organic contaminants, and it can then be returned to lakes or as groundwater. Unfortunately, in sub-Saharan Africa almost no waste water is treated; in Latin America only about 15% is. The price is paid in diarrhea, typhus and cholera.
With reporting by Manon Verchot