We all know that water is essential for life, and here in the Pacific Northwest where water is gloriously abundant, it is all too easy to be wasteful and take this precious resource for granted. We might look out the window and see the rain pouring down day after day, and think that water scarcity is certainly NOT an issue here—so why bother fixing that leaky faucet or turning off the water while you’re brushing your teeth? However, even in our rainy neck of the woods, it is important to conserve water as much as possible, as this valuable resource is projected to become scarcer in the coming decades with the competing needs of the growing population, agriculture, industry, and the environment. Climate change adds another complication by changing our weather patterns: in the future, climate models for the Pacific Northwest are projecting warmer and wetter winters, and hotter, drier summers, all of which add up to decreased water supply during the hot summer months.
However, fear not: there are simple and painless steps that you can take in your own life to conserve water. The more of these steps you can implement, the better—before you know it, water conservation will be second nature!
- Fix leaky faucets – A faucet that leaks 1 drip per second will on average waste 16 bathtubs of water each month, or a total of nearly 10,000 gallons per year!
- Fix leaky/running toilets – A running toilet can waste as much as 1 gallon per minute, or a whopping 43,200 gallons per month. This is nearly enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool over the course of a year! Some toilet leaks can be silent: some resources suggest dripping a few drops of food coloring into the tank and see if the color shows up in the bowl below without being flushed. If it does, you’ve got a leak. (Fair warning: I haven’t tried this, so don't yell at me if it stains your toilet!)
- Take a shower – We’ve all heard this one: take a short ten-minute shower that uses 10 gallons of water, and skip the bath that uses 40-50 gallons.
- Turn off the faucet when brushing teeth – Leaving the water running wastes 4-6 gallons.
- Be smart about laundry – Only run the washer when it is full, and be sure to match the water level to the load size. Try to reduce the volume of laundry by re-using towels.
- Use a commercial car wash – A commercial car wash uses about 45 gallons per car, while washing at home can use as much as 80-140 gallons.
- Landscape with native plants – These plants are adapted to the local climate and won’t require watering in excess of whatever precipitation is already readily available
- Set up rain barrels – Save hundreds of gallons of clean, drinkable water by using water from rain barrels for your plants in the yard and house.
- Minimize water use in the yard - Watering the lawn and garden can take a considerable amount of water, adding up to thousands of gallons per day in the summer. Huffpost Green has some great tips for conserving water in the yard.
All of the suggestions above relate to your direct water usage, but it is also crucial to consider your “virtual water” usage. Virtual water refers to the water that is used to produce the food we eat and the products we buy. It takes water (irrigation) to grow food crops, and the manufacturing processes of goods such as clothing, electronics, appliances, personal care products, packaging materials – you name it—uses an alarming amount of water, in addition to the water used to grow/mine/extract the raw materials. Ultimately, the answer to reducing your virtual water usage is to consume less. Buy less stuff, eat less meat, reduce, reuse, recycle... Here are a few specifics to think about (all numbers as reported by the Water Footprint Network):
- One cotton t-shirt = 2,500 liters of water
- One pair of jeans = 8,000 liters of water
- One piece of fruit / vegetable = typically 50-400 liters of water each
- One kg of beef = 15,400 liters of water
- One kg of chicken = 4,330 liters of water
- One bottled water = 3 liters of water… hmm, that just doesn’t add up! (Pacific Institute)
An abundance of water... or is it?
Our lives consume a LOT of water, as you can see from the overwhelming numbers above. The average American household uses 300 gallons of water per day. However, it is important to remember that just because we live in a developed country where water availability is not an issue thanks to technology and infrastructure; that does not justify wastefulness and does not mean that water is a limitless resource. Water tables and aquifers are declining across the country, and with the impending challenges of a changing climate, our water supply may not be quite so abundant in the future. As Anita Roddick states in her book Troubled Water: “Water covers 70% of the planet. Of that, 97% is undrinkable seawater. Another 2% is locked in polar ice caps. Leaving 1% available for human use. Over HALF of that [water] is polluted”. Those numbers paint a sobering illustration of the reality of our global water situation, and provide yet another reason to be conscious of our water use now in hopes that we’ll continue to have enough for the future.
For more creative water saving tips, check out 100+ Ways to Conserve