Why Go Dry

Snow caps in New Zealand. Photo by Jeff Zilka.

Snow caps in New Zealand. Photo by Jeff Zilka.

At this point it's common knowledge that we are experiencing climate change, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the recent and ongoing drought facing California. As a reaction, the California State Water Resources Control Board recently enacted emergency water regulations. The actual rules for water restrictions will be created and put into effect by the 400 local water supply agencies that work throughout California, and together they are required to reduce the state's water usage by 25 percent compared to 2013 usage. While each county will have different requirements and regulations, no matter which county that means a major reduction in water usage or fines up to $500 per day.

Once water becomes an expense, it's amazing how we think about it differently. Having grown up in the midwest and then moving to the East Coast, I didn't grow up with a significant financial consequence to my direct water usage, and I saw firsthand that this leads to water conservation laziness. But even in places where we aren't penalized directly for our water usage, the cost is reflected in our energy bills, because moving water from a central pump facility into our homes and work uses energy, as does treating and heating that water. In fact, 8 percent of the U.S.'s total energy use goes towards treating, pumping, and heating water, while 19 percent of individual U.S. home energy use goes towards heating water. No matter the region, cutting back on water usage will save money.

Even without taking the savings into account, water conservation is important as water is a dwindling and limited resource. On the Earth, as it currently stands, less than one percent of all water is drinkable water; the rest is salt water or frozen, and it takes great amounts of money and energy to clean and move that water to the places it's needed. As our planet has gotten warmer - 2014 stands as the hottest on record- our reserve of fresh water, in the form of glaciers, is melting at too rapid a rate, with some glaciers expected to disappear in our lifetime. Once that source of fresh water disappears, there is no known way to reproduce it. Rising temperatures have also altered our precipitation in many regions, with an increase in rain over snow. This may seem like a good thing, but an accumulation of snow in a lot of regions meant a dependable source of fresh water throughout the year as the snow slowly melted and ran into reservoirs. Now these same reservoirs are flooding with too much water, which they are not equipped to store.  

"There are quite a few simple ways to immediately reduce our water usage."

What this all means is less water than we've ever had in the past. To further compound the issue, we have more people on our planet, and our water use is rising at double the rate of population increase. More people and less water will mean both water and food shortages, as our crops and livestock need water to exist. 

If this has struck a chord, there are quite a few simple ways to immediately reduce our water usage and incorporate water conservation into our daily lives. 

One of the easiest ways to cut back on water usage is to cut back on the times when we use a lot of it. The easiest step is to get in the habit of turning facets off. There's no reason water needs to run while teeth-brushing or shaving. Even when situations call for a running tap, like when rinsing dishes, or waiting for the water to heat up before hopping into the shower, getting into the habit of placing a bucket under the tap to collect any excess water can save 300 gallons of water per month. This can be used later to water plants, hydrate lawns, or, by quickly pouring about a gallon of water into it, manually flush a toilet. Rather than rinsing fruit and vegetables, consider dipping them in a water and vinegar mix in a bowl; the leftover water can be used as mentioned above. The same goes for leftover pasta water.

Another great place to start is the daily shower. The quicker your shower, the less water you use, and at two and a half gallons of water per minute with a new shower head - four gallons per minute with an old one- the savings add up fast. In the muggy summer months in New York City, there is no way I'm getting into bed without rinsing off, but I try using the shower for a quick soaping up and rinsing off of my body, rather than a full on hair and body wash. At Alder New York, we are big believers in cutting back the hair washing by using hair powder, which means on non hair-wash days I can shower in under three minutes.

Plants and lawns provide another place for great water savings. As an alternative to the green turfgrass we're used to, xeriscaping uses drought resistant, slow growing, native plants to landscape instead. Because native species have had centuries to adapt to the local environment, they require significantly less water, pesticides, or fertilizers than turfgrass. In a study run by the American Society of Landscape Architecture, their California test lawn of native species used 77 percent less water than their traditional grass lawn, in addition to being far less labor intensive to maintain. Learn what species of plant makes the most sense for your climate and plant accordingly, phasing into a more suitable lawn over time to reduce the heavy water use that comes with the initial planting. 

Example of Xeriscaping at the Getty Center in Los Angles, California. Photo by David J. Krause.

Example of Xeriscaping at the Getty Center in Los Angles, California. Photo by David J. Krause.

Other great ways to save water while keeping your lawn are to put a layer of mulch around plants and trees, which slows down water evaporation. Similarly, water your lawn at dawn when it's coolest so your plants can use the water throughout the day, avoid watering when windy as most of it will go to waste, and if you do have grass to mow, adjust the mower a notch higher, as longer grasses slow down water evaporation. 

If you want to go even further, you can make some small changes to your diet. With the spotlight on the California drought, there's been a lot of talk about almonds and the gallons of water they need to grow (about a gallon per nut, to be exact). While they do require more water to grow than a broccoli crop, for instance, that amount of water is nothing when compared to how much water is used to produce the crops that feed the cattle that become our red meat. About 106 gallons of water are used to make one ounce of red meat, while that same ounce of almonds (around 23 nuts) uses 23 gallons. When comparing plant protein against animal protein in the water debate, almonds are the clear sustainable winner. If you're someone who currently eats a lot of red meat, try switching out some beef for chicken, since, while there are other issues to look into around your poultry, an ounce of chicken comes in at 32 gallons of water to make

There's no questions that our world is changing, but the good news is that we can change too. While these tips may not feel natural right away, over time, they'll become intuitive, and you'll save water without even thinking about it.