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Not a Drop Wasted: The Best Basic Water Conservation Tips

Saving water is easier than you think. 

Overthrown presidents, wars, death, and national emergencies—it might seem strange that these drastic outcomes could be due to something as basic as water. But because economies and lives depend on this fundamental liquid, its shortage is nothing to be glib about. And as population increases and more people move into water-intensive lifestyles, water restrictions are something we’re likely to be seeing more of in the future.

Droughts, development, pollution, and wasteful usage are major factors in local and global water shortages, and are seemingly intractable problems for an individual to solve. Yet the United States uses more water per capita than any other country, so we can make a difference. As the saying goes, think globally, act locally. Whether we live in chronically water-short states or those that are flush with it, there are some basic things we can do to conserve and help us minimize our water consumption.

1. What to Do in the Loo?
A lot of indoor water use occurs in the bathroom—showering, flushing, brushing, etc. One of the first places to start conserving is the toilet. While most of us will have to wait for composting toilets and those that separate out solids from liquids to be reused (all in the works for the future), we can install a low-flow toilet and save large amounts of water, especially if you’re replacing an old, large-tank toilet. However, there is a simpler, cheaper (even free) method: displacement. By placing a brick, a plastic bag filled with water (sometimes called toilet tummies), or anything that takes up space inside the tank it will reduce the amount of water per flush. I ordered a free toilet tummy from my municipal district; check to see if yours subsidizes them, too.

The truly stringent can implement the mantra I learned as a child during water-strapped summers in Northern California—if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.

You can also conserve by fixing toilet leaks, which can waste up to 7,000 gallons a month. A simple way to detect whether or not you have a leak is to put a few drops of food coloring in the toilet tank and wait fifteen to twenty minutes. If you see the coloring in the toilet bowl, you’ve got a leak.

2. Go Low-Flow
Low-flow showerheads will reduce water consumption, and, because they save hot water, they reduce energy consumption as well. If you have older pipes and your shower takes a while to heat up, simply put a bucket in the stall to capture the cold stuff and use this to water plants, mop, or wash dishes. Shaving your legs? Try doing this with shaving cream and a bowl, rather than doing it in the shower, which can tack on many more minutes on your showertime. 

Adding aerators and low-flow faucet adapters (usually less than $5 at hardware stores) on all sinks will save water—and ultimately, money.

In addition to low-flow faucets, it also helps to become aware of whether you leave the faucet on more than you need. It should always be off when we brush our teeth, for example.

3. Load Up, Low Water
We also use a lot of water in the kitchen. For dishwashers, make sure to fill the dishwasher to the brim before washing and opt out of the “heat dry” cycle, which uses extra energy. Skip pre-rinsing dishes, except for the two-day-old crusted oatmeal bowls. For those hand washers like me, use a tub to soak and rinse instead of having the water run constantly. Scrub plates with a little water before turning on the faucet full blast, so all you have to do is rinse. When rinsing fruits and vegetables, I also save the water in a bowl and use it to water patio or indoor plants.

Low-water clothes washers are also out there, though if you’re happy with what you’ve got, make sure to fill it up when doing a load.

4. Green Your Foliage
Since the EPA estimates that landscape irrigation uses up almost seven billion gallons of water per day, our yards seem a likely place to make tangible changes.

First, the easy-to-implement changes that will help you stretch your water:

  • Mulch. It helps conserve moisture in the soil, prevents evaporation, keeps roots cooler, and when you use an organic mulch like wood chips, will improve the soil structure when it breaks down.
  • Water in the morning or evening, when you’ll lose less to evaporation. When you water during cooler times, it’s also less stressful on plants.
  • When you water, don’t spray the leaves. Use a soaker hose or drip irrigation, which target the roots of the plants and allows water to be slowly absorbed, instead of running off. Water deeply and infrequently, which helps shrubs, trees, and perennials develop deep root systems.
  • Use permeable gravel, pavers, and mulch so that rain water can be absorbed instead of running off into storm drains.
  • Let your lawn go brown during the dry times. It’ll come back when the first rains hit.

For those looking to do new planting or willing to invest a little more time into going drought-tolerant, try these:

  • Plant natives, which are already adapted to your local climate and will do well with rainfall, eliminating the need for supplemental water.
  • Xeriscaping, which reduces the amount of water by using drought-tolerant plants suitable for local climates, is a great way to have a beautiful garden with minimal water.
  • Get rid of your lawn. Probably one of the best ways to cut back on water use is by getting rid of water-thirsty green patch in front.
  • Plant a tree. Trees help keep landscapes cool, provide shade, and can reduce water needs in your yard.
  • Implement a greywater system. Greywater is water from the dishwasher, clothes washer, or shower, all of which can be directed to your garden to water trees and plants. You can do this the low-tech way, with buckets, or the higher-tech way, with actual plumbing. Sometimes the water is filtered through a pond in the garden; other times it’s used straight, such as piping shower water into the toilet to flush it. It’s a very ingenious way to reduce the amount of water a home uses, but it does take some plumbing skills or a sense of DIY.
  • Capturing rainwater with rain barrels, or other rainwater-harvesting techniques, is another great way to minimize water needs. Since all the rain that falls on your property is yours, don’t let it go to waste.

5. What Are You Washing?
Instead of spraying down sidewalks and driveways with the hose, use a broom (you’ll also benefit from the workout!). And if you can sacrifice a shiny car, let it go dusty during the summer.

6. Eat Less Meat
It doesn’t seem like eating meat has much to do with low-flow showerheads, but reducing the amount of meat you consume actually helps reduce the amount of overall water used. According to a recent article in the Economist, the meat-heavy American diet requires almost 5,000 liters of water a day to produce, while vegetarian diets like those of Africa and Asia only use about 2,000 liters a day. Put simply, raising livestock uses more water and energy than growing grain and vegetables.

Though the average citizen may have to wait for municipalities to get smart about water management and for conservation to become the national norm rather than the exception, we can all make small changes to make our drops do more.

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