Shades of Green: Water, Water Everywhere… Sort Of

Can An American Family Slow the Flow?

Wasting water is a costly problem, especially for wildlife. (Photo credit: Steve Johnson, Flickr)

For most of us, getting clean water is as easy as turning on a tap. Each day, more than 27 billion gallons of water flow out of American faucets and showers, get flushed down our toilets, spin in washing machines, and drip from sprinklers and hoses.

Americans use more water per person than anyone else in the world, and it usually only costs us a few dollars a month. But, while the cost to us is small, the wildlife that depend on the streams and rivers where our water is sourced pay a much bigger price.

We’re never going to stop using water. Like wildlife, we need water to live. But we can be more conscientious of our water use and, frankly, we have to if we’re going to save our waterways.

So how can a family slow the flow?

In June our family moved from Austin, Tex., to Tucson, Ariz. — we left a place in the midst of a historic drought and headed to one smack dab in the middle of the desert.

So this is a question we’ve grappled with for years.

Each day, Americans use more than 27 billion gallons of water.

In Texas we were renters, which meant we couldn’t make many changes to the property. We didn’t want to make any big investments on a place that wasn’t ours anyway. So we focused on behavioral changes to reduce our water use.

We wash clothes only when they really need it. This shift was an easy one because, let’s be honest, laundry is a drag. I think most clothes fit nicer after a few wears anyway.

Usually, small spills can be spot treated. And on the messy, stinky days — the ones where our toddler gets ice cream or I go for a long run — we throw dirty outfits in the laundry basket. We only run the wash when there’s a full load. That not only saves water and time, but has the added bonus of releasing fewer harmful plastic microfibers into the environment.

It’s a little easier to skip baths when you can save frogs.

Some changes have been harder. We’ve tried to cut down shower times, because shortening a shower by ten minutes can save 50 gallons of water. But I’ll admit this is a struggle for all the Herreras, especially with a toddler who can spend hours in a tub full of bubbles. As a compromise, baths are a once-a-week treat for our daughter — the rest of the time she showers with one of us.

The sinks get turned off when we’re brushing our teeth or scrubbing hands and faces, which can save two gallons of water each time. We also strictly subscribe to the “mellow yellow” method with toilet flushing — much to my gross three-year-old’s delight. She likes to announce that she hasn’t flushed… it’s only a little weird when we’re in public.

And we keep an eye out for drips — because one leaky faucet can waste more than 3,000 gallons of water a year.

But, even though behavioral changes can take a significant chunk out of a household’s water use, making some key upgrades and replacements can reduce indoor water use by 45 percent.

That’s why, as new homeowners, we’re starting to tackle bigger ways we can stop being water hogs. The first big upgrade was a new Energy Star certified washer. We also installed low-flow shower heads and plan on doing the same with toilets and faucets.

Outside we’re making changes too. Our yard utilizes xeriscaping, which means it’s full of beautiful native plants that don’t need much watering. When they do get thirsty, we rely on a targeted drip system that focuses on the roots and only waters at night.

By making some key upgrades and replacements, you can reduce indoor water use by 45 percent.

We’re also planning to invest in rainwater collection as well as a grey water system, which uses a valve to divert water from the washing machine to water non-edible plants. With these systems, our yard and garden can rely on water collected from Tucson’s monsoons as well as water that would otherwise go down the drain to stay hydrated.

Admittedly, all of these upgrades are expensive — which is why we’re tackling them slowly and as our finances allow. Thankfully we have the support of a city that’s also committed to conserving water. Tucson has a number of rebates that promote upgrading to more efficient appliances and investing in rainwater harvesting and xeriscaping. Low income families can even receive free low-flow toilets through a city program.

But Tucson is ahead of the curve. There are a lot of parched cities that still promote green lawns year round and wasteful water use. The federal government has even indicated they may end the Energy Star program, a popular and successful initiative which encourages companies to develop technologies that are more efficient and less wasteful.

We need policy makers to support the significant changes needed to conserve our water resources. To make that happen, we can call on the federal government to save Energy Star. And if your town or city doesn’t have programs to save water, urge leaders to establish them.

There’s also a lot that individuals and families can do to reduce their water use. All those small savings from changing our habits add up. My toddler loves pretending to be a frog in the bath. But when I tell her she can help save Chiricahua leopard frogs by showering with me, she gladly hops in. For the sake of frogs, bears and cranes, we all need to stop being drips.

Jessica Herrera is a media specialist for the Center for Biological Diversity.