Thirsting for Water-saving Solutions

Part three of a five-part series for Earth Overshoot Day

Down the Drain (Credit: j.botter/

August 8 marks Earth Overshoot Day, the date when the supply of natural resources that can theoretically be renewed in a year has dried up. Here in the United States, we account for a disproportionate amount of that over-consumption. Our wasteful ways are pushing the day we reach our limit earlier each year.

Freshwater is both necessary and limited, but you wouldn’t know it from the amount we send down the drain. The average American uses over seven times as much water for domestic purposes — including drinking, hygiene, and lawn care — as is needed.[i] That level of over-consumption is absolutely unsustainable. Given that much of the country’s water supply is threatened by severe drought conditions, we should all be thirsting for water conservation solutions.

In the Center for Biological Diversity’s Earth Overshoot Day series, we’ve already talked about how safe sex and an Earth-friendly diet can help create a more sustainable future. I’m here to share a few examples of how individuals can save water and reduce their overall impact on the planet.

Now, here’s where the skeptical voice inside me says, “but should it really be on the individual to make these changes? Isn’t domestic water use essentially insignificant — just a drop in the bucket — compared to the water used for energy development and agriculture?”

Certainly energy generation and irrigation systems are huge water guzzlers — accounting for over 70 percent of our freshwater withdrawals in total — and huge efforts need to be made in those sectors to reduce overall water consumption. In contrast, the public water supply only accounts for about 14 percent of our total freshwater withdrawals, and just over half of that goes towards domestic uses such as sanitation, landscaping and drinking water. With numbers like that, it’s easy to be skeptical of the impact that individual conservation efforts can have. But, as with many sustainability issues, it’s important to keep in mind that we need both systemic and widespread individual change.

Public water supplies, though perhaps a small piece of the overall water use puzzle, are strained. The reality is that we only have a certain amount of freshwater available to use, and climate change along with rapidly growing populations are pushing us to the limit. There’s less and less water to go around. We need to decrease our water demands before we’re tapped out.

Fortunately, in-home conservation efforts actually can make the difference in maintaining our supply of public water. California Governor Jerry Brown issued a state mandate in 2015 to reduce water use by 25 percent from 2013 levels, resulting in widespread efforts to cut water waste. The state nearly reached this goal as of May 2016, largely due to water-saving behavior changes.

Conserving water at home is relatively easy. One important step is to fix leaks. Annual in-home leaks in the United States waste approximately one trillion gallons of water. That’s enough water to supply over 11 million homes. And this doesn’t even account for outdoor water leaks. You can use your water meter to check if you have any big leaks by turning off all water use in your home for just two hours. If your meter’s reading changes over that time, you probably have a leak that needs to be fixed. You can also check your toilet for leaks by dropping a bit of food coloring into the tank. Wait 10 to 15 minutes (without flushing) and check the bowl for color.

Speaking of toilets, if all Americans aimed to cut flushing by half, it would cut in-home water use by almost 14 percent. If you’re like me and already use the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow…” philosophy, aiming to have a high-efficiency toilet and periodically checking for leaks is a great way to ensure you’re not literally flushing valuable water down the drain.

Obviously there are many more things you can do to conserve water besides flushing less and checking for leaks, but those are good steps. Outside of your direct water use in your home and yard, you can try cutting down on meat consumption, buying fewer consumer goods, and going solar — all of which would reduce your overall water footprint. For more information on how you can cut water use, check out our “Don’t Be a Drip” campaign. And make sure to share with your friends and family what you’re doing this Earth Overshoot Day to save water by making a #pledgefortheplanet.

Greer Ryan is a sustainability research associate at the Center for Biological Diversity.

[i] Based on Peter Gleick’s 1995 assessment of basic water requirements for human needs.