1. Crunch those water numbers
If you want to get serious about saving water, create a chart to record your daily water use and measure your conservation progress.
To start off, you’ll need to figure out how much water you’re using on a daily basis. You can check your water meter once a day. (Go to h2ouse.org to find how.)
Or when your water bill arrives, calculate your personal use by dividing your total household use in gallons by the number of days in the payment period and the number of people in your house.
Next, scour your home for sources of waste. Fix leaks and replace old water-guzzling appliances and fixtures.
Many local water utilities offer assistance. Some give away water-saving appliance retrofits or offer rebates or will even send water technicians to your house to help you audit your water use.
Switching from a top-loading to a front-loading washing machine saves the average four-person home about 140 gallons a week; a low-flow toilet cuts 288 gallons a week; a water-efficient showerhead, 78 gallons.
Take action: Learn more about water-saving appliances by visiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense program: www.epa.gov/watersense
2. Second life for dishwater
If you live in the United States, you probably use about 50 gallons of water per day to bathe and wash dishes and clothes. The resulting “graywater”—so called because soap and grime tint it gray—is great for watering plants. If everyone reused their graywater, our households would suck one-third less water from rivers and aquifers and reduce their wastewater by 60 percent!
You can capture shower and sink water in 5-gallon buckets. Dip out of the bucket to water houseplants, or pour the graywater into the toilet bowl to “bucket flush” the toilet.
Or ask a plumber or handy friend to divert your drain pipes outside. Simple graywater systems are legal in several states and cost $75 to $200 if you do the work yourself. If you live in a wintry place, you can use a diversion valve to reroute your graywater to the sewer when it would freeze outside.
Reuse your graywater in the garden! It’s easy. First, dig 9-inch-deep basins around fruit trees, shrubs, or large annuals like tomatoes. Fill each basin with wood chips (often available free from tree trimmers).
These basins keep graywater from running into neighboring yards. The bark mulch soaks up grease and soap and keeps them from clogging the soil.
Your backyard is now your water treatment plant. Avoid toxic cleansers. And sodium and boron are fine for us, but bad for plants and soil, so buy liquid detergents without these ingredients.
- The California-based water advocacy group, Graywater Action, offers ideas and resources on everything water, from river restoration to installing graywater systems and composting toilets: greywateraction.org
- Want to use graywater in a cold climate? greywateraction.org/content/systems-cold-climates-including-wetlands
- The Water-friendly Backyard
3. Don’t flush it away
Americans flush 4 billion gallons of treated, drinkable water down the toilet each day. But there are other ways to get rid of your waste. For instance, composting toilets are safe, use virtually no water, and, if properly maintained, produce no odors. They aren’t connected to pipes—all of the treatment happens on site. Naturally occurring bacteria turn human waste into compost. Newer designs from companies like Separett or Sun-Mar are compact and attractive.
Composting toilets can be used anywhere. Columnist Susan Carpenter installed one in her Los Angeles home. “After two months, I finally lifted the lid on my composting toilet,” she wrote in The Los Angeles Times. “Without incident, I emptied my bucket [of waste] into the mulch around my lemon tree after diluting it with rainwater.”
4. Grow a water-friendly backyard
You can turn your yard into a water-friendly garden. Richly composted organic soil stores water, keeping it out of storm drains when it’s rainy and saving water when it’s dry. Plant a cover crop in late summer. Before spring planting, mow the cover crop and cover the bed with a layer of cardboard topped by straw or leaf mulch. Plant seedlings or large seeds through small holes cut in the cardboard. Or till in the cover crop, then plant veggies or flowers.
To further boost your garden’s water-storing capacity in dry regions, dig sunken beds—they’ll collect rain from garden paths. Winter moisture will sink into the ground and fill spaces between soil particles. In very rainy places, make a “rain garden” in a low spot.
What keeps soil moist and loose, suppresses weeds, and encourages helpful soil critters? Mulch. Potatoes, garlic, and large seeds will grow through thick mulch. For small seeds, mulch lightly until they sprout, then add more between rows.
Turn one-gallon plastic bottles into low-tech drip irrigation. Cut a 2-inch hole in the bottom of each bottle, remove the lid, and bury the top of the bottle in your garden bed. Space bottles 18 inches apart. About once a week, fill the bottles through the 2-inch hole. Water seeps slowly into the soil.
Bury terra cotta pots so the lip is just above the surface. The pots wick water to deep-rooted plants and work well in container gardens. Use a narrow-necked pot and plug the drain hole with clay.
Tomatoes, squash, melons, potatoes, and some fruit trees can be dry-farmed—grown with only rain even in dry climates. Dry-farmed crops need more space—up to 4 times as much as irrigated ones. Mulch well, and let the plants sprawl.
- The Xeriscape Council of New Mexico provides information and references on how to garden in dry climates: www.xeriscapenm.com
- Live a wet place? Find out how to make your own rain garden and stop stormwater using bioswales: daily.sightline.org/daily_score/archive/2010/03/08/stormwater-diy
5. Catch the rain
In an average year, enough rain falls on even a small roof to meet all of your basic water needs, and then some—but much of that water disappears down city storm drains.
Catch your rain, and you can save water and reduce the load on your city’s storm system. Rain barrels are the simplest method.
You can build your own from a 55 to 90-gallon food-grade plastic barrel. Place it outside on a firm, level surface and connect it to your gutter downspout. Cover the inflow with a screen to keep out debris. Install a spigot at the bottom so you can drain and use the water, and attach an overflow pipe near the top. See more detailed instructions on rain barrels below.
Some home designers have extended the rain-barrel concept, building homes that draw water only from the rain that falls on their roofs. It’s not a new idea. Houses in arid regions around the world rely on rainwater tanks. But builders like Darrel McMaster in Boerne, Texas, have updated roof and rain tank designs to make them marketable to American homebuyers.
Such homes can cost 10 to 12 percent more to build than a standard home, but you get your money’s worth in just five to seven years, says McMaster.
While the average American family of four uses about 400 gallons of water at home each day, McMaster claims homes relying on rainwater may use as little as 35. “If all you have is rainwater, you’re going to manage your water a whole lot better,” McMaster says.
- Learn more about living off rainwater at the website of Brad Lancaster, author and permaculture expert: www.harvestingrainwater.com
- Access how-to guides for building rain barrels, cisterns, roof gardens, and other means of managing your rain at the Portland, Ore., Environmental Services website: www.portlandonline.com/bes/index.cfm?c=31870
6. Cozy up to your creek
You want to protect your local waterways, but you’re not sure where to start. How healthy is your river? You can check it out for yourself. The next time it rains, splash down to your local stream. If you find trash and oil slicks, you’re not alone. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 40 percent of all U.S. streams fail to meet state or federal water quality standards.
Start at the headwaters and walk downstream. If you have to scramble through willow thickets, you’re in luck! Once you emerge, look for beavers—the keystone species in most North American watersheds. Beaver dams cool streams, create wetlands, and shelter fish. If you see bare, muddy banks, look for cows or new developments, which increase runoff. Eroding banks can clog fish spawning grounds with mud.
Many fish (as well as swallows, lizards, and frogs) eat water bugs. Insect larvae clinging to wet rocks provide clues to water quality—stoneflys, for example, need pristine water, while leeches survive in scummy stormwater. (See below for a simple identification guide for river critters.) If you see no bugs or fish, it might mean the water needs serious attention and cleanup. Consider adopting your stream.
To find out more about your local stream and its advocates, or to adopt your watershed, check out epa.gov/adopt.
Creek exploration isn’t just for rural dwellers. Get inspiration on exploring urban rivers at the L.A. Creek Freak blog and from the companion book Down by the Los Angeles River, which describes Joe Linton’s stealth campaign against the chain link fences along the Los Angeles River. Using bolt-cutters, he sometimes cut locks before leading curious Angelenos down the concrete banks. These walking tours showed hundreds of people the living river inside the flood-control channel. Now, largely through grassroots efforts, many of these fences are coming down.
- Find a simple identification guide for stream critters here: www.roaringfork.org/images/other/aquaticinvertebratesheet.pdf [pdf file]
- Learn how to fix your creek, get to know your water, and get involved in permaculture at the Occidental Arts and Ecology website: www.oaecwater.org
Berit Anderson, Ashlee Green, and Keith Rutkowski are editorial interns for YES! Magazine.
- : How to take care of our water, share it, and live within our means. YES! Magazine poster.
- : Citizen Riverkeepers Protect Their Waters