(Radically) Re-thinking Water in the West

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There was an article recently in the NYTimes about the drought in California, and how in Tulare County, “more than 500 [households] cannot flush a toilet, fill a drinking glass, wash dishes or clothes, or even rinse their hands without reaching for a bottle or bucket.” With wells going dry, people are left with no running water, and are living dependent entirely on bottled water or water hauled in from elsewhere. The article describes one family as having spent “hundreds of dollars” on laundromats and disposable dishes. On the other hand, a county emergency services official is quoted as saying “We can’t offer anyone a long-term solution right now. There is a massive gap between need and resources to deal with it.”

As the drought in California continues, and may become worse with climate change, a long-term solution is obviously needed. And, it’s not that there aren’t any solutions. I have neither municipal water nor a well on my property, and even in this drought, I have enough water in my tanks to live off of and even irrigate a small garden.

While there are no silver bullets, here are a few “radical” water conservation techniques I use in my life, that you won’t find in the official suggestions:

  • Rain catchment — Even during a drought, there’s precipitation. Porterville (the town mentioned in the article) receives an average of 11 inches of precipitation from October through May. Let’s say that figure is more like 6 inches in a drought, but if it were collected off of a 1000 sqft roof, that’s 500 cubic-feet or 3740 gallons of water. That may not seem like much, but it’s equivalent to 60 – 100 loads of laundry, or over 2000 toilet flushes (for modern 1.6gpf toilets) or 150 ten-minute showers (with efficient 2.5 gpm heads). Water tanks are somewhat expensive, at $0.60 – $1 per gallon, but it’s a relatively small price to pay to guarantee something you literally can not live without.
  • Be a dirty hippie (or just dirty) — I wash my pants about once a month, I wear the same shirt 2-3 times, I shower about once a week, and I’ve never gotten complaints from friends, girlfriends or coworkers, nor have I suffered any ill effects on my health (there’s even some evidence that exposure to some filth is good for you). Granted, because domestic water use is such a small slice of the overall water pie, this won’t solve the West’s water crisis. But, the less water you can live off of comfortably, the more options you’ll have. If you want to spend 100 gallons per day like most Americans do, rain catchment won’t viably cover your needs. But if you’re happy living off of 5 gallons a day, rain catchment can fulfill your needs, even in many of the driest parts of the country.
  • Composting toilets — According to the EPA, an average American family of four uses 400 gallons of water a day, with almost 27% of it getting flushed down the toilet. So water-less composting toilets could reduce water consumption by a quarter, reduce waste that needs to be processed in sewage plants, while producing valuable compost. Composting toilets are probably impractical in dense dwellings, but it should be an option in more sparse areas, such as those chronicled in the article. Part of the reason it’s not a popular option right now is partially due to the (misplaced) “ick” factor, but also because its legal status is unclear. To help make homes more drought-tolerant, building departments and health officials should not only embrace composting toilets, but should be encouraging it.
  • Eat less beef (and meat in general) — About 80% of California’s developed water supply goes to agricultural use, and a sizable percentage of that goes towards forage and hay for livestock (mostly cows). A pound of beef takes 1799 gallons of water to produce, and in 2012 we consumed 54 pounds of beef per person. In case you’re wondering, at 1799 gallons/pound, that would’ve required 97,146 gallons of water. While vegetarians and vegans might try to tell you to cut out meat entirely, that could be a hard pill to swallow for some of us. But what if we replaced half of our beef consumption with chicken, without even reducing overall meat consumption? Since chickens require significantly less water per pound (468 gallons/lb) than beef, just replacing a half of our annual beef consumption with chicken would reduce our water usage by 35,937 gallons per person per year. Replace 90% of our beef consumption, and that figure goes up to 64,686 gallons. In comparison, shortening showers by 5 minutes a day would only save 4500 gallons over the course of a year (assuming you shower every day, and have a 2.5 gpm head).
  • Don’t play golf (in the desert) — Golf courses account for a disproportionate amount of water consumption for the number of people it serves. The Palm Springs area alone has 57 golf courses that each use a million gallons of water a day. If you love to play golf, more power to you, but I kindly request that you move to a place where it rains enough that the grass doesn’t need to be irrigated.

Ultimately, water is a unique environmental issue in that there is no substitute, and there’s no economically viable way to make more of it. In the coming decades, ensuring water security is probably going to require more than just shorter showers.

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