I don’t think about water very much. I turn faucets on and off every day many times, and use water for a variety of tasks that seem necessary to a good life – showers, cleaning hands, washing dishes, making coffee. When water is in the news, it’s about too much water, the floods of the century that seem to be happening every few years in the Midwest.
Lately, though, I have been doing experiments with water. What if I turn off the water in the shower several times when I don’t need the spray? Can I save water that I would normally dump down the drain by pouring some into a container? Can I use less water when I wash dishes?
In all the houses of friends and family I visit, in all the restaurants and workplaces I visit, an unending supply of clean, drinkable water is an unspoken assumption. But that is one of the great privileges of living in one of the world’s wealthiest countries.
It also is our great danger. America uses too much water. The Colorado River, which provides drinking water for 36 million Americans and irrigation for 15% of the nation’s crops, is so overused that the water level in Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam, the country’s largest reservoir, is dropping to emergency levels. Seven states that depend on Colorado River water have just agreed to voluntarily cut their water usage. The days of virtually free unlimited water in the Southwest are over.
In neither region, in no region, are Americans prepared for the basic changes in our water systems that global warming has brought and will keep bringing.
Meanwhile, we have way too much water in the Midwest. Both changes are connected to climate change, and so might get worse for the next few decades. In neither region, in no region, are Americans prepared for the basic changes in our water systems that global warming has brought and will keep bringing.
Flushing the toilet represents the largest use of water in an average American household, about 30% of total daily usage. Older toilets use 3.6 gallons per flush, while the newer so-called ultra-low-flow toilets use 1.6 gallons and even newer “high efficiency toilets” use 1.3 gallons, multiplied by an average of more than 5 flushes per day per person. Showers that last an average of 8 minutes pump out water at a rate of 2 gallons per minute.
It is possible to significantly reduce water usage by installing relatively cheap bits of equipment which create no inconvenience: aerators for faucets and low-flow shower heads. More expensive are modern toilets and high efficiency washers and dishwashers. You can see more simple home water conservation tips here.
The Alliance for Water Efficiency makes further suggestions for reducing water usage. They recommend what they call the “navy shower”, in which you turn off the water while shampooing and washing, then turn it on again. I’ve never been in the Navy, but this is how I shower, probably saving about the half the water I would otherwise use. That’s easy. Another suggestion they make is to collect the cold water that comes out of the shower before it is hot enough to step into. Think about that: get a bucket, turn the shower on so that some of the spray goes into the bucket, take the bucket out when the shower is warm, use that water later for – what? Watering plants? Washing dishes?
That’s an example of how inconvenient it is to have limited water supply.
Two-thirds of people in sub-Saharan Africa have no water at all at home. In most of these countries, over 90% of the rural population has no water at home. For many people, the nearest water supply is more than 30 minutes away. One gallon of water weighs over 8 pounds. Imagine needing to carry all the water for your household for half an hour.
Great improvements have been made recently in providing access to water in poorer nations. The proportion of the world’s people with access to “improved drinking water” has risen from 76% in 1990 to 91% in 2015. One of the biggest improvements was in China, where the number jumped from 67% to 95% among over 1 billion people.
Nearly 2 million Americans do not have access to clean running water. Naturally it is poor minority communities who suffer most: Native Americans, rural blacks in the South, Latino communities along the border with Mexico. But every state has areas where people do not have indoor plumbing.
I have a small metal milk can on my kitchen counter that holds about a gallon. I often pour water I have already used into it. When it’s full, I use the water in my garden. That water would have gone down the drain. If pouring it into my garden replaces other water I would have used for that purpose, I might have saved money. Some months we don’t use more than 2000 gallons, so our charge is flat, whether I save a gallon here or there or not. When we use more than 2000, I’m reducing our payment about 7 cents for every 100 gallons I don’t use. Water is extraordinarily cheap for us.
My water saving experiment was not useless. It is no solution to our coming water problems, but it began to show me what water privilege means. Maybe it will help prepare me for a future when our water privilege runs out.