California Drought – You Cannot Drink Denial

Shasta Lake, CA on February 25, 2016 - Photo Florence Low, CA DWR
Shasta Lake, CA after El Niño Rains on February 25, 2016 – Photo Florence Low, CA Department of Water Resources

If you live in a parched place like California, conserving water should be routine by now. If it is not, stop living in denial and start saving water today.

California is in its 5th year of drought. Watching the news, reading the paper, or surfing the web you cannot help but learn about drastically low reservoir levels, the worst snowpack in history, and wells running dry at an alarming rate.

Sure, overall, California households have reduced water use in the last several years, but as soon as we get a little rain, water use goes up even though a severe drought still exists.

California Household Average Water Use Per Person Per Day

  • July 2016 – 113.5 gallons
  • July 2015 – 98.1 gallons
  • July 2014 – 132.9 gallons
  • July 2013 – 142 gallons

Green lawns abound and water continues to flow freely from faucets. It is as if some people believe politicians and government agencies are going to fix it somehow—so they do not need to change their behavior.

My Webster’s Dictionary defines denial as, “an unconscious thought process whereby one allays anxiety by refusing to acknowledge the existence of certain unpleasant aspects of external reality.”

When you turn on the tap and nothing comes out, it will be too late to start conserving water. Protect the place you live and your family by facing the drought head on and starting to reduce your water use today. Begin with the low-hanging fruit, like installing low-flow showerheads and then move on to the difficult stuff like ripping out your thirsty turf grass lawn.

Make Conserving Water at Home a Habit

Our small town on the California Central Coast is entering year 4 of stage 3 (the highest) mandatory water conservation measures. At one point a couple of years ago, the water district feared our wells might run dry. Fortunately, that has not occurred…so far. This is due mostly to residents and businesses making a huge effort to conserve water. For instance, our town’s overall water usage in July 2016 was down 41% from July 2013.

In our household, we have not always been water wise, but we have been taking the drought seriously for several years. Since moving here 9 years ago, we have reduced our overall water use by 65%. We currently use about 25 gallons of water per person per day.

Conserving water is a habit, part of our daily routine. For instance, for me, catching the first 30 seconds of cold shower water in a bucket for later reuse is automatic, like brushing my teeth twice a day.

I am not saying we are paragons of water conservation, but we do know a thing or two about it. Perhaps one or more of our water savings solutions will work for your household.

Fully Loaded

Standard kitchen faucets pump out 2 gallons of water or more per minute so if you think hand washing dishes saves water, think again. Fully load your dishwasher and then run it.

One habit I had to break was sorting laundry into numerous piles and then washing them. Most fabrics today do not require special handling so now I load up the washer for each cycle.

Shower Savings

A standard showerhead flows at 2.5 gallons per minute or more. If you take a 10-minute shower with the water running, you can easily use 25 gallons of water. Filling up a standard bathtub uses a whopping 35-50 gallons of water.

We equipped our showers with low flow showerheads with trickle or turn off valves. I am not even remotely handy, yet I installed one of the showerheads myself so you probably can, too.

To Flush or Not to Flush

Toilets are the number one water hogs in the house, consuming about 27% of indoor household water. Older toilets use 3-5 gallons per flush and newer models still use 1.6 gallons. Millions of old toilets have slow leaks.

When water wells in our town were dangerously low, we implemented the “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.” method. That was effective, but we decided to replace our old toilets with dual flush high-efficiency toilets that use 0.9 or 1.2 gallons of water per flush. We saw a huge drop in our water usage.

Drought Resistant Yard

Lawns and landscaping can suck up anywhere from 30-70% of your household water usage. Lawns cause pollution, too, from fertilizer, weed killer, and pesticide runoff.

Fortunately, our yard is mostly wild with no turf grass (we did have front and back lawns in Southern California). Plants in our yard must be able to survive on a tiny amount of rainfall or an occasional drink from the various buckets we keep in our sinks and showers.

I acknowledge that removing a lawn is a difficult and expensive endeavor, especially if you include the cost of what you put in instead of grass. If you are not ready to tackle your lawn, implementing one or more of the suggestions above will at least set you on the path to reducing your water footprint.

Share your water saving story with other readers.

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Drought in a Small Town – Saving Water during the Drought

I live in one of those drought-stricken California towns in danger of running out of water. Our quest to save water changed our daily habits—in a good way.

California is known for its sunny weather and mild temperatures, not its rainfall. Yet, we keep our yards green year-round and have a huge agricultural industry. Somehow living in Southern California, where I lived most of my life insulated me from thinking or worrying about water.

Three Bucks Nap in Our Yard
Three Deer Bucks Nap in Our Yard

That changed when we moved to a small town on the California Central Coast seven years ago. Now we live in a forest. Deer trails crisscross our yard and it is home to a pair of gray squirrels, numerous birds, and an entire community of voles.

Living this close to nature changed our perspective and inspired us to find ways to save water. I recounted our initial efforts in Drought in a Small Town – Saving Water before the Drought.

The current drought challenged us to save even more water.

Raising the Bar on Water Saving Efforts

Raising the bar on our water saving efforts required us to assess our daily water habits, those things we did on a regular basis without thinking.

In some cases, we adopted water saving techniques that were relatively easy and are now part of our normal routine. Others were more drastic and difficult to get used to doing.

The Birds and the Trees

Last fall, our water utility banned outdoor watering. You can imagine the public outcry from residents with water-hungry landscaping.

The water utility set up a couple of sites around town with gigantic multi-thousand-gallon tanks where residents could obtain free non-potable water (partially treated but not drinking quality). Hardware stores stocked up on portable and long-term water storage tanks and enterprising individuals with pickup trucks began offering water delivery and watering services.

We had previously made our yard drought resistant so the ban had little impact on us, but we began worrying about our Monterey pine trees. The forest is already stressed and the drought has made it worse. We don’t normally water our trees, but we decided to try to save them by periodically having a local watering service bring water and water them.

Neighbor's Cat Getting a Drink in Our Birdbath
Neighbor’s Cat Getting a Drink in Our Birdbath

Several years ago, I found a suitable birdbath for our yard, meaning it is of sufficient size, weathered and beat up looking. We hauled it up the hill and placed it in the yard where we can see it from our home office window. The birdbath is popular with many species of birds, an occasional thirsty deer, and once a neighbor’s cat.

The outdoor watering ban does not stipulate birdbaths, but even if it did, I would continue to fill the birdbath with potable water; the birds are worth a little civil disobedience.

Shower Savings

We equipped our showers with low flow showerheads but daily showers still use a lot of water, especially if hair washing is involved. I don’t like being dirty but I decided to try a few water saving bathing practices.

Instead of washing my long hair every day, I switched to every other day and then every two days. Less washing actually improved the condition of my hair. Next, I tried taking a basin bath by filling the bathroom sink with water, putting a bathmat on the floor in front of the sink, and washing with soap and a washcloth. I’d rather take a shower, but basin baths work okay too.

Bucket Brigade

We used to wash fruits and vegetables in the kitchen sink using a rectangular plastic dishpan and then pouring the rinse water down the drain. With the banning of outdoor watering, we began using the produce rinse water on our few outdoor plants.

Sage and Lion's Tail Bushes with Blue Bucket
Sage and Lion’s Tail Bushes with Blue Bucket

We also started leaving the dishpan in the sink to catch water during meal prep for watering the plants. Carrying a shallow basin filled with water is heavy and unwieldy. After a lot of sloshed water on the floor, we upgraded to a bucket with a handle and a spout.

Now our outdoor plants survive either with no extra water or water used for another purpose first.

If it’s Yellow…

Our 25-year old house is equipped with older model toilets that probably use 3 to 5 gallons of water per flush. That’s potentially a lot of water, in fact, toilet flushing can account for as much as 26% of indoor water use. 1

Several months ago, we implemented the “If it’s yellow let it mellow if it’s brown flush it down.” toilet flushing methodology. Pee doesn’t have much smell anyway, but keeping the lid down eliminates any stray odors. Currently, we’re flexible on guest toilet flushing preferences.

The next step is to replace our old water intensive toilets with dual flush or high-pressure water efficient fixtures. I’m not brave enough to try a composting toilet…yet.

Load up on Laundry

Several years ago, we replaced our old washing machine with a high-efficiency machine that uses less than half the amount of water per load as the old machine. The next challenge was to do fewer laundry loads.

One way to do less laundry is to create less. For instance, instead of tossing a pair of pants in the laundry basket because I wanted to wear a different pair the next day, I started hanging them up and wearing them again later. I began washing towels and sheets every two weeks instead of once a week.

I’m from the sort by color, type, and fabric weight school of laundry, but today’s colorfast and blended fabrics don’t require all that sorting. I decided to reduce loads by tossing in jeans, t-shirts, underwear, and towels in the same load. Sometimes, I separate them at the dryer stage. It works.

The Bottom Line

The average American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water a day. 1, 2

Currently, in our town, each resident is allotted 49 gallons of water per day so our 2-person household allocation is 98 gallons. Anyone who uses more water than their allotment faces graduating fines, the higher the overage the higher the fine.

Majestic Monterey Pine Tree in Our Yard
Majestic Monterey Pine Tree in Our Yard

In our household, we’ve managed to reduce our average water use to 50 gallons a day, but that still seems like a lot to me.

We were already a fairly water thrifty community and collectively reduced our water usage by 28% from January through May 2014. In May, water use was down 44% over last year. Overall, the community seems to be taking the water shortage seriously.

One of our sons is home from college for the summer so our water usage has gone up. The tourist season in our town is in full swing and the hottest driest months are still ahead. Clearly, we need to ramp up our water saving efforts even more.

We are truly all in this together. Share what you’re doing to save water.

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  1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – Indoor Water Use in the United States
  2. U.S. Geological Survey – How much water does the average person use at home per day?