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?


Drought in a Small Town – Saving Water before the Drought

Moving to a small town on the California Central Coast changed my relationship with water unexpectedly and in far-reaching ways, even before the drought.

We moved here seven years ago from Southern California where I lived most of my life. In essence, I exchanged one Mediterranean climate for another. Both places have moderate year-round temperatures, low rainfall, and warm summers, although it is a bit cooler here with more fog. Water is not plentiful in either area.

There was no ah-ha moment that I can recall, it was a series of events and observances.

Our Town Fights a Water Rate Increase

Shortly after we moved here, the water utility proposed a rate hike. A group of local citizens organized a protest effort and letters to the editor flooded into the local newspaper. Water was the main topic of discussion for months.

It seemed like a community event so I jumped on the anti-rate increase bandwagon and turned in my protest letter along with thousands of other ratepayers. We defeated the rate increase.

There’s a Deer in My Yard

In Southern California, we lived near the San Gabriel Mountains and could hike from our house into the chaparral and oak covered hills. Our front and back yards consisted of turf grass lawns and planters filled with roses, ornamental shrubs, and flowers. The requisite maple tree resided in the front yard. It was the typical water intensive landscape you see everywhere.

Now we live in a Monterey pine forest where our yard is mostly wild with little level ground and no turf grass. Monterey pine trees are its main feature. Seeing birds, squirrels, lizards, deer, and other wildlife in our yard is a daily occurrence.

A Tiny Fawn Contemplates Dinner in Our Yard
A Tiny Fawn Contemplates Dinner in Our Yard

Living this close to nature made me realize that a yard (mine or yours) is not just for our personal pleasure, it is a habitat for numerous seen and unseen animals and other livings things, and we all have to share the water.

Drought Resistant Yard

I admit I missed our green turf grass lawns. I toyed with the idea of planting a three-foot-by-three-foot patch just so I could have some grass. Fortunately, that idea was short lived. Now I realize we were fortunate to have bought a house without turf grass.

Previous owners had planted shrubs and flowers in various places near the house in an attempt to approximate landscaping. Everything was withered or dead when we arrived during the summer. At first, I tried to revive the landscape by watering it, a lot.

One day as I stood watering some sad looking geraniums in a planter built into the retaining wall behind our house, I thought, “The only time anyone sees this planter is when they walk around the back of the house which isn’t that often. It’s wasteful to use water here.” I stopped watering. Everything dried up again and I dug it out.

Cliimbing Rosebush in Front of Our House
Climbing Rosebush in Front of Our House

I cut way back on watering other plants in the yard and observed how they fared. Plants that could not hack it with little or no watering died and I removed them.

The only remaining landscaped area is a small patch in front of the house containing a climbing rose planted by the original owner. The deer thoughtfully prune it as far as they can reach.

When it rains, wild grasses (some might call them weeds) take over the yard, growing three to six feet tall. Perennial shrubs and wildflowers pop up here and there. Everything is green. After a few months, the grasses go to seed, the flowers dry and shrivel up, and the yard turns golden brown.

My concept of what a yard should look like has expanded beyond turf grass lawns and gardens kept artificially green year-round with massive amounts of potable water. Our wild unkempt yard is beautiful too.

Saving Water in the House

After seeing the drop in water usage on our water bill from curtailing outdoor watering, we began looking for ways to reduce water use inside the house. Appliances and plumbing fixtures present major opportunities to save water. Below are a few of the changes we’ve made so far.

Water Efficient Washing Machine

When it was time for a new washing machine, we bought a high-efficiency front-loading model. It senses the size and soil level of the load and dispenses water accordingly. The new washer uses 10 to 15 gallons per load as compared to older models that use 25 to 40 gallons. That’s a whopping 10 to 30 gallons of water saved for every load.

Low Flow ShowerHead
Low Flow Handheld Showerhead I Installed
Low Flow Showerhead

A standard showerhead pours out 2.5 gallons of water or more per minute, even when you are trying to stand out of the spray to soap up or wash your hair. This seems wasteful so we bought a 1.6 gallons per minute (gpm) handheld showerhead with a “trickle” button that reduces the flow to 0.5 gpm. It cost less than $50 and provides more than sufficient water pressure. My spouse is the handy one, but I insisted on doing it myself to demonstrate that anyone can install a low-flow showerhead.

Water Efficient Dishwasher

At the time we bought our house, the original dishwasher was about 18 years-old. A couple years ago, the motor blew out and we bought a new water efficient dishwasher model. It uses 2 to 4 gallons of water per cycle as compared to 10 to 15 used by older models. The 6 to 13 gallon watering savings for each cycle is significant.

Everyone Can and Should Save Water

Our water saving efforts substantially reduced our water use and I feel more in harmony with my surroundings.

The stuff we did is not earth shattering and some of it required little or no cash outlay. Everyone can and should save water. Even small changes matter, it all adds up. Here’s some food for thought.

  • Watering lawns and gardens account for 30% of the water used by the average American household. In dry climates, water usage increases and outdoor watering can reach as high a 50-70%.
  • A garden hose puts out 2.0 gallons of water a minute, enough to meet the daily drinking water needs of 2 people.
  • Washing 5 loads of laundry a week in a high-efficiency washing machine could save 2,600 to 7,800 gallons of water a year.
  • Running a water efficient dishwasher once a day could save 2,800 to 4,700 gallons of water a year.
  • Taking a daily 8-minute shower using a low-flow showerhead could save 2,600 gallons of water per year per person.

I’m thankful we began our water saving journey several years ago, especially in light of the current drought and statewide water emergency. Read the next post to find out what measures we are taking now to save more water.

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