Making Water Conservation a Way of Life – Outdoors

Reimagine your thirsty yard.

If you live in a dry area, consider beginning your water conservation efforts in your yard, which can account for 50-70% of your household’s water use. By taking steps to make your yard less thirsty you have an opportunity to reimagine your yard and create one that is both beautiful and suited to the climate where you live.

For those of us living in areas with low annual rainfall or in drought-prone regions, even if it is wet now, there will be dry times ahead and drought in the future. The best time to prepare for a drought is before it occurs.

I am a lifelong Californian and a ten-year resident of a small town that relies on rainfall to refill our municipal water wells. The 2012-2017 drought posed a serious threat to our town. Water well levels dipped dangerously low. The water company issued severe water conservation mandates and pleaded with the town’s residents to save water. We collectively responded by drastically reducing our water use and fortunately, the wells did not run dry.

My relationship with water changed forever.

This is the second of a three-part series about making water conservation a normal and routine part of your daily life. In the first post, I attempted to convince readers that now is an excellent time to implement water saving ideas (at least in California). To back up my suggestion that there is no reason to wait, I provided a summary of how our six years of water conservation has really paid off with substantial water and money savings.

In this post and the next one, you will have an opportunity to read about how our household has made water conservation a way of life. I am not trying to suggest that we are paragons of water saving or that we know everything there is to know about it. However, we have done and learned a few things about conserving water in our yard and in our home that I hope you will find useful or that will spark a few ideas of your own.

We will begin with saving water outdoors.

Healthy, Beautiful and Drought Resistant Yard

Our town on the California Central Coast is in the midst of a very stressed out and precious Monterey pine forest. When we moved here from Southern California, we left our two thirsty turf grass lawns behind and learned to love our mostly wild yard, even during its dry dormant periods. As it turned out, not having any lawns gave us a huge head start on making our yard drought resistant.

Getting rid of turf grass lawns is probably the best thing you can do to reduce your water use (and pesticide use) but it is a huge and potentially costly undertaking. Anyone who does take out their lawn and puts in native plants and trees or a food garden is a hero in my book. An alternative to tackling the whole lawn is to remove a small section and plant natives or food crops. If everyone did this, it would save a significant amount of water, especially in large urban areas with low rainfall. In a dry region, the best place for lawns is at parks, schools, and other public places where many people can enjoy them.

Native Plants

When we moved here, we set about restoring the land and making our yard as drought resistant as possible. Over the years, I have spread literally tons of wood chips around the yard to help build healthy soil that retains water and nourishes the plants and trees.

Umpteen 96-gallon green waste receptacles have been filled with invasive plants that crowd out the native plants that should be growing here. Each year, I conduct an invasive plant patrol and try to remove as many of the worst ones that I can. I swear if you just stand still ice plant will grow before your very eyes and thistles seem to grow a foot overnight.

We encourage the native plants and trees that volunteer to grow in our yard and we have planted some on purpose. We do not have an irrigation system so the plants and trees have to live on either rainfall or being watered by bucket or watering can. Hiking around the yard carrying a 2-gallon watering can full of water is good exercise.

Outdoor Watering Ban

At the height of the drought, outdoor watering with municipal water was completely banned.

At first, the water company placed a huge tank of non-potable water (not drinking quality) in town where you could come get water free. Suddenly, almost every pickup truck was sporting a portable 250-gallon water storage tank and they started appearing in people’s yards. Residents with an entrepreneurial streak began providing water delivery and watering services.

This free water tank soon disappeared. Then a few local farmers with water to spare began selling water for a reasonable price, but you or a water delivery service had to come get it.

In an attempt to save our Monterey pine trees, we did pay a watering service to water our trees several times but it was expensive. We decided to stop the service and hope for the best. Some of our trees did die but thankfully many of them lived through the drought.

Bucket Brigade

Early on in the drought, we decided to try to collect some of the water from our faucets and showers so we could water our very few potted plants and Rosie, the venerable climbing rose bush that had been planted by the original owner of the house.

Rosie the Climbing Rose Bush in Front of Our House
We watered Rosie the climbing rose bush in front our house by bucket during the drought.

We began using the plastic dish tubs we had on hand but they were unwieldy so we bought several plastic buckets for about $25.00 total. One bucket sat in the kitchen sink collecting the water we used for rinsing and washing fruits and vegetables. Each shower was equipped with a bucket for collecting water during that first 30 seconds or so it takes hot water to make it up the pipe. I used a plastic bowl in my bathroom sink to collect cold water before it was warm enough to wash my face.

The bucket brigade may sound like a weird practice but you might be surprised at how much water flows down the drains in your home. Why not put it to good use.

Rain Barrel

In 2016, even though there had not been any rain to speak of yet, I bought a 50-gallon rain barrel and my spouse installed it. Instead of being filled with rain, we filled it with water from our indoor buckets. This gave us an extra 50 gallons of water that we kept refilling. With a hose attached to the spigot, we watered the trees and plants that we could reach with the hose.

We still use the buckets and the rain barrel.

Blue Jay Standing in Our Birdbath
A blue jay stands in our birdbath, which I kept filled with fresh water during the drought.

Throughout the drought, I consistently defied the outdoor watering ban by refilling our birdbath with water from the outdoor faucet. I also repurposed two large terra cotta pot bottoms as water saucers to provide drinking water for the parched birds, deer, and other animals that live in our neighborhood.

When we first moved here, I missed our turf grass lawns and I even considered planting a tiny patch. Fortunately, I waited long enough to do it so that I no longer wanted to. Now, I think our yard is beautiful.

As the saying goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” so reimagine your less thirsty and drought resistant yard to suit your vision. Water conservation is a gift you give yourself as well as the other living things in your yard and your neighborhood. I can see the trees smiling and hear the birds singing.

In the third and last post of this series, we will move indoors to discuss making water conservation a part of your daily life.

Featured Image at Top: A majestic Monterey pine tree in our yard silhouetted against a colorful sunset.

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Why is Now a Good Time to Implement Water Saving Ideas?

The best time to prepare for a drought is before the drought.

Tomorrow marks the first day of spring and Thursday is World Water Day. These two events have me thinking about wildflowers and water conservation.

Where I live on the California Central Coast, we have been receiving rain showers for a couple of weeks so we are now up to a whopping 8” of rain for the season. Our dry parched yard has greeted the rain by instantly sprouting a variety of greenery that usually appears months earlier. Hopefully, wildflowers will follow.

The deer that had been ignoring our dormant yard, except to drink out of our bird baths, have begun wandering through again grazing on fresh green shoots as they traverse the yard. I do not know specifically what they eat but they are good at nosing around in the various grasses that grow here and nibbling on the plants they find tasty. Sometimes, this includes supposedly “deer resistant” plants that I would prefer they do not eat.

Last week, I spotted a note I had written on the mini wall calendar tacked up near my desk, reminding me that March 22 is World Water Day. This is a United Nations-sponsored international day of awareness that has been focusing on the importance of freshwater since 1993.

“Considering that the extent to which water resource development contributes to economic productivity and social well being is not widely appreciated, although all social and economic activities rely heavily on the supply and quality of fresh water,…” —United Nations Resolution A/RES/47/193, December 22, 1992

Yep, fresh water is important.

As a resident of a small town that came dangerously close to running out of water at the height of the latest California drought, I have developed a new appreciation for water. We had to learn how to conserve water—in a big way.

With rain falling gently outside my home office window, I decided to write a three-part series about water conservation and how saving water can and should become a normal and regular part of your life, forever.

Making Water Conservation Part of Your Daily Life

Do you think it is weird for me to bring up water conservation when it is raining? Maybe it is, however, perhaps it is an ideal time because you are not under pressure to save water.

This gives you the opportunity to leisurely review your past water bills (if you have them) and consider your household’s water use habits. Then you can decide if you want to change one or more habits and try your ideas out. If you choose to install a water-saving device or two, you have plenty of time to read reviews and shop around. Chances are the item or items you select will be in stock because right now there is a not a high demand. You might even find products on sale.

Our Rain Barrel with a Plastic Bucket
Our Rain Barrel with a Plastic Bucket

The best thing about putting water saving ideas into action now is that water conservation is like the proverbial gift that keeps on giving.

In this post, I will attempt to illustrate how our six years of water conservation has really paid off and hopefully convince you to get started with implementing your own ideas, now.

6 Years of Water Conservation Pays Off

I started keeping digital copies of our water bills in 2012, so I decided to create a spreadsheet to help me analyze both our water usage and cost of water. I knew that we had reduced our household’s water use and that water rates had gone up over the years but I had never looked at the data altogether.

I was astonished by two of the results.

But, first some background on how our water bill is calculated. There is probably a wide variation in how much water costs depending on where you live and who provides your water but there are likely some similarities.

In our town, water, wastewater treatment, fire protection, parks, and other community services are provided by what is called a special district. This is basically an organization that allows communities to run their own show.

Our home’s water meter is contained in a concrete housing buried in the ground at the end of the driveway and measures our water usage in units. One unit is equivalent to 748 gallons of water.

Water and sewer charges are combined and billed every two months. There are minimum charges for both water and sewer. Added to this are charges for water and sewer based on how many units of water we use. Since the end of 2014, a surcharge is added to each bill to pay for a water project that was built during the drought (a story for another time).

Determining our water use per person per day presented a dilemma since we have had a varying number of people living in our household for the past six years. I decided to use partial residents in my calculations. For instance, if one of our sons was home from college for the summer, I counted him as a .25 resident because he lived here for a quarter of a year.

The table below summarizes our household water use for 2012 through 2017. In general, water use went down and costs went up. Adding full-time residents to our household increased our overall water use but at the same time, our water conservation strategies were saving water.

Residential Water Use 2012-2017

Two things really stood out for me.

The first is that in 2012, we had 2.25 full-time residents living in our household and in 2017, we had 4.0. We all work from home so we are using our own water during the workday. Our household size basically doubled, however, our total 2017 water use (30,668 gallons) only increased 5% from our previous high (29,172 gallons) which occurred in 2013.

The second is that although I knew our bill amount had increased over the years it was not until I did my analysis that I realized our cost per gallon of water had doubled in less than two years. That was a shocker.

These two things are significant because we have two more people living in our household but have only increased our total water use by a small amount (5%). At the same time, the price we pay per gallon has doubled ($.02 to $.04) which would mean a much higher bill if we had not reduced our water usage. Another price increase is going into effect this month.

A Case for Water Conservation

Sometimes water conservation is counterintuitive for water companies like ours whose revenue is based on the amount of water we use. Less water, less income.

Wastewater Treatment Plant
Wastewater Treatment Plant

This can cause a problem because water companies still need to operate water delivery and wastewater treatment facilities, maintain and replace aging infrastructure, and pay their employees. During a drought, water conservation ramps up and revenue decreases.

On the other hand, if water demand is increasing due to population growth as a city expands, water companies may promote water conservation to eliminate or delay the need to build costly new facilities.

Regardless, once rates go up for any utility service like electricity, cable television, or water, I have never seen them go down so it is likely water rates will continue to rise. It is a given that California and other dry regions will continue to experience droughts, which will likely increase in severity and duration.

You can do your part to conserve water by implementing water saving ideas now. Once you do, you will reap the benefits of water conservation month after month, year after year.

In the next two posts, you will have an opportunity to review some of our water conservation strategies which included making our yard drought resistant, changing our water use habits, and installing water-saving devices. Then you can decide if any of these ideas appeal to you or come up with your own.

Reader Note: You have my sympathy if you are trying to maintain one or more thirsty turf grass lawns. I am originally from Southern California where we had turf grass lawns in our front and back yards so I know how much water they can suck up. Now, our yard is mostly wild. We have lots of perennial grasses but no turf grass. Not watering a lawn has certainly made a substantial contribution to our water savings.

Featured Image at Top: Four California Mule Deer Grazing on Newly Sprouted Green Plants in Our Yard

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