Living on an island has opened my eyes to all kinds of issues facing our modern world. At the top of the list? Water conservation.
My first year living here, rainwater and snowpacks were so low, and the summer so long and hot, that the island’s major river almost completely dried up, threatening an entire year’s run of Pacific salmon.
Conservationists were thrown into emergency-overdrive as we had a record-hot early October. When that first rain fell, it literally was a life-saver for Pacific salmon en route to spawn.
It was a first for us, and the problem with firsts is they tend to seldom be lasts. Fortunately, some of us learn our lesson and try to change matters so they’re less likely to repeat.
With climate change, are these lower water levels a new normal? No one knows. Could be. Seems that way.
Look at California of late. Yearly rainfalls in some areas amounted to less than 10% of normal. The population of California is higher than that of the entire nation of Canada — that’s a lot of people to be hanging on the fate of clouds dropping some rain.
To give you some perspective on how little rain has been falling, this adorable video’s making the rounds on social media. Little Kayden, over a year old, displays utter confusion and unbridled joy as she experiences her first ever rainfall, in California in December. Her reaction is cute and charming, but the idea of a child closing in on her second birthday never knowing the feeling of raindrops on her nose is bizarre and unnerving.
When rain comes so seldom, when rivers are threatened and fish facing dire futures, when underground water reserves are dwindling at a record pace, it’s time we rethink every little drop of water we use.
Agriculture and water: inextricably linked
We can’t reuse everything, but the water we can reuse will make a dramatic impact in how much water you actually waste.
Partner to conserving water is growing your own food. Doesn’t that require you use more water, you ask? Ah! You would be wrong there. Why? Because you can water more sparingly and precisely than a commercial farmer can to grow the same food. Think of those huge sprinklers they use. Therefore, growing your own food then means less water supply is used in the growth of food. Period.
What most people don’t realize is much of our agricultural lands are using underground water sources called “aquifers” for their water. The problem is, we’re using this finite source at a record clip, and we could be nearly out of stock in half a century. To prevent that outcome, we need to change our habits today.
Growing your own food is a small part of that solution. And using waste water on your garden means you’re not using additional water for the process, so you’re solving two ecological issues with one bucket.
Where do we begin?
To start, it helps to understand the two classifications of already-used water. Blackwater is when you don’t wanna go there. It’s soiled water with human waste. Out it goes.
Greywater, however, is what we’re talking about today. Can it be reused? Yes. So what is it? Greywater is everything from the water you boil your pasta in through to the runoff from your morning shower.
Using a barrel to collect rainwater runoff from your roof is a great idea, but obviously that would have most of the locals chuckling in California, where it’s the lack of rain that is the problem.
More realistic is that of reusing bath and shower water. It’s great for watering a garden or a lawn.
Now lawns are a big part of the problem. They’re a weird social construct that often has no place in modern life. It’s too hard to grow in too many places.Be real: If you live where there is a shortage of rain on a regular basis, you shouldn’t have a “lawn” at all. Instead, look at native grasses and other plants that are accustomed to your local habitat and more hardy for surviving the dry spells.
In a perfect world, you’re able to plant a food garden, and that’s where this water will do great.
Draining away: stop the tub!
The easiest solution but least thorough is simply to have a bucket that collects the water at the start of your shower as it comes to temperature. Everyone can do this. If you’re living in an apartment and you only have a postage-stamp-sized patio garden or a home full of houseplants, this is can generate enough water to cover all your watering needs every week.
If you’re in a house with a yard, you might want to be a conservation nerd like my masseuse, who prides himself on keeping a great food garden to sustain his whole family for most of the summer.
Having a kid opened his eyes to how important it is to conserve for our future, and he rigged up a situation for his main bathroom, where a window leads outdoors. With a long hose running to a rainwater barrel, he’s got a simply water-fountain pump in his bathroom that can pump all collected bath and shower water out to his barrel through the hoses. One hose is permanently bracketed to the outside wall, leading to the barrel, and another shorter hose can be wound up and easily put away by the bathtub.
He and his wife both stay on water-recycling duty in the drier months. If anyone has a shower, they plug the drain, keep the showers short, and all the water is pumped out same as after a bath. This water is also be usable for flushing the toilet if that was something you were wanting to work out.
Bigger impact than you think
Of course, the tub and bath aren’t the only places you can reuse your water. Your cooled water from boiling veggies or making pasta is perfect for your garden. Instead of draining veggies and pasta into the sink, have a bucket in the kitchen where you can pour this water and allow it to cool completely before you put it on your garden.
Then there’s the toilet. With our water supplies circling the drain, flushing more than necessary is a big part of the problem. Listen to the hippies of the ’60s — “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.”
If these don’t sound like “big” solutions to you, then maybe you don’t realize the massive quantity of water we’re going through on a daily basis. According to the USGS, we use an average of 80 to 100 gallons of water per day, per person.
That’s a staggering amount. The number-one place we’re consuming water? Toilets and baths/showers. One flush in your toilet uses between 1.6 to 4 gallons, depending on its age. The average bathtub holds 36 gallons of for a bath. Watering your garden outside consumes 5-10 gallons per minute! By simply reusing bath and shower water for the garden, and flushing less, it’s possible to reduce your waste water by as much as 40-50%, if not more.
A part of the solution
Like saving money and losing weight, when it comes to saving the planet for future generations, it’s true that every little bit we do has an impact.
This year, rethink water use and grow a food garden without taxing our water supply. We’re all a part of the solution, and strategies like this are just one way to make a big difference with little actions.