2014 was the driest year ever recorded in California, and the entire South West is in the grips of a years-long drought that has no end in sight. While most of the country contends with the harshest winter they can remember, the South West is enjoying beautiful, summer-like weather that is actually a natural disaster. Water is in short supply, farmer’s fields are going dry, food prices are going up and the experts say it’s going to be like this, or worse, at least through 2016.
The question is: What can we do about it?
Much of the water society as a whole consumes is for agricultural purposes. However, any little bit consumers can save makes a difference. It helps to make it easier and cheaper for farmers to grow crops - which benefits all consumers.
In the Home
Obviously, you can't make it rain, but you can save water and money by adopting a few water-saving strategies. There are all kinds of water-saving faucets, toilets, and shower heads. Check your faucets for leaks. Drips can waste 10s of gallons a day and larger leaks can waste hundreds of gallons a day. Faucets can be easily fit with inexpensive aerators, which typically screw on to the faucet.
Toilets - Check your toilets for leaks with the old standby - food coloring. Add a few drops of your favorite color in the toilet tank, wait about 15-20 minutes, and if you have a leak, your favorite color will appear in the bowl. The obvious solution, fix the leak - check to make sure the flapper is sealing and shutting off. If not, replacing a toilet flapper is an easy DIY project at a minimal cost. Remember to use an adjustable flapper, which allows you to adjust the amount of water per flush.
Older tanks can use 3 to 4 or even 5 gallons a flush. An inexpensive way to reduce the amount of water your toilet uses is to displace water with sand filled plastic bottles (to weigh them down) placed in the tank. If you live in an older home, you can also replace your old toilets with new water-saving toilets. Though more expensive than filling some plastic bottles with sand, new toilets have tanks that only use a gallon or two to do the job. Replacing an entire toilet should only be tackled by an experienced do-it-yourselfer.
Showers - It's easy to install a low flow showerhead, which saves water by limiting the flow of water while taking a shower. Today's low flow heads are nothing like the wimpy, drippy things of the past. New designs do more with less water, so you won't even know you're being water-wise.
Converters can also be added to your existing showerheads, which stop the running of water while you lather up and start it again to rinse. And of course, you can take shorter showers.
Sinks, Washers, Etc. - Don't run water while brushing your teeth and you can fill a sink with water to rinse your razor while saving. If you are fortunate enough to have a dishwasher, make sure it is full before running it. The same is true about washing your clothing - adjust water levels for smaller loads. For something to drink, keep fresh water in a bottle, in the refrigerator, instead of running the tap to get it cold. Not so finally, consult Wateruseitwisely.com for a 100+ ways to conserve water.
Outside the Home
Inside your house, the biggest water consumer is the toilet, but the biggest household consumer overall is your yard. Get a handle on your water use by making smart decisions in your landscaping.
Plants - If you are like me, you're constantly searching for new plants to add to your garden. There many beautiful drought resistant plants and shrubs available at your local nursery. I live in the high desert, and the water demands are so great that most of the year I need to water daily.
I have begun to replace perennial flowers with equally beautiful native plants, which require less water and are more disease resistant, requiring less maintenance.
Lawns - Everybody loves a lush green lawn, but keeping it green, especially in dry warmer climates, requires a significant amount of water. One method to help minimize water is to let the lawn grow longer, thereby helping promote water retention. Water early in the day and make sure you deep soak your lawn to encourage root growth. Many folks are replacing lawns, especially with the skyrocketing cost of water, with drought resistant landscapes, and some folks are just building patios in areas that used to be grass.
And a growing number of homeowners are installing artificial grass that looks more real than it ever did and needs no water at all.
Irrigation - There are low-flow soaker hoses available and a drip system can be easily installed in plant beds. If you are like me and like to hand water, there are adjustable nozzles, which allow you to adjust the water flow from your hose and they shut the water off automatically when the trigger is released.
Unfortunately one of the reasons we are in a drought is because of the lack of rain, so a rain barrel water catching system will help in the long term, but won't make an impact today. Instead, use greywater to irrigate your flowers and lawns. Greywater, according Greywater Action.org, “is water from your bathroom sinks, showers, tubs, and washing machines. It is not water that has come into contact with human waste.” It may contain dirt, grease, and even some household cleaning products. It's safe to use on plants and flowers and can even be used on vegetables, as long as it does not come into contact with the edible parts of the plant. It should not be allowed into the water supply (rivers, lakes, streams).
Greywater, especially from washing machines, can be easily piped outside and used to water plants, shrubs, and trees. It also has the added benefit, should you be on a septic system, of keeping some of the pollutants out of your system and ultimately out of the water supply. It is also a way of drought-proofing your yard.
The Moral of the Story
We, here in California, were told the other day by the State Water Project that they will provide no water to urban residents or farmers this year because of the drought. Many scientists believe this is the worst in recorded history. In San Diego we have an organization, Water Smart.org San Diego County, for more ideas on how to conserve water add your name to their email list. The bad news is this drought is here to stay - the good news is we can work together to do something about it.