With ever-increasing population and demand for water, fewer of us will continue to enjoy the luxury of plentiful clean water. Reducing the tremendous amount of water we waste every day may help avert the water crises many believe are not far off.
Numerous myths about the whys and hows of water conservation stand in the way of our collective efforts to be smarter stewards of this vital resource. Let’s lay them to rest right now and get on with the important work of conserving.
Myth #1: The Earth is covered with water, so we don’t need to conserve.
More than 97% of the water on the earth’s surface is seawater and therefore undrinkable, and only a small fraction of fresh water is easily accessible. While seawater desalination is possible, it’s energy-intensive and very expensive. Additionally, many sources of fresh water have been so badly polluted that they’re no longer viable for drinking water. As populations grow, so does pressure on freshwater supplies for human consumption and growing food.
Myth #2: All the water I use gets replenished through the water cycle, so wasting it doesn’t matter.
While the water cycle does recycle the water we use eventually, it can take hundreds or thousands of years to refill the aquifers now being drilled to make up surface water shortfalls. Water use has grown even faster than world population, and the water cycle cannot replenish these sources of potable water quickly enough.
Many important agricultural regions have relied on these ancient sources of water, and when they’re emptied, researchers predict disruptions to the global food supply. Taking more and more water out of the ground has also led some areas to seriously deplete their aquifers, leading to subsidence, or sinking, of the soil surface. Subsidence threatens infrastructure, including the very pipes used to get water to homes.
Myth #3: It doesn’t matter if my drinking water comes from a bottle or the tap — it’s all water, right?
While trying to use less water for everyday tasks certainly helps, studies show that it’s far more effective to increase the efficiency of household devices that use water.
That bottle of water on the store shelf and the same amount of tap water don’t have the same water footprint. Making the bottle and transporting the water doubles the amount of water used to get you the same drink. Other great reasons to ditch the bottle? Not only does bottled water have a sizeable energy footprint and create plastic waste, it costs up to 2000 times more than tap water and contains leached plastic chemicals. About half of all bottled water is simply municipal tap water that you can get virtually for free from your sink. Get a reusable water bottle for water on the go and slash the impact of your drink.
Myth #4: Lack of water isn’t a problem in North America.
While the record-setting California drought may have ended, climate scientists warn that extreme weather will be the new normal to expect from our changing climate. As demand for water continues to climb and aquifers are drained with increasing speed, water managers in 40 states are planning for shortages in the next decade. The US drought monitor map shows areas currently experiencing unusually dry or drought conditions. Though far less of California is currently in a state of drought, the aquifers drained to irrigate crops over the last five years will not replenish for millennia, so the next drought may have a far greater impact on the food grown in the state.
Myth #5: Restricting water use is the best way to conserve water.
While curtailing use by shortening showers or turning off the tap while you brush your teeth certainly helps, studies show that it’s far more effective to increase the efficiency of devices that use water. You should of course turn off the tap where you can—the water saved during tooth brushing alone will cut hundreds of gallons of wasted water each year. But if every single time you turn on a faucet or flush the toilet it’s using only half as much water, the savings mount even faster. Curtail where you can, but focus on upgrading your faucets and toilets to slow that flow and you’ll be wasting far less.
Myth #6: My landscaping doesn’t affect how much water I use.
Outdoor watering accounts for 40% of water use, and much of that water never even reaches the garden because people water incorrectly. The bluegrass lawns that have become standard in North America are particularly thirsty, and the sprinklers that water them allow a large portion of that water to simply evaporate. Compare a summer and winter water bill to get an estimate of how many gallons you use to water your grass. Choosing more water-wise landscaping can make a significant difference in how much water your yard needs each season.
Myth #7: What I buy has no impact on our water supply.
From your groceries to your laptop, everything you buy in some way took water—in many cases a lot of water—to make. Approximately half of our water footprints come from the food we eat. Animal products are the most water intensive, so cutting back on meat, especially beef, can significantly reduce your water usage. It’s estimated that a single hamburger requires over 600 gallons of water to get to your plate. While it also takes water to grow plants, the amount is far less than for animal-based foods.
Consumer products of all sorts and even the energy you use take water to create, accounting for around a third of your total water use. Your clothes, electronics, and your food packaging all have water footprints. If we all bought less, water use would begin to decline.
Myth #8: What I send down the drain makes no difference to our water supply.
An important element to consider in water conservation is not just how much water you use, but how much water you pollute, both directly and indirectly. When we send toxic chemicals down the drain, we’re adding them to the water supply, which is why you find a truly astonishing array of chemicals in public drinking water. Our cleaners, body care products, lawn chemicals, even the prescription drugs we take, all wind up in wastewater, and our water treatment plants can’t remove all of them.
Indirectly when our consumer habits support polluting industries like traditional textiles, conventional farming, and fracking, we’re helping to add more chemicals to the water supply. Supporting sustainable farms and other businesses can help keep dangerous compounds like pesticides and heavy metals out of our water.
Myth #9: Water-saving devices aren’t worth the money.
While there can be a little – often a very little – upfront cost in efficiency upgrades to your plumbing fixtures and appliances, most of them pay for themselves very quickly. The average family uses about 40 gallons per day just taking showers. A low-flow showerhead will soon pay for itself in water savings and will save you water and money for a decade or more. While standard showerheads use 2.5 gpm (gallons per minute), low flow showerheads use less than 2 gpm (many use 1.5 gpm). A sink aerator is another inexpensive fix, and aerators now come in a variety of flow rates to accommodate different needs. Install an aerator with a flow rate of 1.0 gpm at your kitchen sink where you perform a combination of tasks. In your bathroom, a low-flow aerator (with a flow rate of 0.5 gpm) will save even more water where hand washing and teeth brushing predominate.
Myth #10: My water conservation efforts make no difference.
As with other environmental issues, with so many billions of us on the planet making the problems, it’s easy to feel like one’s individual efforts have little impact. But just as our combined decisions to consume have added up to numerous ecological catastrophes, our combined decisions to conserve help ease pressure on our water supplies. As more of us have shifted to more efficient plumbing and appliances and learned to stop wasting so much of this precious resource, individual water use has steadily declined.
Now that we’ve debunked those myths, here are some top ways to shrink your water footprint.
Top Ways to Conserve Water
Find out more about where you’re using the most water, either directly or indirectly, using this water footprint calculator. Then start with the steps below to cut your water use with relatively little investment of money or effort. Remember that most efficiency upgrades pay for themselves quickly and then save you money for years after!
Waste less water in your yard
Limit the lawn: Since so much of North American water gets used in landscaping, being water-wise in your choice of plants and watering habits is the most effective place to start. Replacing grass with native and drought-tolerant plants wherever possible can save a good deal of water each growing season. Native plants are generally adapted to your local climate, and many have deep taproots that let them tolerate drier conditions. These guides to lawn alternatives and xeriscaping can help you create water-conserving yards.
Water efficiently. Use drip irrigation, soaker hoses and hand watering to avoid losing water to evaporation. You can also automate your watering system to turn on at night, when evaporation is least likely to occur. If you do use a sprinkler, water early in the day to minimize waste, be sure the water is aimed at your plants and not a sidewalk, and give plants deep but infrequent waterings rather than frequent shallow ones. Whichever type of watering system you use, consider installing a water meter to prevent overwatering. And make the most of your rainfall with a rain barrel.
Upgrade fixtures in your house for automatic water savings every time you turn on the tap.
Start with your toilets, the top water-wasters in your home, accounting for up to a quarter of household water use. Older toilets can be replaced with far more efficient ones, and there are a number of after-market products to make whatever commode you have waste less with each flush. An adjustable flapper, filled plastic bottles, a tank bank, or a dual flush converter all save gallons of water with every flush. An adjustable flapper can prevent leaks and cut water use. The water savings will soon cover the minimal costs of these upgrades.
Test toilets for leaks. One in five toilets leaks, wasting as much as 200 gallons per day! Adding food coloring to the toilet tank will let you know if your toilet is leaking. If color appears in the bowl, it’s time to replace the flapper.
Watch that washing machine. Upgrading to an efficient washing machine can cut laundry water use by more than 80%, saving thousands of gallons per year. Washing clothes less often and only running full loads will also cut the water impact of your wash.
Shower smarter. A low-flow showerhead can cut water use by 40%, saving not only on water, but on the energy your hot water heater isn’t wasting.
Slow the faucet flow. As noted above, a simple screw-in faucet aerator can cut water flow by up to 77%!
Be water-wise and water aware and encourage other members of your family to do the same. Keep in mind that not only how you use water in and around your home, but all your consumer choices, also have an impact on your water footprint. If you’re already a dedicated conserver, check out these tips for saving even more water.