Drip, drip, drip, hear it slowly trickling down the drain.  Into the sewers and down to the sea, millions of gallons of precious drinkable water carelessly flushed down toilets or sprayed out willy-nilly by inefficient backyard sprinklers. Our big lakes and groundwater are diminishing, while most US homes continue to consume around 300 gallons per day.  Whether or not you’re affected by a current drought, water bills (unlike reservoirs) are rising, and likely to increase as supply dwindles and demand grows.

Since 2010, residential water costs have increased by an average of 33 percent. We’ve all heard about low-flow aerators and skipping flushes, and we may have learned not to water the garden at high noon. Let’s not stop there — there’s a whole world of dry-season wisdom to share, with tips that will take you through the cold months too.  Hopefully these ideas will inspire you to invent and share your own creative approaches to water-bill-reduction!

1. Preserve yard moisture when you mow.

If you have one of those handy lawn mowers which collects the clippings in a bag, remove the bag.  Leave the grass clippings on the lawn and let them become water-retaining mulch.  Make sure to set your mower blade to leave grass at least 3 inches high — short grass leaves the ground vulnerable to quick evaporation, not to mention weed invasion.

2. Use red food coloring to check for toilet leaks.

Toilets use the most water in the home. A toilet with a leaky gasket may perform normally, yet be losing 1000 gallons of water a month. Lift the lid of the tank and squirt in some red food coloring. Wait half an hour without flushing. Is the water in the bowl tinted pink? Time to replace your flapper. It’s easy (instructions included) and requires no special tools.

While you’re thinking about leaks, check your water meter and write down the number when everyone is leaving the house for a few hours and no water-using appliances are running. When you come back, check to see if the number has changed! If so, you have an important mystery to solve (garden hoses are a common villain). One home’s leaks may squander 10,000 gallons each year.

3. Consider the “water footprint” of your food when shopping and meal-planning.

OK, this won’t affect your bill, but it’s fascinating! Just as an apple’s carbon footprint is calculated by tallying the various energy expenditures in its production, each food uses water — in varying amounts — during farming and processing. The differences may surprise you: “juicy” vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers use relatively little (22-28 gallons per pound produced), while a “dry” product like chocolate requires a shocking 2847 gallons of water per pound! Not surprisingly, unprocessed foods are much lower water consumers, and meat products are far thirstier than plant-based foods. Beef can require up to 5000 gallons per pound of meat, while chicken is comparatively reasonable at 815 gallons.

4. Use gravel in your landscaping.

Exposed dirt gets parched after one sunny day, and that baking sun also destroys all the helpful soil microorganisms which support your plants. Spreading gravel in between shrubs and perennial plants not only gives your landscape a stylish beauty, it also allows your soil to stay moist and alive between waterings. You may find you’re able to cut your waterings in half with gravel landscaping, or even convert portions of thirsty grass to a low-maintenance Zen-inspired rock garden accented by well-chosen drought-tolerant trees or shrubs. When you do water your lawn or garden, ditch the sprinkler for hand-watering or soaker-hoses, and consider saving hundreds of gallons per year by collecting your own rainwater.

5.  Cut each flush by half a gallon with simple physics.

While new toilets are required to use no more than 1.6 gallons per flush, many homes still contain models using 5, or even 7 gallons.  Don’t feel like tearing out your old toilet for a new water-saver?  Fill two liter-sized plastic bottles with plain tap water, drop a handful of pebbles in the bottom and cap them.   Now open the lid of your toilet tank and lower them into the water, being careful to place them out of the way of the flush mechanism.  Some use bricks, but dissolving brick dust can damage your plumbing over time.  A few fist-sized smooth rocks should work fine if the shape of the bottles doesn’t fit with your toilet innards. Or you can choose to use an inexpensive “toilet tank bank” for the same purpose.

6. Give your garbage disposal a rest.

Most in-sink disposals recommend running the water for up to 30 seconds after the disposal is finished running in order to adequately flush the waste — often wasting a gallon or more. Instead, it’s easier than ever to compost at home, and many cities now offer pickup of kitchen scraps as part of their recycling program. Speaking of compost, use a rubber spatula to scrape food scraps into the compost instead of using water to rinse them down the drain: water-free dishwasher loading!

7. Keep a bucket in the bathtub

…where it will collect the unused shower water as you wait for it to warm up. You can use this bucket for mopping, washing your bike or car, watering plants, or just about any household cleaning. The same principle applies in the kitchen: a plastic dishpan can catch all the hand-washing, vegetable-cleaning, and discarded cooking water: easy to carry onto your deck and pour into your potted plants or borders.

Little trickles add up…

Reset your brain for water-conscious habits! When you make a game out of water conservation, the ideas keep flowing.

  • Let each member of your family choose a unique favorite cup, then use it for water drinking all day before placing in the dishwasher or hand-washing.
  • Instead of emptying your half-drunk glass of water into the sink after dinner, pour it into your pet’s water dish, or give it to a houseplant.
  • Avoid letting the tap run to cool your drinking water (using at least three or four glass-fulls for each single drink): fill a pitcher and keep it in the fridge.
  • Have a waterproof radio in the shower, and challenge your family to keep their shower to a single song’s length.
  • Keep a chalkboard in the kitchen where kids can write their favorite water saving ideas.

We could go on and on! Plan to spend the money you save on something special your household will enjoy. The satisfaction of knowing you’re helping to turn the tide of unsustainable water use will be your sweetest reward.

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