Smarter Living: Water & Air

Climate change makes California more vulnerable to drought. It's time to invest in preserving our water. 2013 was the driest year on record for California, and the drought hasn't let up yet. We've been hit by droughts before, but climate change will make them more frequent and severe. It will also threaten the water we need for our homes, farms, and businesses.

We can all prepare for drier days ahead by taking charge of our water use right now. Solutions like water-saving appliances, rainwater harvesting, and water recycling make a big difference. Taken together, they can provide more water than was ever exported from the Bay-Delta. Many California communities and consumers are already using these solutions to reduce costs, safeguard water supplies, and become more resilient. There are steps here that any of us -- homeowners, renters, landlords, or students -- can take today in the places we call home.

In 2005, California's urban communities used an astounding 192 gallons of water per person per day -- the majority of it attributable to residential uses. Although our water consumption has dropped considerably since then, old habits and current practices still provide plenty of opportunity for conservation without inconvenience. And every gallon we save means money saved on water and energy bills. Here are some simple, but meaningful ways to conserve water without building up a thirst.

lawn sprinklers

Photo: Gardensoft

1. Irrigation Overspray -- Not! Never -- ever -- allow landscape irrigation to run off your property and into the street. A broken or misaligned sprinkler head may be a reason, but not an excuse, for this waste. Shut down a faulty irrigation system until it can be repaired. And help your neighbors get the message, diplomatically of course. Try a friendly challenge to homeowners in an adjacent block to see who can get through the year with the fewest days of water running in the street.

2. Test your Toilet. Your toilet could be leaking without you even knowing it! Toilets can leak internally from the tank to the bowl and can go unseen and unheard for quite some time. By the time you may notice, your toilet has already been out on a jog and is now "running," wasting nearly 100 gallons per day. Be sure to test your toilet at least once a year with a simple toilet dye tablet test. This identifies if your toilet tank is leaking and if so, it may need a replacement rubber flapper or a new fill mechanism. Ask your local utility if they offer free dye tablets. To see how to conduct the dye tablet test, watch this video.

  • Got other leaks too? Take a tour of your home monthly, both inside and outside, to check for leaking or dripping faucets, toilets, showerheads, hoses, and sprinklers. Most dripping faucets can be fixed by replacing a worn out washer. For video links and other DIY tips on fixing leaks see EPA's WaterSense site.
EPA Water Sense

EPA Energy Star

TopTen USA

3. Install high-efficiency appliances and accessories. Many water suppliers offer rebates and incentives for high efficiency appliances and accessories. Be sure to check with your local water utility!

  • Showerheads. New showerheads offer an invigorating shower while using substantially less water. Look for showerheads with the WaterSense label.
  • Faucets. New faucets can similarly reduce water consumption substantially, without loss of comfort or effectiveness. Look for faucets and faucet aerators carrying EPA's WaterSense label.
  • Clothes Washers. Clothes washers consume nearly 20 percent of your indoor home water usage. A new high-efficiency washer recognized by programs like Energy Star and TopTenUSA can use less than a third of the water often used by traditional top-loading washing machines.
  • Toilets. If your "throne" is showing its age, don't hesitate to invest in a WaterSense labeled High Efficiency Toilet (HET). They surpass earlier generations of water-savers in waste transport as well as water efficiency -- and water bill savings, of course.

4. Get a pool cover -- and use it. Any family fortunate enough to have a backyard pool can afford to do its part to save water by using an inexpensive floating pool cover. Even in coastal areas, evaporation rates are substantial -- a typical back-yard pool in Los Angeles can lose nearly 40,000 gallons a year to evaporation. And if the pool is heated, energy is being lost as well. For larger pools, consider using a portable, roller-type device for mechanically retracting and storing the cover while the pool is in use. Keep your pool covered whenever use is unlikely.

5. Shower with a bucket. This may sound a bit strange, but you can capture a gallon or more while you shower. It's actually a perfect way to wash exercise clothes without having to start a new load in the clothes washer. Or, after it cools, use it for house plants or in the yard. Also try simply taking a shorter shower, shaving two minutes off your shower can save up to 5 gallons.

6. Use the dishwasher rather than wash by hand. Although some people are very efficient at washing by hand, most of us aren't and that means up to 27 gallons of water per load. A new Energy Star-rated dishwasher can consume as little as 3 gallons per load. But DO hand-scrape food off instead of pre-rinsing your dishes. Dishwashers are built to remove food residues, and pre-rinsing can waste 5 or more gallons per load.

7. Use a carwash. Washing your car by hand not only uses 100 gallons of water or more in one go, but may also result in contaminated water containing brake fluid, oil, and other automotive fluids entering waterways through storm drains. Carwash services are required to channel water to treatment plants and the most efficient use less than 40 gallons of fresh water per wash.

8. Plant a native garden. Consider reducing the amount of turf grass in your yard and replacing it with native vegetation or other landscape features that don't require water. Flowers, grasses, and bushes native to your area have adapted to regional rainfall rates and they have better defenses against predators. As a result, you can water less or not at all without harm and take a pass on pesticides. As an added plus, native plants foster healthy soil and insect life, which attract birds and enhance overall biodiversity. To find plants from your area, see the Native Plant Database at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. A growing number of water suppliers now have "cash for grass" programs that will pay by the square foot for the removal of turf grass. Check with you own water supplier, and ask them to start a program if they don't have one yet.

9. Water your garden wisely. Regardless of the type of garden or landscaping you have, wise watering practices can significantly save water while helping you maintain a healthy yard. A few wise watering practices:

  • Time of day: Avoid watering your plants in the middle of the day, when water lost to evaporation will be greatest. Many utilities prohibit mid-day irrigation.
  • Time of year: Don't overdo it in the winter. If you have an automatic irrigation system, make sure the controller is set for the correct season. In most parts of the state, summertime irrigation schedules would be far in excess of any winter watering needs.
  • Frequency: In most areas, turf grass needs only 1 inch of water per week or less. Overwatering your plants can actually harm them by causing diseases, weed growth, and fungus growth; and the resulting runoff can pollute the surface water body to which your storm drain system discharges. Also be mindful of your local rainfall and water less frequently when it has rained.
  • Use a hose with an automatic shutoff nozzle: Garden hoses can easily run water at a rate of 8 gallons per minute (gpm). That can add up to 80 gallons in just 10 minutes, but if you add a nozzle you can cut that down to around 3 gpm, and the automatic shutoff prevents water waste whenever you set the hose down.
  • rain barrel

    Photo: EPA

  • Sprinklers: Make sure your sprinklers are properly adjusted and not spraying sidewalks, buildings, or your neighbor's property. Running irrigation water into the street is a major source of fertilizers and sediment in urban streams.
  • Rain barrels: If you have a yard and a roof with gutters, consider installing a rainwater barrel to capture rainwater and use to irrigate your plants.

If you're curious to calculate your water usage and where it's being consumed in your home, use this neat Water Calculator.

last revised 2/14/2014

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