Day 17: Conserve Water During a Drought
Water, water, anywhere?
Despite a wet December that, thankfully, put the fires out, California remains in a severe drought, with reservoirs well below normal levels—or at least old-normal levels. In response, Californians have cut their water consumption. This November, residents in Santa Clara County, for example, surpassed conservation targets of 15 percent to hit 20 percent.
But California residents consume only 20 percent of water in the state. The remaining 80 percent goes to agriculture, and much of that is industrial agriculture.
California’s $50 billion agricultural industry—larger than any other state’s—grows nearly half the country’s fruit, vegetables and nuts. The state’s top agricultural exports in 2020 included almonds, pistachios, dairy and dairy products, wine and walnuts—all water-intensive crops. Unlike fields of broccoli, corn or potatoes that can later go fallow, almond trees and grapevines require watering even during drought years.
About a quarter of the US food supply grows in the Central Valley alone, a large swath of land in the center of California, the dry southerly parts of which are arid. To water these crops, farmers have been drilling groundwater wells in order to withdraw water from the aquifer. But because they have been withdrawing water faster than the aquifer can replenish, within less than 100 years, the land has sunk around 28 feet in some areas. This sinking—known as subsidence—also pushes contaminants like arsenic into the water and poisons it.
An industrial agricultural system that encourages and rewards this kind of growth-at-all-costs mentality will change—either voluntarily due to foresight or forcibly due to reality.
So what can we individuals do?
Unless the people we elected begin to address the climate crisis, droughts like California’s will worsen. So if you don’t belong to a climate-focused organization that pushed our leaders for change, please consider joining one (see day 2). We also need a sane food system, not one that has made a handful of people at the top incredibly wealthy to the detriment of everyone else and to the planet.
If you live in California, conserve water
If you are a resident, you likely already practice some of the following water-saving strategies at home. No matter where you live in the world, conserving water is always a good idea.
16+ ways to conserve water at home
If you have a yard, mulch like crazy! A layer of mulch spread across the top of soil helps retain water, enriches the soil and discourages weeds from growing (we’re talking organic mulch here—shredded dried leaves, bark, hay, compost and so on). According to Save Our Water, a layer of much can save 20 to 30 gallons of water per 1000 square feet every time you water.
Choose water-wise plants for your home. Once established, water-wise plants use little to no water. Contact your city’s water department to find out which plants suit your area.
When you do water your plants and trees, do so early in the morning. If you water later in the day, more water will evaporate.
Tear out your thirsty lawn and replace it with ground cover or grow food, which will provide access to delicious fruit and vegetables, save money, offer gentle exercise, cut waste, reduce your dependency on corporations to feed you and foster a useful skill to pass down to generations who will need it.
Keep a bucket nearby. While my shower water warms up, it fills my trusty bucket I’ve placed in the shower. After my shower, I move the bucket to the kitchen where I dump non-sudsy water into it that I collect in the sink. I use the water on my plants just outside my kitchen door or I flush my toilet with it. The bucket trick collects a few gallons of water a day, it takes no trouble and I feel good knowing that I’ve kept that precious water from going down the drain. A friend of mine told me she makes a game out of conserving water. She imagines she’s camping and has packed a limited amount of water.
Install a real greywater system. The brute-force bucket works well, don’t get me wrong, but I would like to have my laundry water put to good use as well. Go here for more information on installing a system.
Redefine dirty. You don’t likely need a clean glass every time you have a drink of water. If you live with others, you may regularly face the 17-glasses-and-mugs-scattered-everywhere phenomenon. These all require washing, they clutter tables and when you need a clean glass or mug, you can’t find one. Giving extra glasses away helps solve the but-I-want-a-clean-glass-every-time problem. Redefining dirty also applies to clothes and even to us.
Shower less often. I proposed this several years ago during our previous drought and probably horrified readers. But during Covid, many people have been showering less. If you work from home, never break a sweat and never see anyone in person, why waste water showering every day? Daily showers strip your body of beneficial bacteria that help kill the bad bugs. A damp washcloth swiped where necessary works wonders to keep you socially acceptable.
Install low-flow faucets. Turn the water off while you brush your teeth. If you have an old water-hog of a toilet, put a brick in the tank to reduce the amount of water the toilet uses for each flush.
Follow the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down” rule—horrifying, perhaps, to visiting relatives yet standard operation here in the golden state (golden as in the hills, silly).
Wear an apron. An apron will keep your clothes cleaner longer, protect them from stains that can be difficult to remove and thus, conserve water. (This provides the added bonus of buying fewer products that may or may not remove those stubborn stains.)
Put a strainer in your sink and compost the scraps you collect in it instead of turning on the thirsty garbage disposal to get rid of them.
Choose an efficient dishwasher. Today’s water-conserving dishwashers use between four and six gallons of water per load. (In addition, less water to wash consumes less energy to heat.) You might possibly use less water washing dishes by hand if you wash extremely quickly and efficiently. This water footprint calculator estimates that hand washing a load of dishes requires about 20 gallons of water.
Cook pasta in less water. Conventional wisdom dictates that you must cook pasta in a large amount of boiling water. Actually, you can cook it in a small amount of water at a simmer. You conserve water and energy with this trick.
Save that pasta cooking water (or gnocchi cooking water). Conserve the pasta cooking water for making soup or cooking grains such as rice. Similarly, when I make gnocchi—divine, small, potato dumplings—I cook my formed gnocchi in the water in which I had cooked the whole potatoes I transformed into gnocchi. The cloudy water adds nutrients and flavor.
Save other cooking liquid. When you steam vegetables, save that water—now more like broth—to use in anything that calls for broth. Or add it to your next pot of scrap vegetables simmering to make broth. When I squeeze the liquid from shredded zucchini or potatoes—I have a recipe in my cookbook for shredded vegetable pancakes, for example—I save that liquid too. If you won’t use the liquid immediately, freeze it. And remember, you can also always water your plants with cooking water if you’ve omitted salt.
3 ways to indirectly conserve water
These tips won’t reduce your water bill but they will conserve water indirectly. What we eat—or don’t eat—impacts water consumption on the farms that grow our food.
Eat the food you buy. When food goes uneaten, water goes to waste. According to ReFed, a non-profit working toward ending food waste and food loss, uneaten food in the US accounts for 14 percent of all freshwater use. It’s downright absurd to grow water-intensive crops that no one eats. See day 3 for ideas to reduce food waste at home.
Consider the water footprint of food. This website lists the global average water footprint of various commonly eaten foods. Potatoes have a lower water footprint (287 liters of water per kilogram) than vegetables such as cucumbers and pumpkin (350 liters/kg) and corn (760 liters/kg). Other foods require more water, such as dates (2,280 liters/kg), beef (15,415 liters/kg) and chocolate (17,196 liters/kg).
Eat small and local. Single crops grown over hundreds or even thousands of acres of land, year after year—monocropping, or continuous monoculture—destroy ground cover, erode topsoil and decimate biodiversity, all of which reduce the water retention of soil. Hence monocropping requires more water than smaller, diverse farms that build up healthy, water-retaining soil.
I might be banned from my state for suggesting that you don’t buy food grown here if you live in another state or country. But why do we grow so much food in California, only to transport it elsewhere, even in summer when “elsewhere” can—and does—grow its own food? When we export water-intensive food, we export our water. We have none to spare.
Please share any other ideas you have for conserving water.