Monday, March 23, 2009

Water, water everywhere???

Ironically, it rained in Southern California yesterday, on World Water Awareness Day. But, even though this year seems to be wetter than usual in my area, I know we are currently experiencing a potentially devastating statewide drought. After all, we get much of our drinking water from Northern California, which has suffered from lower-than-average rainfall in the past few years.

It is easy to take water for granted. All we have to do is open up our tap and let it out. Water does not cost much in So Cal; our family’s base rate is $1.07 per ccf or $1.07 per 748 gallons. Considering that the average family of four uses about 400 gallons of water each day, that is only about fifty cents per day. Plus, we all know that we will never run out of water; we could let the tap run all day long, and it would still be running by nightfall (though we would most likely be charged a waste water rate for that kind of usage!).

Things are a bit different on the farm, though. Farms run on wells and cisterns. Wells are dug by farmers or by those they hire to do the digging for them, which takes time and money. And it is not out of the realm of possibility for them to have to dig more than one well before they finally hit water. A farm that does not have good drinking water is essentially uninhabitable; the cost of hauling water in from an outside source is too prohibitive. Most farms also have a cistern, which collects rainwater and stores it underground for use in washing clothes or taking baths. If water is wasted or if it is a dry year, then the cistern will run dry; and water will have to be transported in by truck from the nearest water tower, a process that takes time, energy, and money.

Every farmer I know has a rain gauge, and it is not at all unusual to go to the local tavern on a Friday night and hear the men earnestly comparing rainfall statistics with one another. No amount of rainfall is too small to notice; even a mere sixteenth of an inch—hardly a spit in the eye as one friend put it—is worthy of attention. After his ground, water is a farmer’s most precious resource. Wars have been fought over water in this country. And, according to the United Nations, wars may again be fought over water in drought-ravaged areas around the world.

With the earth’s population projected to grow from 6.3 billion to close to 10 billion by 2050, energy, water, and food have now become the top three of “humanity’s top ten problems for the next 50 years.” Which leads us all to try to think a bit differently about how we use one of our most precious resources. The simple fact of the matter is that the more we can conserve, the longer we will have water reserves available to us. Reserves which, according to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, are becoming depleted to the point where they may no longer be adequate to sustain our population. So, then, what can we do?

The EPA has some interesting tips for reducing water usage, which includes buying WaterSense labeled products. WaterSense products are for water what EnergyStar products are for electricity, and they are available for businesses as well as end-consumers. They range from toilets/urinals, faucets and showerheads to landscape irrigation services and sensor-based irrigation control technologies, which can save up 24 billion gallons of water nationwide in a year.

The Metropolitan Water District’s BeWaterWise website also offers several water saving tips for residential and commercial consumers. The important thing is to first find out where the water is going.

For example, over 50% of water usage goes towards landscaping. Residents and businesses, alike, can make a big difference if they choose native plants, cover soil with water absorbing mulch and then follow local water utility guidelines for watering times (most of us water more than we need to).

In addition, watering plants before 8am reduces evaporation (saving as much as 25 gallons), and fixing leaks and replacing broken sprinkler heads can save up to 500 gallons per month. For those who are ready to upgrade their sprinkler systems, weather-based irrigation controllers can save up to 40 gallons per day.

Be Water Wise Tips for residents include:

-- Turning off the faucet when you brush your teeth – saves approximately 3 gallons

-- Fixing a leaking faucet – saves up to 20 gallons a day

-- Using a broom instead of a hose to clean off your driveway and sidewalk – saves about 150 gallons each time you clean

For businesses, the fundamentals still apply. First, they must assess where their water is going. Then, they must develop a plan for reduction.

Be Water Wise Tips for businesses include:

-- Installing high-efficiency, pre-rinse spray heads in restaurants – saves 3.4 gallons per minute

-- Installing a Bulk Steam Sterilizer tempering device on medical facility autoclaves - saves 50 gallons per unit per hour

-- Retrofitting an X-ray film processor with a re-circulation device - cuts water usage by 99%

-- Installing a new Cooling Tower Conductivity Controller – saves 800,000 gallons or $4,000 in water and sewage costs per tower per year.

In addition to the water and price savings, many water agencies offer rebates on newer more water-efficient systems. For example, pressurized waterbrooms for cleaning sidewalks use as little as 2.8 gallons of water per minute (versus 8 to 18 gallons for standard hose and nozzle). They are also eligible for rebates starting at $150. Zero water urinals may be eligible for $400 per fixture. And pH conductivity controllers may be eligible for $1,900 rebates or more per device.

Regardless of the savings or the rebates, it is important for all of us to start thinking like farmers when it comes to water because, at the end of the season, if we run out, there is no water tower in town that we can drive to for a refill…at any price.


Anonymous said...

Reminds me of an old Gary Larson cartoon in which the delivery man for a bottled water company is filling the bottles of "Nature's Fresh Bottled Water" from a neighbor's water hose. We have a perception that bottled water is somehow better than tap water (in some cities it's true, but not in many). Yet, bottled water produces more waste than regular tap water. So, fill up the bottles from the tap with Nature's Best.

s engelmohr said...

Great post, most of your tips I try to abide by everyday. Living in AZ we take our water very seriously.

Your comment, "Every farmer I know has a rain gauge, and it is not at all unusual to go to the local tavern on a Friday night and hear the men earnestly comparing rainfall statistics with one another." really hit home. I remember being on the farm in ND as a kid and the rain gauge was always talk of the town. Water is a gift and it has to be conserved.

Sandy said...


Sorry for the late reply,
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Small Footprints said...

Excellent post ... I always learn something from this site!

A friend of mine lives on a farm in eastern Washington state. They have a well and with conditions the way they've been in the last few years, running out of water is a reality for them.

We once thought that we'd never run out of water ... but that's no longer the case.

Thanks for sharing such wonderful information!

Small Footprints