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The reliability of our faucets providing water every time we turn them on can make water seem like a magical, never-ending resource.
But abusing the availability of this finite resource can contribute to water scarcity and harm our capacity to deal with the impact of the climate crisis.
“Four billion people today already live in places that are affected by water scarcity at least part of the year,” said Rick Hogeboom, executive director of the Water Footprint Network, an international knowledge center based in the Netherlands. “Climate change will have a worsening influence on the demand-supply balance,” he said.
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“If all people were to conserve water in some way, that would help ease some of the immediate impacts seen from the climate crisis,” said Shanika Whitehurst, associate director of sustainability for Consumer Reports’ research and testing. Consumer Reports is a nonprofit that helps consumers evaluate goods and services.
“Unfortunately, there has been a great toll taken on our surface and groundwater sources, so conservation efforts would more than likely have to be employed long term for there to be a more substantial effect.”
Yes, businesses and governments should play a part in water conservation by, respectively, producing goods “water efficiently” and allocating water in a sustainable, equitable way, Hogeboom said.
But “addressing the multifaceted water crises is a shared responsibility. No one actor can solve it, nor is there a silver bullet,” he added. “We need all actors to play their part.”
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Contrary to what you might think, the water used directly in and around the home makes up a minor portion of the total water footprint of a consumer, Hogeboom said.
“The bulk — typically at least 95% — is indirect water use, water use that is hidden in the products we buy, the clothes we wear and the food we eat,” Hogeboom said. “Cotton, for instance, is a very thirsty crop.”
Of the 300-plus gallons of water the average American family uses every day at home, however, roughly 70% of this use occurs indoors, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency — making the home another important place to start cutting your use.
Here are some ways to reduce your water footprint as you move from room to room and outdoors.
Since the kitchen involves dishwashing, cooking and one of the biggest water guzzlers — your diet — it’s a good place to start.
An old kitchen faucet can release 1 to 3 gallons of water per minute when running at full blast, according to Consumer Reports. Instead of rinsing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, scrape food into your trash or compost bin. Make sure your dishwasher is fully loaded so you only do as many wash cycles as necessary and make the most use of the water.
With some activities you can save water by not only using less but also upgrading the appliances that deliver the water. Dishwashers certified by Energy Star, the government-backed symbol for energy efficiency, are about 15% more water-efficient than standard models, according to Consumer Reports.
If you do wash dishes by hand, plug up the sink or use a wash basin so you can use a limited amount of water instead of letting the tap run.
If you plan on eating frozen foods, thaw them in the fridge overnight instead of running water over them. For drinking, keep a pitcher of water in the fridge instead of running the faucet until the water’s cool — and if you need to do that to get hot water, collect the cold water and use it to water plants.
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Cook foods in as little water as possible, which can also retain flavor, according to the University of Toronto Scarborough’s department of physical and environmental sciences.
When it comes to saving water via what you eat, generally animal products are more water-intensive than plant-based alternatives, Hogeboom said.
“Go vegetarian or even better vegan,” he added. “If you insist on meat, replace red meat by pig or chicken, which has a lower water footprint than beef.”
It takes more than 1,800 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef, Consumer Reports’ Whitehurst said.
The bathroom is the largest consumer of indoor water, as the toilet alone can use 27% of household water, according to the EPA. You can cut use here by following this adage: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.”
“Limiting the amount of toilet flushes — as long as it is urine — is not problematic for hygiene,” Whitehurst said. “However, you do have to watch the amount of toilet paper to avoid clogging your pipes. If there is solid waste or feces, then flush the toilet immediately to avoid unsanitary conditions.”
Older toilets use between 3.5 and 7 gallons of water per flush, but WaterSense-labeled toilets use up to 60% less. WaterSense is a partnership program sponsored by the EPA.
“There’s probably more to gain by having dual flush systems so you don’t waste gallons for small flushes,” Hogeboom said.
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By turning off the sink tap when you brush your teeth, shave or wash your face, you can save more than 200 gallons of water monthly, according to the EPA.
Cut water use further by limiting showers to five minutes and eliminating baths. Shower with your partner when you can. Save even more water by turning it off when you’re shampooing, shaving or lathering up, Consumer Reports suggests.
Replacing old sink faucets or showerheads with WaterSense models can save hundreds of gallons of water per year.
Laundry rooms account for nearly a fourth of household water use, according to the EPA. Traditional washing machines can use 50 gallons of water or more per load, but newer energy- and water-conserving machines use less than 27 gallons per load.
You can also cut back by doing full loads (but not overstuffing) and choosing the appropriate water level and soil settings. Doing the latter two can help high-efficiency machines use only the water that’s needed. If you have a high-efficiency machine, use HE detergent or measure out regular detergent, which is more sudsy and, if too much is used, can cause the machine to use more water, according to Consumer Reports.
Nationally, outdoor water use accounts for 30% of household use, according to the EPA. This percentage can be much higher in drier parts of the country and in more water-intensive landscapes, particularly in the West.
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If you prefer to have a landscape, reduce your outdoor use by planting only plants appropriate for your climate or ones that are low-water and drought-resistant.
“If maintained properly, climate-appropriate landscaping can use less than one-half the water of a traditional landscape,” the EPA says.
The biggest water consumers outside are automatic irrigation systems, according to the EPA. To use only what’s necessary, adjust irrigation controllers at least once per month to account for weather changes. WaterSense irrigation controllers monitor weather and landscape conditions to water plants only when needed.