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The Drought-Era 'No Excuses' Guide to Conserving Water

8 of the worst water-wasting habits that you can start changing today.

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Earlier this year, the California Department of Transportation launched a drought education campaign on 700 electronic highway boards. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

By this past Tuesday, almost 50 percent of the Western United States was in "severe drought" and over 75 percent of California has it even worse: "extreme drought," which means major crop and pasture losses and widespread water shortage.

In January, California governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency and urged Californians to cut their water consumption by 20 percent. Half a year later, it appears that many Golden State residents are still not pulling their weight. According to a recent state survey, water use fell only 5 percent between January and May, and only 2 percent in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Sure, personal consumption is just one portion of the state's overall water use. But in this era of unrelenting drought, there's really no excuse not to take some easy steps to reduce your water use. So if a few or all of the water-wasting offenses below apply to you, consider this a friendly reminder that it's not too late to adjust some personal habits for the greater good.

  1. You're not reusing water—Instead of heading straight down the drains, plenty of water generated in the day-to-day can be recycled. Three easy sources of recyclable water? Cooking pots, humidifiers, and pet bowls. Use that leftover water for house plants or outdoor vegetation, or when appropriate, for consumption.

    To avoid being a hypocrite, I stopped myself from pouring this leftover water down the drain after boiling dumplings and spinach. I have no plants in my apartment, so spinach-ish soup it is. (Jenny Xie) 
  2. You're not sure if there are leaks in your home—According to a report by the National Resources Defense Council and the Pacific Institute, repairing leaks can save 11 gallons per person per day. Obviously, keep your ears out for audible leaks, but also check for silent leaks both indoors (faucets, toilets, water heaters) and outdoors (sprinklers, hoses). A few basic ways to detect leaks: 1) turn off all the taps and see if the water meter still runs; 2) put some food dye in the toilet tank and see if the coloring spreads to the bowl; 3) look for mud puddles outdoors and water in your gutters. (Here are some more thorough guides to detecting and repairing leaks.) 

  3. You take water at restaurants for grantedwhen eating out, ask for water only if you actually plan on drinking it. Think about the additional water it will take to clean extra glasses. While you're at it, also be mindful about refills: Only accept what you will realistically consume.

    "Hmm...do I really want both?" (Shutterstock
  4. You let the faucet flow—Being disciplined about turning off the faucet in the middle of brushing your teeth, washing your face, or shaving can add up to considerable water savings. Even at a very efficient flow of 1.5 gallons per minute, leaving the faucet running for 20 seconds while washing your face wastes an extra half-gallon. And letting it flow while brushing your teeth for the recommended two full minutes means three more gallons down the drain.

  5. You use the garbage disposal liberallyRunning the waste disposal in your sink requires extra water—in fact, it takes an average of a gallon per person per day. So use it sparingly. The easy route: Diligently dispose of food scraps in the garbage. A more ambitious path: Start a backyard compost, or look into indoor composting options

    Daily use of the garbage disposal is comparable to an additional flush of the modern toilet. (Steven Luscher/Flickr)
  6. You overload on meatA simple way to be more conscious about water consumption is reducing your overall water footprint. This means taking a look at your diet and finding that, unsurprisingly, eating meat is a huge water suck. Studies calculate that it takes about 4,000 gallons of water to produce 1 kg of beef, 1,500 gallons for 1 kg of pork, and 1,000 gallons for 1 kg of chicken. Persistent drought has already been squeezing the cattle industry, driving beef prices to a record high. Poultry and fish prices also continue to rise. All that is to say it's a good time to consider reducing your overall meat intake.

  7. You have a lawnIf you're still watering your lawn, hopefully it's only during the early morning or late evening, in order to cut down on evaporation. But really, it's probably time to follow the lead of the Getty Center in L.A. (which has responsibly drained its pools and shut off its fountains) and take more drastic measures. Stop watering altogether. Let the green go brown. Soon, that might even be the law: The California State Water Resources Control Board is currently working on a list of possible mandatory statewide restrictions, including limits on outdoor watering. Alternatively, consider replacing grass with native, drought-friendly plants. (Be sure to check for municipal subsidies or rebate programs first. Southern California, for example, recently doubled the per-square-foot rebate for turf removal from $1 to $2.)

    According to the Getty Center, visitors are disappointed with the lack of water features. But turning off the fountains saves nearly 2,500 gallons a day. (@LPAwater/Twitter)
  8. You let others off the hook—friends don't let friends be water hogs. Whatever water-saving tricks you decide to embrace, talk about them with other people. Small habits add up. When it comes to water-wasting neighbors who probably won't be receptive to conservation suggestions—or other blatantly wasteful public or private facilities—find out if your city has a system for reporting water waste. Many communities have hotlines and online forms where anonymity is granted.

Of course, this list contains just a few simple things to keep in mind. For a much more comprehensive guide to conservation methods throughout your home, check out this "house tour" of recommendations from the California Urban Water Conservation Council. And If you've figured out any clever ways to save water, please share them in the comments below!

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