Water conservation, even in the land of 10,000 lakes

It’s hard to imagine Minnesota, where I live, being under any summer water use restrictions. There are lakes, or at least ponds, everywhere. This begs the hypothetical question of why water conservation should be a big deal in places with abundant water. When I was younger, I didn’t understand why water conservation would be important when there wasn’t a summer water shortage. My reasoning was that water is a renewable resource, and falls from the sky clean (even if sometimes acidified). While this is true, there are important environmental impacts of how we use water that can be overlooked.

To start, while water falls from the sky clean, it is difficult to collect in large quantities before it gets contaminated by microorganisms and pathogens in reservoirs. The exception to this is water that is filtered by the ground, such as that from wells and springs. In most cases, water needs to be treated before it can be used in a city water system, often with chlorine. Then the water needs to be pumped through the lines, which uses a considerable amount of electricity. Once folks on city sewer systems use water it is routed to sewage treatment plants, which are also energy intensive.

There are two kinds of water waste that homes produce, grey water and black water, but they are mixed together and treated in the same way. Grey water comes from uses like hand washing, while black water is from flushed toilets. There are many ways to use grey water safely for watering landscaping and gardens. This is useful not just because the water is being used again, but also so that they grey water does not get mixed in with the black water and need to be treated in sewage treatment plants. However, many city codes make any reclamation of grey water illegal.

One unfortunate truth about our water system is that we use potable water that is safe to drink for applications that do not require the water to be drinkable, such as watering grass and washing cars. Essentially, this water was treated with chlorine for no reason other than that it is more convenient to only have one system of pipes that brings water into peoples’ homes.

Water conservation saves a ton of resources and electricity even in areas with abundant sources of water, so it is a good idea to be careful in your water use wherever you live. Here is a list of small, medium, and large steps that you can take to conserve water:

  • Dishwashers use less water than hand washing dishes.
  • Always fully load the washing machine with clothes, rather than doing smaller loads. If your washing machine has an eco mode, use it unless you have a seriously dirty load.
  • Fix any leaky faucets around your home. Over time, they can waste more water than you might think.
  • Use low flow faucets. These are a bit unfortunately named, because the water pressure from them is excellent. You can even do this if you live in an apartment. We swapped out our showerhead for a low flow variety, and will simply switch it back before we move out.
  • Restrict water use during showers. For many people, this means taking a shorter shower. I’m not very good at taking shorter showers, so another strategy is to use a showerhead with a flow restrictor to mostly shut off the flow of water while you apply soap, shave, etc. The water stays the correct temperature, unlike if you shut it off completely.
  • Install a low-flow toilet, or use a retrofit kit to make your toilet dual flush. Dual flush toilets are great because they have two flush settings: one for liquid waste and one for solid waste. Less water is needed to flush urine than solid substances, which saves water. A bootleg solution is also to do as my Grammie did, and not tend to flush the toilet when there was just urine in the bowl. However, there are some things to consider with this approach, such as the gross-out factor for non-family company and any additional difficulty with cleaning the bowl.
  • Another bootleg solution to cheaply make your toilet low-flow is to put a milk jug full of sand or rocks in your toilet tank to displace water, leading to a lower flush volume (https://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/wellbeing/ways-conserve-water). Don’t use a brick, because they can break down over time and lead to a mess.
  • Don’t water your lawn. Lawns are a bad idea anyway. If you can, replace the grass with a garden or plants that are more drought tolerant. Google xeriscaping to get an idea of what this strategy looks like.
  • Install a rain barrel to collect water from your downspouts, and use this to water your garden.
  • I stayed at a hostel in Portland where they flushed the toilets with rainwater. Definitely something to check out if you have the ability to get creative with your plumbing.
  • When you are waiting for the water coming out of your faucet to heat up, collect the cool water in a bucket and use it to water your plants. Some people also use this for toilet flushing.
  • There are also systems that allow you to use grey water from your bathroom sink to flush the toilet, as long as it isn’t against your local housing code (http://homeguides.sfgate.com/flush-gray-water-79252.html).
  • Try a composting toilet when practical. They don’t use any water.
  • Take this with a grain of salt, because I have no experience caring for children, but if you are expecting you might want to look into elimination communication. My friend’s sister did it successfully with her nieces and nephews, which is where I learned about it. Basically, the idea is to signal to your baby when he or she should go to the bathroom, often by making a certain noise as you hold the baby over the toilet or a baby potty. Over time, babies tend to have a “tell” that they do when they need to go, and parents also watch for that. The benefit is dirtying many fewer diapers (whether cloth or disposable), but it does seem like you need to be very observant during a time when many people are maximally stressed. It seems like it could be a problem for certain daycare situations as well, although it appears that some babies aren’t too confused by sometimes using a diaper and sometimes not. Again, I have no experience in this area, but thought I’d mention it.
  • Keep drinking plenty of water. It would be a bad idea to drink less in an effort to conserve water. Most people don’t drink enough water as it is, so drink as much as you want.
  • Petition your representatives to have your local grey water codes re-evaluated. We should be able to filter our grey water and use it as non-potable water outside the house.


Do you have any ideas about how to conserve water? If so, please leave a comment below, but please no cloth diapers vs. disposable



Featured image of Lake Bemidji in Minnesota from Wikipedia user Lightinacube.

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