Water quality and quantity issues are appearing in the news more and more frequently. We hear about water becoming unsuitable for drinking from algal blooms, droughts becoming more widespread and longer in duration, and all of the conflicts that arise with water scarcity – an issue that already afflicts many parts of the world. The news generally covers how water shortages compromise a community’s ability to prosper by highlighting the common themes we see in water scarce areas: protests, failed crops, dying livestock, debilitating pollution, poverty, and forced migrations. But the news seems to provide little attention to water consumption patterns and inefficiencies that perpetuate water scarcity and more importantly, what we can do about it. A good first step is realizing how much water we use and waste in our daily lives..
We are very fortunate to live in a geographical area where melted glaciers from the past have provided us with plenty of freshwater. Growing up, I never gave much thought about the Earth’s finite water supply. As most Americans do, I simply turned the faucet on when I needed water without thinking about what happened once the water went down the drain. Having access to clean, inexpensive water is something that most Americans take for granted. Unfortunately, this attitude has created a society that is extremely careless and wasteful with water usage. This might seem acceptable in the present, but MIT’s modeling program predicts that by the year 2050, 52% of the world’s projected population of 9.7 billion people will live in regions plagued by water scarcity due to population growth, increased water demands, and climate change. The precise nature of a water crisis varies in intensity and location, but the resulting stress will be shared among both rich and poor countries. Water issues will not go away on their own, and will only worsen with time unless we respond as a global community.
The average American family of four uses 363 gallons of water each day. These numbers are more meaningful knowing that the average African family of four uses about five gallons per day.
As America’s population doubled over the past 50 years, water usage tripled. The average American uses somewhere between 80-100 gallons per day, and the average American family of four uses 363 gallons of water each day. These numbers are more meaningful knowing that the average African family of four uses about five gallons per day. As a nation we use about 319 trillion gallons annually! The graphs below illustrate where all of that water is being used.
Some of these water withdrawals are unavoidable and essential for life, but that does not mean it is done in a conservative fashion. On the other hand, some irrigation uses are far from essential, such as the 2.5 billion gallons of water used to water golf courses each day. The impact of a broken or leaking pipe may seem trivial when you envision it being wasted by the drop, but all of those drops amount to 1.7 trillion gallons lost each year in the US. One way you and your family can make a difference is by being more prudent with water consumption when it comes to domestic usages. Many Americans cherish long showers, but even a ten minute shower uses about 40 gallons, which the same amount as a bath. We could save an incredible amount of water by adopting a habit that most cultures employ: “navy showers.” This is a shower practice where you get wet, then turn off the faucet while you lather up, shave, etc., and run the water again to rinse off. A person who showers this way conserves 14,800 gallons per year…talk about making a positive impact!
Many people in the world survive on 3 (or fewer) gallons of water per day, which is the same amount of water we use every time we flush a toilet that predates 1994. Toilets manufactured after 1994 comply with the federal standard of 1.6 gallons per flush, but better yet, the U.S. EPA’s WaterSense approved toilets use 1.28 gallons per flush. An average family can reduce the water consumed by toilets by 20-60% by making the switch to WaterSense approved toilets, saving 13,000 gallons of water and $110 on bills annually — $2,100 would be saved on water bills over the lifetime of the toilets. Replacing every toilet in America with efficient models would save us 520 billion gallons each year, which is the same amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls in approximately 12 days.
While these are the more obvious ways in which Americans use water in their daily lives, there is an astounding amount of unseen water usage that goes into nearly everything we consume. “Virtual water” is the term used to describe the water we consume indirectly, which accounts for all of the water required throughout various steps in production processes for the food, beverages, and goods we consume. The graph below makes it apparent that 95% of our water footprint is from virtual water.
Those jeans that you’re wearing took 2,900 gallons of water to create – enough water to supply one person with 8 glasses of water per day for 15 years.
On top of this, American consumers aren’t always doing their part in requiring fewer of these items to be produced. For example, in 2008 we threw away 34.48 million tons of paper and 27.93 million tons of plastic, both of which are water intensive materials that can be reused and recycled. Each of us can save 3.5 gallons of water just by recycling the daily newspaper!
You might be thinking, “If water is constantly being cleaned and recycled through the Earth’s water cycle, why do we need to conserve it?” Even though water is always returned to Earth through the water cycle, it is not always returned to the same location or in the same quality and quantity. This can create a situation known as peak water. This is when people are using our planet’s fresh water faster than it can be naturally replenished, which makes our water supply vulnerable to reaching low levels. As populations continue to grow exponentially, the stress on water supplies will magnify, making conservative water usage a lifestyle that will become more and more important.
Water consumption and energy are inextricably linked. It takes a lot of time and energy to treat wastewater and to transport water to and from the treatment plant. The energy consumed throughout the treatment process accounts for 35% of typical U.S. municipal energy budgets, emitting 45 million tons of greenhouse gases annually. Letting your faucet run for five minutes uses about the same energy as letting a 60 watt light bulb run for 22 hours. So by sending less water down the drain you lessen the burden placed on treatment facilities, which saves you and your local government money and provides your community with a larger water supply and cleaner air! If the U.S. could achieve a 10% reduction in energy usage for treating water (and we can!), the nation would save $400 million and 5 billion kWh’s annually.
Less water going down the drain also means that there is more water available in streams, rivers, and lakes. Therefore using less water preserves habitat available to fish and other animals while also improving the quality of your drinking water supply and other water bodies. This is because when water levels are low, pollutants are more concentrated and harmful. If your local water bodies were to reach low levels, not only would habitat degradation occur, but additional dams and reservoirs could be necessary to make sure your town has enough water.
Making small adjustments to your daily routines now would make a big impact when it comes to water conservation. A community shift to less wasteful water use could lessen the likelihood that your region experiences water scarcity in the future. So spread the word, and start saving!