Water: It cleanses, captivates, powers and nourishes. We can only survive a few days without it, but we rarely pause to consider where it comes from, where it goes and how much of it we use.
According to the World Water Council, we're draining our water supply more quickly than we're replenishing it.
1 percent of the world’s water is available for use
100 gallons per day is what the average American uses
1.8 billion people live where water is scarce
Further reading National Geographic’s April 2010 special issue on water
While living in a ger in western Mongolia, my wife and I had the opportunity to easily track how much water we used — about 67 gallons per month in our household, delivered each week by a man leading a horse cart through our neighborhood. We paid about 50 cents for 50 liters at a time, all our milking pail, 5-gallon jug and metal tin could hold, collectively.
Those 67 gallons supplied our cooking, drinking and washing needs. Most Americans use about 100 gallons per day. We now use the same amount of water in one day that we used in a month in Mongolia.
Our needs haven’t changed that much, but we no longer have an outhouse and now have indoor plumbing. Instead of pouring water into a dry sink to trickle out of a spout, we turn on the facet and it runs. I’m thankful for that, but just because it runs today doesn't mean it will run forever.
Considering the downpours we’ve had this summer, conserving water might not hit the top of your sustainability chart. Although the alluvial aquifer that provides Columbia’s water supply is not about to run dry, conserving water today can save money, protect our most vital natural resource and potentially limit future conflicts.
According to the EPA, leaks waste more than 11,000 gallons per year, per home in the U.S. That’s enough water to fill a backyard swimming pool for every home.
A customer service representative for Columbia Water and Light said the organization gets around 10 customers per month who are shocked by their water bill because of a leak costing hundreds of dollars.
Many leaks can be easily fixed or avoided as conservation guru David Mars demonstrates in the following video on checking and fixing a leaky toilet from the city of Columbia website.
Even a slow drip can leak 20 gallons per day.
Low-flow shower heads, toilets, faucets and front-loading washers are great ways to help conserve water. Look for the EPA’s WaterSense label and ask about the efficiency of the product.
If you’re not ready for a big investment, aerators are a cheap and easy fix to reduce water consumption. For less then $10, we added them to our sinks going from 2.2 gallons per minute to 0.5 gallons per minute.
To decrease the amount of water per toilet flush, we filled a quart bottle and put it inside the tank to displace water. (In the school I taught at in Mongolia, I used a big rock, but I’ve since learned that’s not a good idea.) Whatever you use, ensure it doesn’t interfere with any of the moving parts of the toilet.
You could skip the water completely and opt for a composting toilet, but not if you live in the city, where it’s against the codes. The caveat is if you connect it to the sewer lines it’s OK, but harvesting the compost becomes impossible.
Tom Moran lives near Boonville and said composting toilets are a good way to save energy, water and money.
“Gravity never fails, and the plumbing never backs up,” he said about his composting toilet.
Gray water recycling systems can be used to recycle laundry, dish and shower water, but they are against Columbia’s ordinances as well. John Sudduth, building regulations supervisor for the city of Columbia, said gray water systems are more complicated than most people imagine because the chemicals in people’s gray water have to be contained and controlled properly.
But there are some low-tech and legal ways to harvest your gray water. Put a bucket in the shower to collect the excess water and use it to flush your toilet or use the water from washing dishes to water your plants.
Once your home is water wise, look for ways to conserve outdoors, too. The EPA estimates 40 percent of residential water use is for landscaping purposes.
For our household, that means watering our garden, which we do early in the morning to avoid evaporative loss. We’ve never watered our lawn. It is healthy and lush, but it’s been a wet summer.
If you’re going to water your lawn, do so wisely. If you step on your grass and it doesn’t spring back, it’s probably on the dry side. One inch per week is usually all a lawn needs, and a tuna can placed near your sprinkler can provide a good measuring tool for gauging when you’ve watered enough.
Even better, reduce the size of your thirsty grass and plant more native plants, which have deep root zones and require little to no maintenance. Plant species with similar water needs together, called xeriscaping.
In addition to the water that runs in our faucets and nurtures our gardens, we consume embedded water in the products we use and food we eat, such as 37 gallons for one cup of coffee or 1,800 gallons for one pound of beef, according to the Water Footprint Network.
I’m not quite ready to hang up my coffee mug, but I can shorten my showers, turn off the water when I’m soaping up in the shower and only run the dishwasher and washer when they are completely full.
Michael Burden is a journalism graduate student at MU, a graduate instructor and the MU campus representative for the Peace Corps.