Water on the Brain

When I was five years old my family moved into an old house outside Egg Harbor that had been decaying for half a century.

The house had no working toilet (we had a port-a-potty out front for a while), and the septic had failed, so when we ran water down the kitchen sink it went into a five-gallon bucket that we had to dump outside when it filled.

When it came time to shower we either piled into the family wagon (there were eight of us) or walked down the road to Frontier Wilderness Campground, where they were kind enough to let us use their showers.

As you might guess, this ingrained the value of water conservation into my head before I ever had the chance to waste it.

But that’s far from the norm in the United States.

In a world where millions of people struggle to get their hands on drinking water, where mothers walk miles just to get a few gallons of water, Americans use 80 to 100 gallons per day (some estimates go as high as 175 gallons). The average African, meanwhile, uses just five gallons of water per day.

Nearly 1.1 billion people worldwide don’t have access to safe drinking water. We buy flavor packs to add to it. It’s our lifeblood, yet we Americans pay just pennies for it as millions face a daily life and death struggle for it.

Since we pay so little for it, it’s easy to use far more than we need, to waste it indiscriminately. I realized just how much I was wasting a few years ago.

That’s when I rented a Fish Creek home with a holding tank that cost me $112 each time I had it pumped out. I was on a tight budget, so getting an extra week or two between pump-outs was a big deal to me.

Suddenly water, the most taken-for-granted substance on the planet, had a dollar value. I always thought I was a conservative water user thanks to those early experiences, but I soon found I could trim a lot of waste from my daily water diet.

Each time I went to turn on the faucet I thought twice. “Do I really need to run water for this? Can I do something first or clean something with a dry rag or scrape a dish first?”

My faucets now looked like gas pumps to me. There was no meter on the countertop with pennies flipping rapidly by, but there was one in my head.

Some habits I’d long used to save water I took to another level:

• I’ve always taken short showers, but I found I could cut them even shorter, and occasionally filled a bucket with water for the garden as I ran the shower to warm it up

• If I needed to run the water for a moment for hot water, I’d fill my dog’s water dish with the cold water as it ran.

• When brushing my teeth, I’d never run the water as I brushed.

• When shaving, I’d fill the basin just a little and rinse my blade, rather than running it under the faucet.

In other areas I found more creative ways to save a few drops:

• Doing the dishes became a study in efficiency, as I scraped dishes clean before soaking (not spraying them off) and getting the most out of rinsing time.

• As a restaurant veteran I was well-schooled in frequent hand-washing, but now I squirted soap in my hands, ran a splash of water, then scrubbed before rinsing.

• Anytime there was leftover coffee in the pot, I used it to water flowers in the house or in the yard rather than dumping it down the drain.

I was still paying pennies per gallon for my water, but that tiny extra fee changed my habits dramatically, and I was only paying for the stuff that went down the drain or I flushed it down the toilet.

Even today it irks me to see a faucet running for no reason, a sprinkler soaking a sidewalk, or a dishwasher running half full. But in a society where water is plentiful and all but free, it’s easy to understand our nonchalant use of it.

But what if water cost $1 a gallon, metered as it came out of the faucet? Or worse, imagine that water hit your wallet at the same rate as gasoline.

How would you change your habits? What would you cut out?

Try imagining it for a day and see how you change. Email us with your story, and let us know what tips you find for wasting less water.