A few months ago, the U.S. Geological Survey released its latest five-year data on U.S. water usage, and the results revealed a remarkable trend: In most categories, including industrial, agricultural, and public supply, usage declined and was at its lowest level since 1970. The public supply portion, which represents the potable water used by 86 percent of our population, dropped by 5 percent, the first decline since 1950.
Individual cities are reporting similar results. For example, despite a growing population, Denver residents used 3.19 billion gallons of water in December 2014, which is 20 percent less than previous winter highs of 4 billion gallons. And city officials don’t want to stop there. Denver’s water utility has challenged its users to hit a target of 30 gallons a day per person, indoors; the average indoor use per person in the U.S. is around 50 gallons. Other cities are following suit.
We have, as a nation, made some strides in reducing the amount of water we use each day. There is more public awareness of the need for water conservation, and new technologies have made using less water nearly effortless for many of us. Overall, however, the U.S. still has the highest per capita water consumption in the world, and the current drought in California, now going into its fourth year, has brought our water use into sharper relief.
While water-efficient toilets, faucets, showerheads, dishwashers, washing machines, and demand recirculating pumps have made a huge contribution to the decline in consumption, there are still many other ways all Americans, and specifically builders, can take water conservation to a higher level. Here are some of the basics.
Stormwater management: A good drainage plan for managing water on building sites prevents erosion and protects streams and other bodies of water from sedimentation and pollutants from construction activities. Post-construction, projects designed with fewer impervious surfaces, green roofs, and biofiltration systems will result in long-term reductions in runoff on the site.
Native landscaping: The main goal here is to reduce the amount of supplemental watering necessary for lawns, trees, and plantings. Making appropriate plant choices for the area as well as choosing the right place to put them can go a long way toward preventing the need for frequent watering.
Rainwater harvesting: This is one of the easiest ways to save water. Collection and storage tanks can be fairly inexpensive and the benefits are two-fold. Rainwater is kept on-site, preventing runoff into the local water system, and the harvested water can be used for flushing toilets, washing cars, and irrigation. Australia, which has experienced severe water shortages for many years, has developed home-based water treatment systems that allow rainwater to be used for drinking, as well.
Graywater systems: Using water drained from sinks, baths, showers, and washing machines is a little trickier. Graywater may contain contaminants and is best used only for watering non-edible plants after filtration. It’s a good idea to consult state and local laws concerning its use; they vary widely.
I am writing this on March 22, World Water Day, a United Nations initiative to call attention to those in the world who don’t have enough of it. Most of us in the U.S. have never experienced the kinds of serious water shortages that others in the world deal with every day. But we should still give water conservation our full attention. It’s fiscally responsible, it lessens the impact of droughts, and it can ensure that we have water when we need it.