Saving Water without a Drought

Even in a spring dry by Maine standards, it’s hard to envision how parched some places can become. Water scarcity is increasingly coming to define landscapes and lives. By the start of 2015, NASA calculated that California had reached a water deficit of 11 trillion gallons (more than 90 times all the water used annually by Maine households).

Global thirst will only grow as the world warms. A new World Bank report, High and Dry, warns that water scarcity – aggravated by climate change – could lead to economic losses and heightened conflicts.

Rain arriving in the form of downpours is inherently problematic, causing flooding and erosion. Clean water that might have served to replenish wells and revive plants mutates into contaminated runoff pollution.

Anticipating a future with less predictable and less abundant clean water, we need to acquire the habit of conservation.

Without a dire crisis, though, it can be hard to adopt water-saving practices–as anyone who has tried to shorten shower times can attest. Measures seen as an inconvenience or deprivation rarely succeed for long.

Fortunately, there are places to begin where conserving water can actually improve the quality of our daily lives.


No one benefits from the annoying drip of a leaky faucet or from a running toilet, but the US Environmental Protection Agency suggests that a staggering number of us ignore chronic sources of water waste.

I know this to be true. Not only has our outside faucet been leaking intermittently, but the connection point between two hoses has become a mini-sprinkler. What might seem like mere drops–hardly worth the bother of fixing–adds up.

The leaks in an “average household,” EPA reports, can lead to more than 10,000 gallons of clean water wasted annually. Nationally, that amounts to a loss of 1 trillion gallons–enough to meet the annual household needs of more than 11 million homes.

Household leaks rarely require expensive fixes. They just take a change in mindset.

I’ve made that mental switch with other environmental practices. Having composted food for years, I’m uncomfortable now in settings where that’s not an option. Vegetable peelings and food scraps no longer seem acceptable to “waste”; they’re a valuable source of soil enrichment that should be put to good use.

Why is it that we don’t all grow up with a similar intuitive sense for the supreme value of clean water–recognizing  it as the lifeblood of our bodies and ecosystems? We speak of house maintenance and yard care responsibilities but never of “water care.”

Banishing drips would be one simple way to demonstrate that care.


Showering uses an estimated 1.2 trillion gallons of water each year in the United States, atop the energy required to heat that water.

In a quest to conserve, we initially tried a showerhead with a cut-off valve that could be used to save water while lathering. In a cool bathroom, the comfort tradeoff of this “navy” shower proved too high, and the valve was rarely used.

Shortening a daily shower by one minute can save up to 550 gallons per year, but it turns out that switching to a water-saving showerhead saves markedly more – on the order of 2,900 gallons annually.

But what if a low-flow showerhead fails to do the job? We’ve all experienced the frustration of anemic dribbles too weak to wash off soap.

I finally became convinced to try a showerhead with EPA’s WaterSense label after hearing a plug for one in a professional webinar. If a bureaucrat in a suit couldn’t resist gushing about the wonders of his showerhead, I figured, there must be something to it.

He was right. The new fixture vastly improved every dimension of showering – cover force (what’s needed to wash out shampoo), coverage (how much of your body gets rinsed) and flow (under 2 gallons per minute). Best of all, it felt better.

And the bonus prize? We saved on propane use, easily recouping within months the showerhead’s $21 cost.


Now, it’s time for the next life-improving, water-saving measure: drip irrigation for the vegetable garden.

As meditative as it may be to water the garden by hand, it’s a major water drain and time sink (and not all that contemplative in the midst of black fly season!).

Drip irrigation directs water at a slow and steady pace to plant roots, reducing fungal disease on leaves. Less water is lost to evaporation so drip irrigation typically requires less than half the volume that overhead watering does.


While care for water begins in our homes and yards, it must extend out to reshape community practices and design. With the prospect of more intense downpours, we need to find ways to direct rainwater into the ground – rather than having it flow into sewer systems and contaminate waterways with runoff pollution.

A wealth of resources now exist to help engineers, landscape designers, business owners, and planners rethink how to manage stormwater – using techniques like rain gardens and materials like porous asphalt.

At the community scale, as in our households, caring for water takes some upfront investment. But in the dry spells ahead, these measures will shower us in benefits.

© Marina Schauffler, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.