Thinking Big, Acting Small, and 5 Other Things I Do To Save Water

The unwashed truth about my closet. I rarely wash my jeans. Nor should you. Photo by Jay Famiglietti.

A few years ago, my wife Cathy suggested that I consider incorporating advice in my climate change lectures on the little things that we can do each day to combat global warming.  Although I tend to deliver most of my doom and gloom messages with a smile, the scope of the environmental issues that we face typically leaves students feeling pretty overwhelmed.  And me too by the way.

Cathy was spot on. Once I started incorporating these discussions into my classes, students became energized. They felt empowered. They wanted to learn more. They were ready to act!  Go get’em young people! You’re our great hope for the future!

Fast forward to 2012.  My research has become increasingly more focused on defining the global water crisis.  I’m delivering countless academic and public lectures on what we’re finding.  And I’ve done numerous Q & A sessions after screenings of the water documentary Last Call at the Oasis.

What’s the most frequent question that I’m asked?  Just as my wife had anticipated, nearly everyone wants to know what little things they can do at home or at work to have an impact on this huge problem.

That and how we got Jack Black to appear in Last Call.

Well, here’s my take on it. I’ll start with an important disclaimer that probably applies to all of us, so it really frames my primary recommendation well.

I’m not perfect. My family is not perfect.  We should convert our yard to native landscaping, but we haven’t yet. It’s tough to break the bottled water habit with my kids, and their showers are too long.  Like everyone else, we are creatures of habit.

Hence my core recommendation. Think big. Act small.

Thinking big.  By thinking big, I mean that in order to make a dent in your home water use, you should focus on the biggest offenders.  For example, if you were working on your home budget, you would concentrate on your biggest expenditures and make cuts there – dining out too frequently for example, rather than changing to a generic brand of peanut butter.

For many homeowners, watering the yard accounts for over 50% of domestic water use.  Home landscape irrigation is likely the number one low hanging fruit for saving water. You can always use less, and you’ll save money.  If you don’t have a weather-smart sprinkler system (we don’t), keep an eye on the sky, and always turn off the sprinklers if rain is in the forecast. If you can afford to make the change, consider converting to a native landscape.

After the yard, the biggest uses of water in the home are toilets, laundry, showers, faucets, and leaks.  High efficiency (low flow) plumbing fixtures and appliances (front-loading washers for example) should be staples of the modern home when affordable.

Acting small. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, so I recommend taking one small step at a time. Keep it tractable and sustainable.  For example, it’s tough to keep going with a 1,000-calorie per day diet. It’s much easier to cut out a Coke at lunch.

Pick one thing to do in your home. Take a minute or two off the length of your shower.  If you own your home and have a yard, cut back on the outdoor watering.  Over the long term you can call the plumber to get those leaks fixed, or think about purchasing those more efficient fixtures and appliances.

5 Other Things I Do To Save Water.  Domestic partners everywhere will hate me for these suggestions, all of which I embrace with gusto at home.  While they all fall under the category of lifestyle changes that are consistent with a water limited lifestyle, they also conveniently justify a more ‘relaxed’ approach to grooming and hygiene.  In other words, they make me feel good about being lazy.

1)   Skip a shower or bath on weekends.  You can still clean up and smell good (though you should probably check with my family). Just, take a day off. Go for it.

2)   Ditch washing the car. What a waste.  And if you are one of those people that hoses off their driveways, please, save the water and find a better use of your time.

3)   Did you know that those expensive designer jeans that we all wear now are not meant to be washed?  Like ever?  I just hang them back up in the closet after each wearing.  Of course you need to spot clean, and honestly, I do throw them in the wash…eventually.

That's me, right now, and it's Sunday. See what I mean? No wonder my family never wants to go out on Saturday nights any more. Well, it's all in the name of saving water. Photo by Cathy Famiglietti

4)   I’m down to shaving once a week, on Monday mornings. I have a beard trimmer, and I live near LA, so it’s all good. But between this and the shower thing, you should see me on Sundays.  Alternatively, you could buy a rechargeable razor, or better yet, grow a beard.

5) If you’re a chronic shower daydreamer like me, switch to baths.  This also works for me because our shower takes a while to heat up. I can’t stand a cold shower, yet I hate to watch that water run down the drain.   Now I just close the tub drain, capture the water while it warms up, and keep the water level relatively low. I also made the switch under the pretense of a bad back. But like I said, really, I’m just lazy and it’s just another excuse to lay down. My daydreaming?  I’m as productive as ever.
It’s easy, right? You can save water, money, time, and the environment by doing less around the house. It’s genius!
So remember. Think big. Act small. Make one simple change to use less water.
Jay Famiglietti is a hydrologist and Senior Water Scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is also a professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, where he was Founding Director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling. Jay's research group uses satellites and develops computer models to track changing freshwater availability around the globe. Jay is a frequent speaker and an active science communicator. His team's research is often featured in the international news media, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, CNN/Fareed Zakaria GPS, Al Jazeera, National Public Radio, BBC Radio and others. Jay also appears in the water documentary called 'Last Call at the Oasis.'
  • M D

    I think telling people to bath instead of shower might lead to some overuse of water if everyone is filling their tubs multiple times per day. The best way for people to choose whether or not they should shower vs bath is to simply plug the bathtub next time when showering and take a regular shower. If at the end the bathtub isn’t as full as when you take a bath, then stick to showering…

  • anonymous

    I do not agree with you. A bath is way less efficient than a shower, unless you are using a heavy flow head and taking a 1/2 hour shower. A bath uses around 100 gallons of water! The average number of gallons for a five minute shower using a low flow shower head is around 8 gallons…

  • Stephanie

    I’m guessing “bath” was really referring to a quick rinse-off in the shower to minimize the amount of time Jay had to stand up? Bad back right? All joking aside, though, I agree–baths (if you mean the kind where you fill up the tub and lie down) in general are a big water-guzzler. So if you’re lazy and want to stay “fresh” whilst saving water, you’re best off with a 2-minute rinse or a small wet towel.

  • Mark

    I take showers, my wife takes a bath. I use a pump to drain the tub and water the desert landscape with it. Takes less than a minute to drain the tub and the tree/bushes love it.

  • Grant Pitzer

    The Lawn. Try using a Hover Sprinkler. It’s hand-held and saves a lot of water because of the way the water is injected down through the grass into the soil.

  • Kat

    I put a pail under the water of my shower while I’m waiting for the water to heat up. I use the pail water to water potted plants.

  • Cameron Jasper

    Your diet is another way to save big on water. Cutting back back from dairy products and cow meat will make a bigger difference than any other place you might try to save freshwater. Keep in mind one cup of milk requires 55 gallons of water. Hopefully this is a small change we can all make!

  • Cameron Jasper

    Your diet is another way to save big on water. Cutting back from dairy products and cow meat will make a bigger difference than any other place you might try to save freshwater. Keep in mind one cup of milk requires 55 gallons of water. Hopefully this is a small change we can all make!

  • Jaybob

    I find it hard to believe that a shower would use more water than a bath. You can install a shut-off valve above the shower head, which allows you to stop the flow of water while you are soaping up without having to re-adjust the temperature. That can save a significant amount of water.

  • Gerald Jones

    My friend Felder Rushing, in Jackson, has a gardening show and he’s always saying that we water far too much. Waste of water and sometimes even kills the plant. He also notes that dead people grow grass and trees and flowers. Do you ever see a cemetery being sprinkled?

  • Remy

    And showering every two days? If everybody was doing it nobody will found that you are stinking and I am sure you will stay in good health.
    when you did not play sport of course.

  • armani

    well, yes he has good ideas , but you guys really want to understand the meaning of no have water, i dare you all of you guys to do this,

    when you guys are ready to shower instead of jumping in the bathtub or shower, fill up a bucket it can be a old bucket of paint i’m sure you have one around the house . ok so you are going to fill up this bucket and shower, you are no allow to use more water all you have is that bucket of water plus your shampoo and soap . no i’m no crazy, i did it and it sucks the first time, but the second time you learn to use that bucket of water a lot smarter, do it for at least 4 times and i’m sure when you use your regular shower you will understand how much water we waste, and how much water you safe using the bucket and at the end using both ways you came out clean but one way help to safe water .

    “regular paint bucket is 5 gallons”, if you did my challenge every time you shower you will know that you can safe water.
    because you know what it feels no to have enough.

  • Annie@GreenTravelReviews

    I’ve been thinking about the use of water as I have several family member that shower daily… I’ve never found this necessary unless I’m on an exercise spree, but some people are fussy about personal hygiene. There are always things one can do to help preserve the environment. Thanks for sharing your tips!

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