National Geographic Society Newsroom

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

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...

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.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Author Photo Jay Famiglietti
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.'