Changing Planet

Chill Out on Ice Cubes to Save Water

Saving water is cool. No ice necessary.

A town so cool it doesn’t need ice. Photo by Caroline Famiglietti










California 2013-2014 drought. It’s epic. The worst in the state’s recorded history. Everything you can think of is at a record low for this time of year: rainfall, snowpack, streamflow, reservoir storage…It’s so bad that Governor Jerry Brown has asked everyone to reduce their water use by 20%.

A 20% decrease in personal water use is not that much really, so it got me thinking about some additions to an earlier post that I wrote on simple things that we can do to save water.  This one grew out of a family vacation, but I think it’s a winner.

Nick, Caroline and Cathy Famiglietti in the Portland Japanese Garden, August, 2013. Photo by Jay Famiglietti
Nick, Caroline and Cathy Famiglietti in the Portland Japanese Garden. They’re having fun while I’m thinking about ice cubes. August, 2013. Photo by Jay Famiglietti

Last summer we spent a long weekend together in Portland.  Of course the family had my undivided attention throughout the trip, but I have to admit that I was definitely distracted by what I ultimately decided was a city-wide environmental statement.  After a day or so of dining out all over town, I noticed a very distinctive common denominator.  Our water was being served, almost everywhere, without ice.

Maybe I overthought it, or maybe I was spot-on, but my assumption was that this was an intentional water (and energy) saving measure.  I know what you’re thinking. Never assume.  But it just makes so much sense.

Think about it.  What happens to that ice when we finish a drink? Most of us throw it out, or if we’re in a restaurant, we leave it behind.  Unless you’re an ice-cruncher, in which case you’re consuming the water but annoying the heck out of everyone around you.  That could be anywhere from a one- to two-thirds of the volume of your cup, depending on your ice preferences, of wasted water.

It’s one thing to add ice to something that is room temperature or warmer if you want a cool drink. But it’s a completely different thing to add ice to something that is already cold, like soft-drinks at a self-serve fountain.

Now think about the energy required to make the ice cubes and keep them frozen, the energy required to crush the ice if that’s your preference, and, the water required to produce the energy to make the ice cubes.  All to keep an already cool drink cold?

I have to admit that I like a good glassfull of ice, and swirling the cubes around with my straw, but I’m starting to see it as more of a force of habit — an unnecessary, energy-intensive ‘luxury’ that I can probably do without en route to making my 20%.

So remember. You don’t need ice to be chill and save a little 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.'
  • Thomas Warner

    Not to mention that if it’s anything other than water it just ends up getting watered down if you allow the ice to melt. That and the restaurant putting ice in your drink is almost like them saying “we didn’t have this properly chilled to begin with.” Not that they don’t keep their drinks chilled, it’s just that the ice is pretty unnecessary.

  • Breanne

    I live in Portland and I would just like to say, the water is not cold, it’s luke warm if that. It’s gross. I’ve been getting a bit irritated that I have to drink warm/luke warm water. Anyway, not that it REALLY matters. We should just be happy to have water. But I do think this is a little ridiculous.

  • Chadd McKeen

    Think about how many drinks you’ve left on the table with ice…. WHAT A WASTE!!!!
    Why not use Glacier ice that is melting into our oceans disrupting the ecosystem by drastically changing the food chain in these waters… Don’t believe me? Try dropping your fresh water fish into a salt water tank… Actually, don’t do that, it;s animal cruelty.

    Listen, we’re in a drought and that calls for creative thinking. Why not utilize something that is causing a problem elsewhere, if you honestly care about the environment…

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