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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

How far are you willing to go to conserve water?

by Lili Mounce

There's a drought going on in a good part of the US. There's no telling if this is one of those short-lived varieties or if we are entering a new "dustbowl". However long this one may last, one thing is certain, this drought concerns us all.

On Friday, Tom Vilsack, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined 42 counties in Iowa are now natural disaster areas, due to drought. The state of Indiana has been on a water warning since the 3rd week of July. Perhaps as many as half of the counties in the whole of the lower 48 states are suffering from a lack of rainfall this summer.

With the global population always on the increase, the demands on natural resources will grow, including the demand for good, clean water. Even if you don't believe anything of the global warming or climate change theories, when populations grow, demands on resources increase. This is one of those things that I think about.

I know, this is getting awfully "environmental" for a blog on frugal living. But here's the tie-in. Environmental issues frequently overlap with frugal living. A drought means that our wallets will feel the pinch.

What does this mean to you, the consumer? Food prices will surely rise. The most severe devastation has occurred in the nation's corn belt. Corn is a primary feed for animals raised for food. Meat, dairy and egg prices are expected to rise. A lot of snack foods contain corn. (Ouch! My all-time favorite snack of popcorn may be in short supply around here!) And then there's the use of corn oil in so many products. Even if you personally don't use corn oil, your oil of choice will increase in price, as more consumers turn to alternate oils.

Soy is also a crop raised in our countries mid-section. Less seems to be heard in the news about the affect of the drought on soy products. But make no mistake, soy and all related products, including margarine and many processed foods, will see a jump in pricing this fall. And while the drought itself is happening in the US, this is a global concern, as the US supplies much of the world with food.

We can also expect to see a small increase in fuel prices, as vegetation-based fuels have taken up a bigger share of the market in recent years. However, I personally feel that most of our price at the pump increases are and will continue to be due to other influences.

As someone watching their budget, what do we do? First of all, if it was my community putting out a water-use advisory, I'd oblige them and do my share to cut back on water consumption. This would help local farmers continue with irrigation of their crops. There is some corn being grown right now that is irrigated and doing okay.

Second, if I'm going to continue with my current grocery budget, I'll need to be an even more savvy shopper. I'll be checking the discount section of the packaged deli, for markdowns on bacon and sausage, checking for markdowns in the general meat department, and shopping for mark downs in the dairy aisle. When I find a good deal, I'll be even more inclined to stock up, and stock up big. (Have I mentioned that last Thanksgiving I bought 4 turkeys? I'll buy 4 again this year, too.) I'll buy family packs of meat and divide them at home myself. I'll be using a bit more homemade rice milk in my cooking, in place of some of the dairy milk. I'll continue to modify my recipes to use more beans and grains for protein, and less meat.

Third, I'll continue to use my car efficiently, batching my errands, making mostly right-hand turns, using the car that gets the better fuel economy, etc.  But as I said earlier, I'm not convinced that the biggest impact on gas prices will be the corn and soy shortage.

Now, back to that original question of how far would you be willing to go to cut back on your water consumption?

I once heard of a couple living in north central California about 15 years ago, during one of California's many droughts. They had a well for water, which was running dry. They trucked in drinking water. But trucking in water for washing and watering purposes was unaffordable. To save their precious well water, they washed, bathed and watered creatively.

When they washed dishes, they had two dish pans with water, one soapy, one for rinse. Nothing new, many of us have done that. After using the soapy water, they carried it to the laundry room, to wash their clothing, waiting two or three days until there was enough water to run a load. The rinse water would then be reused as the wash water for the next batch of dirty dishes. It would be taken to the stove to be heated, and soap added for washing. A new pan of rinse water would be poured. After this batch of dishes, the wash water went to the laundry, and the rinse water became the next batch's wash water, and continued this way. They only used 1 pan of water per load of dishes this way.

To bathe, they limited bathing to twice per week. The wife put the plug in the tub and took a quick shower in the cold, and trying to heat up, water. Her husband followed her, but bathed in her shower water that was standing in the tub. After the husband, the dog was brought in and he was bathed in the husband's and wife's water. The water was then scooped out and carried to the garden for watering. No water was wasted in their house.

We've been using city or well water for so long, we take for granted the availability of water. There was a time when people hauled their water from streams, or collected rain in barrels. Water was used sparingly because it was so difficult to haul or hard to come by. We've been spoiled.

But the tide is beginning to turn. Many of us are using rain barrels once again. We have two in use in our garden. I've been using mine all summer to water our pots on the deck and vegetable garden. They've just now run dry, in thanks to a wet summer here.

Low flush toilets are the norm now. In some countries waterless toilets are catching on. I'd like to see an easy to install timer for showers on the market. One that would automatically turn the shower off after 15 minutes. I have two teenage daughters who do like their long, long showers. (In their defense they both have super long, super thick hair, which requires a lot of time in the shower to get thoroughly rinsed.)

And I haven't heard of anyone letting the water run while brushing their teeth since I was a child. Yes, many of us are much more conscious of this precious supply of good water.

The overlap between being green and being frugal is felt when trying to save money at the grocery store, on the utility bill, and the gas budget. By using resources carefully, we should be able to mostly mitigate the effects of the price increases that the general public will feel, simply by taking more care in our everyday decisions.

What are your thoughts?


  1. Being a geologist and having studied hydrology, I have some push-button issues with water supplies and drought that are often misrepresented. However, I think you did a good job discussing them and what it can mean to everyone.

    1. I'd be really interested in hearing what you know about water supplies and drought. As a geologist, I'm sure that you know much more than I do.

      With this summer's water issues, I've been watching a few crops, waiting to see/hear if prices will go up, come down, remain stable. In particular, I am eagerly waiting on the peanut harvest this year. Last year's left us with peanut butter prices almost double what they'd been the year before.

      Personally, this means I have to pay more or find a substitute. But what concerns me more, is our food bank relies on peanut butter as one of the items it gives out to patrons. Some patrons have limited cooking skills, or limited kitchen facilities. Peanut has been a good, low-priced food item for these folks. Anyways, I'm hoping for some good news with some of our food supply.

  2. That California couple did use water creatively. We used to camp down on the Illinois river with my Grandparents and my Grandmother was very frugal with water. The had to carry it in 5 gallon containers and she kept a bucket next to where she cooked. She used a dishpan as well to save whatever she could for other uses.

    In the summertime here when school is not in session, clean clothes are not needed every day unless they are really dirty. We can often get away with wearing an outfit more than once to save water in washing.

    1. Hi Belinda,
      When water is precious and either hard to obtain, or costly, it does inspire one to be more conscious of how it's used.

      The first year after we bought our home, we were just barely making it, bill-wise. We saved every way we could think. Saving water was one of the ways we spared a bit of money in our budget. The water in our main bathroom took quite a while to heat for showers. So we collected the cold water, while the shower was heating. I remember standing there with empty milk jugs, filling them with cold water. We'd then use that water in the washing machine.

      I've known families who toss their towels into the wash after every shower. It sounds crazy to me. I am guilty of tossing my shirts into the wash after each wearing. But for the most part, my jeans and other pants just get washed once per week.

      And in summer, when I rinse vegetables, I still save the rinse water to water plants just outside the kitchen door. Some habits will never die, for me.

    2. Interesting post. We returned from visiting family a week ago and travelled through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri. The further south we travelled, the worse the drought was. Sad to see the ruined crops. My in-laws live in Illinois. Currently they are under a voluntary water advisory. It may become mandatory. They have a huge garden which makes reducing water consumption tricky. We try to be conscious of our water usage but I'm sure we could do a lot better if we had to.

      I'm starting to "buy ahead" on food items which I think will rise. I did that last year with peanut butter and was glad I did. Thanks for your thought-provoking comments.

    3. Hi Kris,
      So you saw the crop devastation first-hand. What a sad sight, knowing how much many families are dependent on the harvest. It's easy to forget that it is not just the farmers who will be affected, but all the seasonal workers who come in for the harvest and the local towns who depend on workers having a paycheck to spend. It surely will have a trickle down affect for those areas.

      I did the same thing with peanut butter last fall. As soon as I heard the story on the news of a peanut shortage, I knew the rest of the nation heard the story as well. I bought enough peanut butter to last through winter and into spring. Then when we ran out I turned to making my own sunflower seed butter (which is actually cheaper per pound than the peanut butter I had been buying). I did see beef on sale this week, and will buy some for the freezer.

      Thanks for your comments!

  3. Hmmmm... well, I have mixed views on the whole water conservation issue. Living in Colorado, drought is just a fact of life. I can't remember a time when we didn't have watering restrictions.

    But the water laws out here are just crazy. Here, people don't own the water that falls on their own property because the rights to that water are owned by someone further downstream. So rain barrels are illegal, as is re-use of gray water. Seriously, a few years back there was a story on the news about a guy who had rigged a hose onto the drain of his washing machine and was using the gray water to irrigate his plants, and they slapped a mighty hefty fine on him.

    Still, I try to conserve as much as possible, but there's part of me that feels it's a fool's errand. The more we conserve, the more tap permits they issue, and the more McMansions they build. I have a friend (he's an environmentalist) who says that if you want to do something good for the environment you should waste as much water as possible to keep them from building any more houses.

    So who knows. I can't help but think that there are just too many people on this planet, and things are gonna get much, much worse before they get better.

    1. Hi Cat,
      Your information is so interesting, and bizarre. I can not wrap my mind around the water laws in your area, I could understand not being allowed to dam a stream on your property, to hog all the water for yourself. But to not be allowed to use a rain barrel, or reuse water as gray water, just sounds unimaginable. A "what were they thinking" sort of law. I especially don't get the reuse of water restriction. After all, if you've paid for that gallon of water, shouldn't you be allowed to use it and reuse it in as many ways as you wish?

      For me, I'll still conserve water, as a way to cut back on some of our household expenses. Our water bill has doubled since we bought our house 17 years ago (in part due to older kids who take longer showers, and have larger clothes to wash which run more loads of laundry). Water seems like it should be one of those things that's free, like air. And I would hate to see our bill top $100 a month (which is where we're heading).

      It is sad to see so many housing developments take over areas that used to be pristine. I do believe that the crunch for available resources, land and water included, will only grow as our population grows.

      Thanks for your interesting comments, a different perspective is always thought-provoking.

  4. I live in South Australia and we have been out of drought conditions for a few years now, after suffering a 10 year one. I was always interested in conserving water even before the drought, realising how precious it is and how this land in particular goes in and out of droughts all the time.
    Hubby and I (empty nesters now) camp when we can, and have taken the same attitude when at home. We both have a wash each morning in the basin and use the water for the lawn etc; we wash dishes in a basin with very little water and don't rinse but wipe them dry with a teatowel.The toilet has dual flush but we both use it in the morning then flush with wash water etc and again the same when needed again ( unless visitors then it's flushed each time).We have rainwater tanks around the yard as well as 44gallon plastic drums for extra storage. Laundry rinde water is kept from one wash to another and wash water used out on the lawn, flushing the toilet and washing the porch etc. Wash loads are kept down by wearing clothing longer than we once did - our kids are the barometer in this as they're fussy about hygiene/odours and in the past 2 years have not said one thing ( they have no idea what we do!) Plants in the garden have to be ones that cope in arid regions and veg gardens are in pots/tubs.
    The only thing I dislike is that no matter how much we personally conserve, the rates/fees ( always go up and are the main part of the bill. :( ...but I know we are soing it all with the right attitude and feel good doing it.

    1. Hi Julie,
      So you know first-hand what living in a drought can mean. I applaud your efforts to continue to conserve water, even thought your drought has ended. It's a lot like being frugal for a good part of your life, suddenly finding yourself not "needing" to be frugal, but continuing with frugal ways, because they just suit your personal philosophy.

      I believe that these trying circumstances -- droughts, personal economic struggles -- give us the time and space to really assess how we want to live our lives. At first we just do what we need to survive. After a while, and some thought, we choose to maintain some of the practices that were once absolutely necessary, with thought and purpose.

      Did you read the comments above from EcoCatLady? Can you believe how difficult the state of Colorado makes it to conserve water? Unbelievable!

      Thanks for your comments! I liked reading what it is truly like to need to conserve water.


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