Should I be conserving water?

During the SuperBowl yesterday, they ran an ad about conserving water, making me feel bad because I let the water run while I brush my teeth.

But then I got to thinking, would it matter if I didn’t? I know that if I lived in southern Arizona, where the Colorado River now dries up before it reaches the sea, water conservation would be important. But I live in the Pacific NW, where even a drier than normal year gives us all the rain we need, and we’re right next to Puget Sound, so anything we don’t use just goes straight into the ocean; there’s nobody downstream who will benefit from me saving a couple gallons a day.

So, am I missing something? Or can I take a long shower without feeling guilty?

If you are on a public water system, then there is probably a per-gallon overhead to water processing, in addition to some baseline cost for capacity, so if everyone wasted 1/2 gallon of water a day then the public water system would have to scale up for more capacity, plus spend more money on treatment, pumping, etc.

This. It’s the same reason you’re supposed to turn lights off in unoccupied rooms. The actual dollar cost to you may be small, but there are negative externalities that come with any use of resources; if you don’t derive any particular benefit from consuming the resource (e.g. lighting an unoccupied room, or pouring fresh water down the drain while you brush your teeth), the community-minded thing to do is conserve the resource.

If you’re taking an endurance-shower, at least you’re deriving some sensual pleasure from it, but there’s not much to be gained by pouring several gallons of unused fresh water straight from the faucet into the sink drain.

Note too that “public water system” in Ludovic’s post refers both to the water supply system (which must treat water to make it potable, and then distribute it) and to the sanitary sewer system (which must collect water and then treat it to render it safe for discharge into rivers/bays).

I have a well and a septic system and water shares so I could never use more water than I want.

Huh. I saw that ad, and wondered, who on earth is so profligate as to STILL let the water run while they brush their teeth? I feel like this messaging has been around for 40 years at this point.

I saw it and wondered, why does anyone do that in the first place? What’s the point? When you’re ready to use said water again, is turning the handle such a burden?

raises hand…

But I like your use of the word “profligate”

Ludovic is right that there are scale-up and treatment costs associated with water use. Also, treating and delivering the potable water (at the high pressures required) and treating the sewage at the other end both require energy. If you save water, you save energy.

No, I can handle that, but in my house at least, the master bathroom is on the opposite corner of the house from where the water comes in, so letting it run lets me rinse the toothpaste out of my mouth with cold water from the main, instead of lukewarm water that’s been sitting in my pipes for hours.

The amount of water you may squander for personal use, or even on a reasonable size suburban lawn, is nothing in comparison to the water consumed in major industrial and textile manufacturing and processing an water lost in poor irrigation processes. Admittedly, that water use is hidden because it generally occurs in developing countries and agrarian areas well away from the end user, but if we were really serious about reducing water overconsumption and wastage, we’d start by looking at those industries. To be fair, because water suited for irrigation and industrial use is rapidly becoming a scarce commodity in many of those regions, industries are being forced by economics to look at conservation methods but that is of little help to subsistence farmers or people downstream coping with the pollution and loss of fresh water resources.

Shortly, someone will come along and opine that availability of fresh water is not a real problem because we can just desalinate it and deliver it by some magical pipeline to wherever it is needed, proving Mencken’s Axiom: “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.”


If there’s some kind of purpose to running the water, I don’t see it as a big deal. Most bathroom faucets only do 2-3 gallons a minute. (The low-flow faucet heads are usually 1 gal/min). It’s especially insignificant compared to big water uses like showers and lawns that go through dozens or hundreds of gallons.

Still, I’m amazed at how many people let it run while they brush without even the justification of getting it to the right temperature. There’s just no reason to waste anything, even if the cost seems small.

(I say this with my house guests in mind… who leave on every light they find, including several decorative lights that are on 24/7. And who think mid-70’s is a reasonable target for the heat even when out of the house. :smack: )

We’re on our own well, my home is 100 feet from Lake Michigan (which is well above its historic average level), with my property containing several springs which flow constantly year-round. I don’t feel bad about letting the water run when I brush my teeth, or take 30 minute showers. Or use high flow toilets or shower heads. Electricity and water softener salt aren’t that expensive.

However, when in areas where the water is not so plentiful, I am diligent in my conservation efforts.

Yeah, I agree with this. I don’t see that as wasteful. I do, however, see it as horrifying. My teeth are rather cold-sensitive, and the even thinking about rinsing them with super-cold water is painful. shiver

In the community where I used to live, there was a huge push for conservation many years ago, so we all pitched in and did the things we were supposed to do and water consumption was cut significantly.

So significantly that a few months later we all got notices that water rates had to go up to cover the shortfall of cash. Even though I was using less, the new rates made even my lower use cost more than before.

And of course, now that they had all this new found water, they immediately started rezoning single family dwelling neighborhoods for apartment buildings.

Conservation caused my bill to go up and the quality of life in my neighborhood go down.

Yeah, it’s like someone just discovered the 20-80 rule or something. Look, I don’t waste water by letting it run unnecessarily, but that’s a drop in the bucket (hah!) compared to those nut farmers (farmers of nuts) out in the central valley (CA) who still use spray irrigation in the middle of the goddam day when it’s 110 degrees outside!!!

Also, despite the many drizzly winter days, it doesn’t rain enough in the urban parts of the PNW to supply the municipal water needs of those cities. They’re instead mostly dependent on snow-fed water bodies, which are very vulnerable to low snowpack years. It’s not like California where there’s literally no more water to be had, but the water systems that exist and will comfortably serve the region during good years can definitely be taxed to the point of shortages during bad years.

You’d be surprised how inaccurate this is in many cases. Drilled wells are sealed off from surface water, like the water from your septic, by design.

The amount of time it takes from surface water to reach deep well aquifers can be significant, decades, and the water from your septic may not even be go anywhere near your well, it could be entering a deep well aquifer miles away.

The science has been rather conclusive even in areas that have plentiful aquifers we are depleting them at rates higher than their replenishment rates. It could be a rather significant time frame before it impacts many people but it is happening. If a 500ft well is losing a 1/2inch a year and started with a static level of 25 feet, it’s going to be a rather long time before that well is impacted in any meaningful way.

I’m in New England. We have no shortage of water overall. My experience is in line with the scientific studies. However the older 100ft wells are seeing reduced yields as the aquifers are seeing more use and suffering from depletion. I have long histories on many wells, my grandfather was on board with drilled wells in the 50’s. I regularly get to inform people their wells that were historically solid producers have tapered off and can no longer off meet their needs, they need to re-drill. Not really the type on news people are looking for. Where a 100ft well was fine in the 50’s a 200ft well might be required today for a similar yield. Rarely will I stop drilling before I hit 300, it’s part of calculating an expected loss.

Stranger On A Train’s point is very accurate. Typical household use is a drop in the bucket compared to industrial use or irrigation. Running one sprinkler zone for 15 minutes uses more water than a typical person will use in an entire day. The amount of money and water people put into green grass is rather amazing.

Even if the loss of water is insignificant in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t hurt to be a little more conservative with our resources. Saving a gallon of water while brushing your teeth doesn’t hurt you. Turn off the faucet if you aren’t using it.

the Super Bowl was held in the city of Santa Clara, in Santa Clara county. The water comes mostly from wells. The water table if refilled by percolation ponds. The ponds are filled with water from reservoirs. The reservoirs in the county are at record lows. If less water is used by consumers it does not the water will run into the bay. More can be left in the reservoirs. The water supply is also supplemented directly from other water systems. And those reservoirs are at record lows. Water not used stays in the reservoirs it does not go down stream.

The issue in the maritime Pacific Northwest isn’t about the availability of water to be treated and pumped into the water system, rather the resources to do the actual treating and pumping. Sewer fees are generally around double the water use charges if that gives everyone a scale to work with.

If you have a well and septic tank, then it’s just the cost of the carbon-neutral hydroelectric power (which is dirt cheap) to bring it up … I say run that water … there’s no shortage.

We had a thread about this a while back where a poster actually corrected me about the PNW’s water supply, at least for the Tacoma-Seattle-Everett stretch. A lot more water comes from lowland rainfall than I had been told, and I’m pretty sure it was my water district itself providing the story about snow-fed reservoirs that might run dry even if we have lots of summer rainfall. I think they’re using it as a cover story when simple conservation warnings don’t get much traction.