Wasting water

You failed to address, except in passing, the core of the problem. The amount of fresh, potable water is limited in almost all areas of the world. Above ground sources, in most parts of the USA, are being used at the maximum volumes for nominal weather. Underground aquifers are being drained more rapidly than they are recharged by rainfall, even in normal years. Drought reduces the newly available water and all sources get drawn down.

We were in Yosemite in early July and due to a 25% snowpack in 2011-2012, the falls were at levels more typical of late August.

the column

I would have thought the main problem is water flow: there is so much rain that falls to fill lakes, rivers, and aquifers. As long as we use only a X% of that in-flow we should be fine. As X approaches 100 (or more) we start getting into trouble. We’re already near 100% for the Colorado River.

I live in rural New Hampshire and have my own drilled water well with abundant water. The water out of the well is clear, cold and excellent for drinking, but my showers are hot. For me, the waste of a long hot shower is the energy required to heat the water.

I thought Cecil could have elaborated on this a bit more. As I learned in 6th grade science, you can make fresh water from salt water by evaporating and then recondensing it. I guess the problem is that desalinizing enough ocean water to support a city would come at too high an energy cost. But maybe someday if we develop new sources of energy (e.g., fusion)?

Water flow is the main problem but not for the reasons you suggest. The more water you use the more water flows behind it to replace it… from upstream.

As an islander on Georgian Bay I can tell you that water levels, their management and regulation are a major concern right now. The Great Lakes, especially Lake Huron, have been experienced significant drops in their water levels particularly in the last 10-13 years. Co-incidence? Maybe, maybe not.

There are many factors being blamed including climate change affecting precipitation and evaporation rates, plate tectonics, increased water demand, the dredging and erosion of the St Claire river, even the effect of the reversal of the flow of the Chicago River circa 100 years. ago.

Think of it as a shower with a plug in the drain, and the tub is full. Now, as you open up the drain slowly you until you reach a point where the water from the shower head equals the water leaving the tub.
Great now:

  • if you open the drain anywhere past this point the water level will begin to drop.

  • if you turn down the shower to a trickle the water level will drop.
    If you do both, say like what has happened this year, the water level will drop drastically.

    Here is the problem, that most don’t realize. Even if we were to return to average seasonal rainfall and the equilibrium restored, the water level has declined. It would require conservation and an above-average amount of precipitation for an extended period to restore the previous levels.

    There is also a concern that if we disrupt the natural flow, flooding would result in “wetter” years. There is a huge debate brewing over whether some kind of intervention is warranted immediately, or that water levels are cyclical and they will recover on their own. It’s basically the “do something now before it’s too late” vs. “do nothing and see what happens” debate.
    IMHO, I believe that when water levels drop to a point where there is an economical impact on shipping and tourism, there will be renewed interest into what should be done.

Anyone interested in what’s happening to the Great Lakes can check out:

International Upper Great Lakes study
International Joint Commission
NOAA Great Lakes Environment Research Laboratory

This answer by Uncle Cecil is one of the worst I’ve seen him deliver in all the time I’ve read the column. It ignores the actual question asked (how can you “waste” use of a resource from a closed system), and only marginally answers the related question(s) it raises sua sponte. It should be pulled and re-written (though obviously not possible to the extent that this poor column has already made it into print for the various physical newspapers in which the column is run).

Part of the trouble is that the answer to the question asked is quite complex. It would be hard to condense into the available coulumn inches the entirety of why it is possible to “waste” water use. The answer would have to delve into the differences between types of municipal water sources, relative positioning in the “closed” system, degree to which the system is actually “closed,” etc. But Cecil has never been daunted by the task of turning the extensive into the quickly digested.

What is really bad is that Cecil raises the issue of Chicago on his own, but then doesn’t even really offer a solid explanation of why it would be important to avoid “wasting” water in Chicago. The closest he comes is with the almost off-hand reference to the fact that Chicago’s intake from Lake Michigan is subject to limitations. Chicago would be an excellent example to use to answer the actual question asked, for a variety of reasons. It’s too bad that Uncle Cecil simply pissed away the chance.

It may be true for you on a personal level that the only dollar cost is the heat (and perhaps the electricity for the pump), but from a larger perspective, the issue is more about the availability of freshwater.

This earlier thread about desalinization might be of interest: http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=451178

I was really excited to see your wasting water column especially when you brought in the example of Chicago. I had the same thinking as you about the difficulty of “wasting” water in Chicago and I eagerly awaited your normal intelligent reasons for me to conserve water here.

Your reply was abysmal. Conserve in order to practice for the future when I will need to help drought stricken farmers! That’s your reason? I agree with the previous poster who suggested that you need to put some more thought into this issue and come back with one of your usual intelligent answers.

Lets start at the beginning. The old canard that 20% (or whatever huge number) of the world’s fresh water is in the Great Lakes is just that a canard. The only water available for use by the populations surrounding the Great Lakes are the top few inches that are replaced by rain. All the rest, and I mean “all” the rest is needed as a distribution system (think the engineering marvels of other cities) and a transportation system (think the great canals of the world.) As with everywhere else in the world we may only take from the lake that which the climate puts into it.

As for farmers eying that water for crops, well that too is a non-starter. Look what the farmers from Texas to Nebraska have done with their Great Lake, the Ogallala Aquifer. There is an obvious limit to that kind of unsustainable use.

And even if we were to give farmers that water how would we get it to them. Say the farmers in central Illinois and Missouri and Tennessee and Arkansas. Build a big pipeline with big pumps? No wait, we could just send it down the Mississippi.

So it seems that I am already practicing for the day when I will need to do my part by sending water to those downstream farmers every time I let the water run as I brush my teeth and take my twenty minute shower. And as a bonus I am helping by adding clean water to the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

A few years ago, Mayor Daley pushed the Chicago Park District to add valves to the drinking fountains in Chicago’s parks, which previously had run nonstop all summer. I thought this was rather silly. After all, more water leaves the lake every time some sailboat transits the Chicago Lock than all the water fountains in Jackson Park could use in a year. And what a symbol of Chicago’s water wealth the free-flowing fountains were to visitors from elsewhere!

Saving water in Chicago isn’t going to do anything for the farmers. Period. Cecil’s sucking straws here.

California’s consumption of [transported] water breaks down to 20% consumed by city-slickers and 80% agriculture/environment. Conserving water in the Windy city would only amount to a drop in the pond with respect to farmers.

The better rational to putting valves on the drinking fountains would be to conserve energy. And while it may not matter as much in Chicago, it’s a big deal in California

Moving all that water consumes something like 8 billions of kilo-watt hours every year. Take a look at the Edmonston Pumping Plant. Figuring 1800 feet and 1/250 of an ounce for a drop of water–that amounts to a little less than half a foot-pound of energy expended. AFAIK, it is the single biggest consumer of electricity in the state. (Here’s some pictures.)

I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought Cecil whiffed on this one. This was a question that had been bugging me for years, and I was hoping to get a definitive answer for it. My logic is basically as follows:[ol][]A certain amount of water falls in the form of rain onto the land each year. So long as we consume less water than that each year, there’s no problem.[]Fresh water is fundamentally a local resource; it cannot be easily and economically be transported over long distances. Most aqueducts top out in the 300–400 mile range; I can drive that far between now & dinnertime. So my conserving water here in New England will not help alleviate the drought in the Midwest. And if the politicians start talking about building a pipeline from here to Ohio, I’ll be sure to raise a hue and cry.[]The rate at which water is replenished by the water cycle in my area is (usually) many times higher than the amount of water used by humans.[]Population levels here are fairly steady. Unlike those desert boomtowns in the Southwest, there isn’t really a concern here that a rapidly growing population will outstrip the rate at which fresh water is replenished by the water cycle.So, given that there’s plenty of water around here for the people who live here, and that the water supply here can’t easily help people farther afield, why shouldn’t I leave the faucet on while I brush my teeth? Sure, people in Phoenix might need to conserve water, but that’s the price they pay for trying to build a city in the desert.[/ol] I don’t doubt that there’s a flaw in my logic somewhere, but I didn’t see it addressed in Cecil’s column. Hopefully Cecil will try again; but if not, maybe the SDMB denizens can set me straight.

I have plenty of New England water too, but when I built a new house in 1998, I was forced to install new low water consumption toilets - to save water in Phoenix? They work poorly. Maybe the designs have improved over the past decade, but I shall continue to muddle by with multiple flushes plus gallon jugs of water stored by each toilet for obstinate waste.

I installed low-flow toilets about three years ago and have had no problems. Hope it’s okay to mention the brand name for informational purposes–they’re Kohler, 1.28 gpf. I have had one clog among the two toilets since installation, which I think is pretty good, and never any problems with all the paper/solids going down, i.e. needing to flush twice. These are gravity-fed toilets, not the kind that shoot pressurized water; I can’t comment on how those work.

I’ve also noticed that “dual mode” toilets don’t seem to work well–the kind with a small flush for #1, big flush for #2. I don’t remember the brands I have used (at friends’ houses and so forth) but these always seem to require multiple flushes.

Thanks, but I’ll continue with my current practice rather than replace three toilets. That requires time, money and effort. My complaint was that I was compelled to buy low flow toilets in the first place - before they were even worth a pot to piss in, especially since I have no water shortage here. And I don’t use water to irrigate my lawn and garden as they do in dry corners of this grand republic; there’s no need because it comes out of the sky. The desert sun seekers waste water (even fossil water!); I don’t.

doneck, you are not conserving water use for people in Phoenix. You are conserving water use because there are potentially substantial water use limitations in most places in the country, especially in times of drought. Federal legislation and subsequent regulations have mandated installation of low-flow water using plumbing items, like shower heads and toilets. This is not new, but rather has been in place for a while. And while your water comes from a groundwater aquifer, there is not guarantee that, absent conservation, your aquifer’s water wouldn’t be used up eventually as the population using it grows with time.

There are 12 acres per person where I live, and we get about 1 meter of precipitation per year. This amounts to about 360,000 gallons of water per day for each person. We have abundant water now, and for the indefinite the future. Phoenix doesn’t. Saddled with the crummy mandatory low flow toilets, I pay a penalty for the profligacy of the desert dwellers.

Your math is off by a factor of ten.

But even beside that, how big of an area are you talking about? Your excess water no doubt flows off to benefit the people of a more densely populated region nearby. The combination could certainly result in seasonal deficits, and possible long-term droughts.
Powers &8^]

Powers is right about your math (I get ~35,000 gallons per person per day), but that’s not the main problem with your post. The fundamental error you’re making here is conflating the surface precipitation at your location with recharge of the aquifer underlying your home. That works when you’re looking at surface waters, but the temporal and spatial scales that govern groundwater resources are completely different.

First, the vast majority of that meter of precipitation will never reach any aquifer - a portion will run off directly to surface features, some will be intercepted by vegetation and evaporated, and more will be taken up by transpiring plants. If it falls as snow, it won’t travel past the frozen ground until the spring thaw, when more of the meltwater runs off to surface features (much more than the direct runoff fraction of rain). Of the portion that does infiltrate, a lot will be trapped in the pores of the soil matrix, and the remainder will take years to trickle through the unsaturated zone and into an underlying aquifer. All of those potential destinations for the precipitation get “dibs” ahead of aquifer recharge, and anything we do to change those features (e.g. paving, which creates impervious surfaces that encourage direct runoff and prevent infiltration) has an impact on groundwater recharge that will be felt years in the future.

The spatial scale of groundwater resources is also much greater than we tend to think about. It’s not unusual for aquifer recharge areas to be tens or hundreds of miles from the areas where we drill wells and extract the water, and it frequently takes hundreds or thousands of years for groundwater travel that far. The end result of this is that the precipitation and recharge that happen at your home don’t affect the water resource that you’re drawing from, but they do impact people downstream of you. Without some pretty detailed study (e.g. this one from the more-developed part of your state), it’s difficult to say whether our use of groundwater resources is truly sustainable.

The other issue for groundwater resources, especially in New England, is contamination. There are all kinds of sites leaking all kinds of stuff into aquifers, from leaking underground storage tanks to industrial chemical disposal sites. The contaminants emanating from these locations are called plumes, and the move along with the groundwater itself. When we pump from wells, we change the way the groundwater in the area of pumping flows, encouraging faster movement and often influencing the direction of flow. When this happens in the vicinity of a contaminant plume, it spreads faster and farther than it otherwise would, making it more likely to affect water supplies and more difficult to contain and clean if we want to try that.

What I’m saying is that you can’t think about water resources one household at a time. Your low flow toilets have no impact on your water supplies, but they do help to provide more and safer water for downstream users; upstream users do the same for you.