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How Can You Reduce Your Water Footprint?

Tracy Quinn, Water Policy Analyst, Santa Monica, California

How much water do you use every day?  The answer might surprise you. 

A paper released online last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that Americans significantly underestimate their water use. Curious how my friends and family would fare, I reached out via social media and posed the simple question, “how much water do you use each day?”  The results in my quick survey ranged to from 2 gallons to 300 gallons, but the most common estimate was 10 to 15 gallons per day.  In reality, Americans use closer to 90 gallons of water a day.  To put things in perspective, a 10-minute shower with an EPA WaterSense labeled high efficiency showerhead consumes 22 gallons, while a 20 minute shower with an older, high flow showerhead could be as much as 100 gallons.  Last month, Governor Brown declared a state of emergency and called on all Californians to conserve water in every way possible.  Knowing how much water you use, and how and where you use it, are important first steps in determining the most effective ways you can save water in your home and business.

Given the severity and far-reaching impacts of our dwindling water supplies on cities, farms, native fisheries and the environment, you have to wonder – why on are we still watering our lawns and flushing our toilets with increasingly scarce and expensive potable water?  When it rains, why do we let all that water flow to a storm drain and then out to the nearest river or ocean?  The truth is…we waste a lot of water.  The good news is that it means there are significant opportunities to use water more efficiently and increase our local water supplies.  Everyone must do his or her part to create a drought resilient California; we need forward-looking commitment and investment by our leaders, and we need awareness and thoughtfulness on behalf of all individuals throughout the state.

So what are some smart choices communities can make to better prepare for an uncertain future? Let’s take the familiar phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” and apply that to our water supplies. For our communities to be resilient and prepare for the worst effects of climate change, we need to rethink how we use, and reuse, water and wastewater so that we can make the most of our most essential resource.

  • We can reduce our water consumption by making small changes to our daily activities such as not watering our lawns as often and taking shorter showers, and we can replace inefficient products in our homes like clothes washers, toilets, faucets and showerheads. 
  • We can reuse water in our homes and businesses to the extent possible. One of the easiest and safest application of this concept is the onsite use of graywater and captured rainwater, sources suitable for a number of non-potable uses, such as landscape irrigation and toilet flushing, that otherwise would be discarded as waste. 
  • We can recycle our wastewater, purifying it so that it can be used to recharge groundwater supplies and replace potable water for non-potable applications, most commonly large-scale landscape irrigation.

Here are some easy tips for incorporating “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” into your daily activities to help you heed the Governor’s call to save water and improve the sustainability and future drought resilience of our communities.


TIP – Take advantage of the rebates and incentives offered by your local water supplier!  It can be as easy as checking their website.  Some common programs you might find include:

  • Free faucet aerators and/or high efficiency showerheads.
  • Rebates on high efficiency toilets and clothes washers.
  • “Cash for grass” – a program where water suppliers pay customers to replace thirsty lawns with California friendly gardens.
  • Direct installation or rebates for laundry-to-landscape graywater systems.
  • Rebates on rain barrels – collect the rain that falls on your roof & save it for a sunny day!

TIP – Check for leaks.  Household leaks account for nearly 1 trillion gallons of wasted water every year!  Does your toilet run all night?  You could be wasting over 100 gallons per day.  Does your faucet or showerhead drip after you turn it off?   A leaky faucet that drips at the rate of one drip per second can waste more than 3,000 gallons per year. That’s the amount of water needed to take more than 180 showers!  To test your toilet, simply add some food coloring to the tank and see if it appears in the bowl.  If it does, you probably need to replace the flapper in your tank – it’s a quick and cheap fix that can save hundreds of gallons of water.

TIP – Replace your lawn with a beautiful, drought-resistant landscape. 

Some water suppliers will actually pay you to remove your lawn, up to $3/square foot of removed turf! Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean replacing your lush grass with cacti and a rock garden; check out these amazing drought-tolerant gardens. Be sure to check to see if your local water supplier offers a “lawn-to-landscape” or “cash-for-grass” program.


Thumbnail image for drought tolerant.jpg Credit: Enviroscape LA

Thumbnail image for Drought-tolerant (EPA, Perla Arquieta).jpg

Credit:, Perla Arquieta

Drought-tolerant (EPA, Susie Dowd Markarian).jpg Credit:, Susie Dowd Markarian

TIP – Watch your foodprint. Consider your personal water footprint when you make a purchase, especially food grown in California.  Did you know that it takes 1,850 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef, chicken is about one-third of that at 519 gallons per pound, while vegetables are only 39 gallons per pound?  –Be mindful of your foodprint and eat less, better quality meat – by skipping the burger or carne asada tacos just one day a week, you can reduce your personal water footprint by up to 25,000 gallons of water per year!  Check out the infographic below and see how much water is used to produce other commonly purchased items.



TIP  – Go greywater. Install a “laundry-to-landscape” greywater irrigation system that uses water from your clothes washer to irrigate the plants in your yard.  For those DIY folks, this is something you can easily do yourself and does not require any alteration of your existing plumbing – check out San Francisco’s Greywater Manual for great step-by-step instructions.  The City of Long Beach installed 36 laundry-to-landscape systems for free as part of a pilot program, check with your water supplier to see if they have any incentive programs for greywater irrigation systems.

Laundry to Landscape (Elayne Sears, Mother Earth News).jpg Credit: Elayne Sears, Mother Earth News


TIP – Rather than washing your car at home, go to a car wash that recycles its water!

If these tips still haven’t quenched your desire to reduce your water consumption, you can find a few more tricks on this list of 9 things you can do at home to help your community be as water efficient as possible.

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail” – Benjamin Franklin

Reducing our water footprint isn’t just about coping with this drought.  Climate change is expected to bring more frequent and intense droughts, and the population of California is continuing to grow.  By 2050, the population of California is projected to exceed 50 million people; by 2060 we will have added more people than currently live in Pennsylvania. Potable water is our most precious resource, and here in California we are significantly dependent on sources like the fragile San Joaquin Delta and the oversubscribed Colorado River.  We must find new ways to meet the demands of a growing population facing a future of increasingly limited sources of water. Planning for future water shortages and making smart choices is the only way to ensure adequate supplies to meet all our needs while protecting the environment.

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John Miller's picture
John Miller on March 16, 2014

The NRDC has done a pretty good job in listing many of the improvements Residents can make in significantly reducing their water consumption.  A few other options to consider are installation of more modern toilets that have duel tanks for min. (#1) and max. (#2) flushings.  Yes, low-flow shower heads are also valuable towards reducing this usage of water, but the key performance issue is likely behavioral (time spent in the shower).  Besides replacing high water usage yard vegetation with more drought resistant vegetation (largely green grass lawns in States such as California), lawns could be replaced artificial astroturf; as is routinely installed in drier States such as Arizona.

Recycling used/waste water is definitely a potential major improvement available.  If local Municipalities were required to expand their recycled water processing capabilities/capacities, new infrastructure was installed to transport the recycled water to possibly large primary users, and primary users such as Golf Courses were required to use 100% recycled water, very good progress could be made towards significantly reducing Commercial water usage.

Even with the NRDC listed improvements and the additional suggestions above, total U.S. water usage savings will still be relatively small.  Why?  Because we have not addressed the single largest consumer of total water consumption; U.S. Agriculture.  Agriculture consumes about 80% of all water within the U.S.  Even though U.S. Agriculture has made significant improvements over the years, there are probably many other options that could far exceed the improvements in the Residential Sectors consumption by at least a magnitude.

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