Who really cares about Water Conservation?

Drinking Water Plant

When I started off writing this post it was just going to be about basic water conservation and the list I found on 100 Ways to Conserve water.  This list is pretty good, but it repeats itself a fair amount and all but a few of the tips are things we've all heard 100 times.  While reading it, I couldn't help but thinking, "If people aren't already following these steps, then how is reading 'Turn off the water while brushing your teeth' one more time going to help?"

Basically, the tips on this list and all water conservation tips fall in the following categories, just said in different ways.

  • Turn off water when you don't need it on (brushing teeth, shaving, scrubbing dishes, etc.)
  • Don't send perfectly good water down the drain if possible; use it for watering plants or lawn.
  • Don't wash stuff you don't have to, and if you have to, only wash full loads
  • If something that touches water is leaking or is broken, replace it
  • Only water your plants/lawn when needed, use plants that are drought resistant, and if it's raining, turn off your sprinklers

And while the list has many basic tips on water conservation, two of the biggest water conservation investments get lost in the shuffle: Greywater recycling and Rain Barrels.

But my goal is not to criticize a list of tips that could be helpful to many.  The people who put the list together have good intentions.  I'm not criticizing them.  I'm criticizing our society's whole approach to conserving water and other natural resources.  While reading through the list of tips I started thinking, "How much of our society really cares about water conservation?"

While reviewing the list I started thinking about my own household's water conservation habits and what causes people to want to conserve.

Basically, we don't have any dedicated water conservation habits in our home (yes, I turn off the water when shaving and brushing my teeth and don't take crazy long showers).  The main reason for this is that we don't directly pay for our own water consumption.  The builder of our town-home community only thought it prudent to put in one master meter, and we all just split the cost for water in our HOA dues.  But (good intentions aside) this method doesn't give anyone an incentive to conserve their water habits! If my local government was truly concerned with reducing water consumption they would require each home to have a dedicated water meter.

So what do you think has a bigger impact on my community's water consumption: having everyone read a list of 100 tips or having everyone directly pay for the amount of water they consume?

I'll save you the trouble and tell you the answer: The only way for real conservation methods to take hold is for a societal shift in sustainable thinking (years to decades away) or a regulatory or price signal which would inspire people to conserve (months to years away).

There is always a small portion of the population who eschews the almighty dollar for the pursuit of the common good, but those people are in the vast minority (and probably reading this blog instead of a celebrity gossip blog --- Thanks!).  The truth about human nature is that we don't usually respond to pleads of "but it's the right thing to do".  We respond to economic indicators.  What do you think caused a bigger reduction in oil consumption over the last few years: the Gulf oil spill or extremely high oil prices?  Let me assure you, it wasn't the Gulf oil spill.

Until we can get policymakers to agree to rules and regulations that place the real value on our natural resources that take into account all externalities associated with their production and distribution, consumption habits will be very, very slow to change.

I'm obviously biased because I don't pay directly for water.  Maybe you do and the cost has already inspired you and your family to take drastic conservation measures.  What do you think?  How do we really reach a Sustainable Tipping Point?

(Note: I shared similar thoughts on my post on a Gasoline Tax.)

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Great post. You hit the nail on the head!
I know I love harping how great the Northwest is on conservation, but what we've done for water has been downright amazing. While of course it is the rainy Northwest, our summertime rainfall amounts to less than the Texas panhandle - so we rely on always shifting snowmelt and rivers to supply our water. Over the past 30 years, per capita water consumption of Seattle has halved, and over the same period of time the total consumption has slightly sunk. And on their latest snowpack and water supply data, the last graph lists a very educational set of data showing how well their ongoing conservation efforts are going. The old summer peak ('85-91 ave) for the city was 260 million gallons per day. Last year it was 175 million gallons a day. Even more impressive is that even with all of these increased codes, conservation efforts and programs - typical water bills in the region are still a very affordable $20-40 a month.

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