Climate-driven drought is making the once unthinkable foreseeable. Amid water shortages, your faucets could run dry, as has been a possibility in Marin County, California. Violate mandatory water restrictions and you might face steep fines or even a cutoff of service.
With the western United States in the grip of an extreme drought, rivers and reservoirs are at record lows and some water utility districts in California have asked residents to curtail consumption by as much as 40%. A 2019 study found regions across the nation could face water shortages in the coming decades in part due to climate change.
That puts a premium on making homes more resilient to drought by maximizing efficiency and minimizing waste through technologies that monitor consumption and recycle and capture water that would otherwise be lost.
“We’re moving from this infinite abundance mentality to a situation where we have to start reusing water,” says Leigh Jerrard, founder of Greywater Corps, a Los Angeles company that installs recycled water systems.
Know the Flow
The first step toward drought resiliency is figuring out how much water your household uses and pinpointing the sources of consumption.
Until recently, that was difficult. Water was once considered so plentiful that it wasn’t even metered in places like Fresno, California, where until 2010 residents could consume an unlimited amount for a low flat fee. Today, utility bills arrive only every month or quarter, long after water has disappeared down the drain.
Some water districts are installing smart water meters that continuously measure household consumption and beam the data to the utility, which can make the information available online to customers.
If you have a “dumb” meter, you can attach a device called a flow meter to it to track water use in real time and detect leaks. Flow meters measure consumption and send the data to the cloud where it can be accessed through a smartphone app. They typically cost around $200 and some water districts offer rebates to customers who install flow meters.
Marin resident Jeff Davis says his family cut their consumption nearly in half “really without much effort” following the installation of a flow meter called a Flume.
The “biggest eye opener for me was how much the outdoor system was wasting,” he says. “If people knew how many gallons per minute a typical irrigation system lets loose, they would change habits.”
An analysis of data generated by thousands of Flume-equipped single-family homes in California showed that outdoor irrigation accounted for 69.7% of water consumption in 2020, according to Joe Fazio, Flume’s vice president of customer success.
Locate the Leaks
A 2016 study found that about 14% of indoor consumption is lost to leaks and the United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly a trillion gallons of water can be squandered annually.
“Leaks are very pernicious,” says Alice Towey, manager of water conservation at the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland, California. She notes that older houses are particularly susceptible to leaks as are those in earthquake-prone areas.
The East Bay utility district subsidizes flow meters that alert homeowners to leaks and locate the source, whether a defective toilet flap, a hole in an outdoor irrigation system or a garden hose that’s trickling water.
“About 70% of our customers receive a leak notification within 30 days of installing Flume,” says Fazio.
Every home has a source of water that usually goes untapped: greywater.
That’s water from showers, bathroom sinks and washing machines that household plumbing funnels into sewer systems. With some low-tech modifications, that used water can be diverted to irrigate yards and gardens.
Greywater systems can be as simple as a “laundry-to-landscape” configuration where a three-way valve redirects water discharged from a washing machine to piping that distributes it to trees and other vegetation. Such systems typically cost around $2,000 to install, according to Jerrard.
His firm more often builds whole house systems, which involves reconfiguring drain pipes to direct water from bathtubs, showers, bathroom sinks and the laundry to a greywater irrigation system. Such configurations cost around $10,000 and typically save between 10,000 and 50,000 gallons of drinking water a year. That helps households weather mandatory water restrictions imposed during droughts while keeping the garden alive.
But homeowners need to be aware of the quirks of greywater irrigation systems. In California, health regulations prohibit greywater from being stored so it must be used whenever someone takes a shower or does a load of laundry.
It can contain nutrients from phosphates, an organic compound found in some detergents, which is good for plant growth — greywater is particularly well suited for fruit trees — but bad for a home’s existing irrigation, requiring a separate system. Adding filtration to treat greywater allows it be used in a conventional irrigation system. That means if you’re on vacation and greywater is not flowing, the system can tap municipal water.
Unlike other environmentally friendly technologies such as solar energy, greywater systems do not offer much of a financial return on investment, given the low cost of water. The environmental returns, though, can be significant. Greywater systems reduce demand for fresh water and the energy needed to pump it to cities as well as to operate wastewater treatment plants. Keeping nutrient-rich greywater in your yard also keeps phosphates out of rivers, lakes and oceans where they’re harmful to aquatic life.
Make it Rain
As deluge follows drought, there’s growing interest in capturing rainwater flowing off roofs for outdoor irrigation. Some homeowners also are harvesting and storing rainwater as protection against wildfires and as a potential source of drinking water.
Greywater Corps built a project for one well-off customer that included filtration and ultraviolet sterilization of rainwater. “The big draw for the client was that you’d be able to drink the rainwater off his roof in case of some kind of cataclysm,” says Jerrard.
Most clients, though, just want to water their gardens and reduce consumption of drinking water. Even a relatively small 1,200-square-foot roof in a dry region like Southern California can produce around 11,000 gallons annually.
Rainwater harvesting funnels water flowing from downspouts into barrels and tanks or in some cases, underground cisterns. With the addition of filtration and a pump, the tanks can be connected to an existing irrigation system. Installing a UV unit to sterilize the rainwater would allow it to be pumped back into the house for toilet flushing, showering and laundry, which account for about 60% of indoor consumption. Check to see if your local and state regulations permit such use.
Jerrard recommends installing tanks that hold at least 1,000 to 2,000 gallons. Such rain harvesting systems generally cost around $2,000. Some cities and utilities offer subsidies for the purchase of residential rainwater tanks.
“People always think that if there’s an earthquake and water supplies are disrupted, what am I going to do?” says Jerrard. “You can live off rainwater and survive, for sure.”
To contact the author of this story:
Todd Woody in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org
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