Water-Saving Tips for Real Californians

Jennifer Monahan shares a bit of her local knowledge about conserving water in your daily life.

If you care about the Bay, you care about water use in California. And as the hills turn brown and the drought hits home, we all need to start getting serious about conservation.

As a third-generation Bay Area resident and a sixth-generation Californian, I didn’t grow up thinking that things stay green in summer. And the expectation that you turn the tap and water comes out? That got seriously put to the test when I was a kid in San Anselmo in 1977, when the entire county ran out of water. The MMWD reservoirs were little puddles surrounded by cracked mud, and the only water was piped across the Richmond Bridge. My siblings and I took turns using the same bathwater and when we were done, we used that water to bucket-flush the toilet. My grandma poured her denture water on the houseplants. My mom siphoned the rinse water out of the washing machine to give the apple trees a chance to survive. This was the “uphill both ways” of water conservation. Although I didn’t stay that hardcore—thankfully—the 1977 drought has influenced the way I use water ever since.

With that in mind, here is my list of ways to conserve water, arranged from “least you can do” to “real Californian”.

Level 0: Least you can do
You know you live in an arid state, so you were already doing this before the drought, right?

1. Turn off the tap when brushing your teeth.
2. Only run your washing machine or your dishwasher when they are full.
3. Add an aerator to your sink faucets.
4. Fix leaks.
5. Use a 2.5 gallon-per-minute shower head. (Most shower heads sold in California meet this standard.)
6. Use a broom to clean your driveway and patio. (These days, using the hose to clean your driveway is guaranteed to get you the stink-eye from your neighbors, plus you run the risk of finding yourself hog-tied in your driveway with said hose.)

Level 1: Off to a good start
Simple, free ways to use less water

1. Instead of rinsing your dishes, wipe them with a damp sponge before placing in the dishwasher. Some dishes may need to be soaked, too; use a dishpan for this.
2. Take five-minute showers. Get a shower timer and see if you can “beat the clock”.
3. Put a 2-liter bottle of water in your toilet tank to save water with every flush. (2-liter bottles are the new bricks. Just put some marbles or pebbles in the bottom to keep it stable.)
4. “If it’s yellow, just be mellow.” This is how you spot a Real Californian in a drought. No, you don’t need to let things get smelly. But do you really need to use 3.5 gallons of water for every cup of pee? (Not recommended for workplaces or public restrooms… yet.)
5. Wash your car half as often as you normally do, or less. Dirty cars are a badge of local pride in a drought. Of course, if you’re a Real Californian, you’re thinking “What’s half as often as never?”

Level 2: Getting there
Takes a little time, a little money, or a higher level of commitment.

1. Take Navy showers: turn off the water while soaping.
2. Get a 1.5 gallon-per-minute shower head. They use 40% less water than with a standard 2.5 gpm shower head, and some of them let you “pause” the water so you can take a Navy shower without having to fiddle with the water temperature. Sets you back $20 and takes 10 minutes to install.
3. Install a dual-flush converter for your toilet. The “liquid waste” flush uses less water than the “heavy doody” flush. $20, 10 minutes, no tools required. Adjust your mellowness levels as needed (see #4 above).

Level 3: Real Californian
These water-saving measures require more of a budget and more of a commitment, but you’re here for the long haul, aren’t you?

1. Get a low-flow toilet. A 1.3 gallon-per-flush toilet costs about $150. Installation requires a reasonably strong back and a reasonably strong stomach, but no expertise beyond what you can learn in a YouTube video.
2. Get a front-loading washing machine. They use 40% less water.
3. If you have a garden, make sure it’s drought-tolerant. Native plants are great. And salvias, lavender, bougainvilleas, and most jasmines are just a few of the attractive, drought-tolerant plants out there. Lawns? Not so much. The tradition of lawns arose in places where it rains in summer. California, even in a normal year, is not one of those places. Consider a smaller lawn or no lawn at all.
4. Change your eating habits. That round-the-bend broccoli you just threw out? It took water to grow. Most of the water used in California goes to agriculture, so wasting food = wasting water. Think before you buy, and plan your meals to use what’s in your fridge.
5. Educate your kids about water conservation. The lessons I learned as a five-year-old have saved many, many thousands of gallons of water in the years since.

Jennifer Monahan lives in Berkeley and works in nonprofit communications. You can often find her rowing, riding her bicycle or looking wistfully at her dying lawn.