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Using the Drought to Conserve Water
Thursday, May 7, 2015
California is going into the fourth year of a severe drought and slightly less serious drought conditions are found across the Southwest, in northern Texas, and to a lesser extent, in the Upper Midwest and New England. Link

The drought is affecting agriculture and people in general. Its effects on fish and wildlife get less attention, but they are also very significant.

As lakes, streams and reservoirs, decrease, habitat for fish and waterfowl, as well as water for other wildlife decreases. In some cases entire lakes and streams are drying up, but even if bodies of water are not completely gone, as wetlands decrease, waterfowl are drawn into closer contact. This can lead to outbreaks of diseases including avian botulism and cholera. Link

In addition to less water for fish, as water levels drop, water temperatures increase and levels of oxygen decrease. This can result in fish kills and decreased spawning success. And, some lakes have simply gone dry.

Theories on the cause of the drought include global warming, changing ocean currents, natural weather cycles, etc. Rather than getting into the debate among meteorologists, the drought is happening. There is a definite need to figure out how to make the best of things to protect farmers, homeowners, and fish and wildlife, should it continue. Why not use the drought to find some ways to help alleviate water shortage problems in the future?

These are some strategies to increase conservation and use the water we have wisely.

1) Tapping groundwater -- When droughts occur, one solution is to increase pumping groundwater from aquifers. Drawing down the water table can result in even more problems as water supplies become harder to access, and water levels in lakes and wetlands drop. This approach is even more questionable if there are oil refineries in the area using fracking, which consumes large amounts of water and can impair water quality. -- Link

2) Conservation – Many efforts are underway to increase conservation of water supplies, including water-saving shower heads, washing machines, toilets, mulching gardens, etc. Some cities are giving away low flush toilets to people who can install them without plumbers. (Link) Private swimming pools in some areas may not be filled by municipal supplies, or people will have install measures to conserve water in them. Gardens and watering lawns may be heavily restricted. It all helps. Using a variety of conservation measures Santa Barbara has reduced water use by 22% in the last two years Link

3) Desalination – 97.5% of the world's water is in the oceans. Along the coasts, desalination, removing dissolved salt from water by chemical processing or evaporation to create potable water, is one possibility. Desalination has been around since the days of ancient Rome. (Link) It's possible but expensive, and with existing technology only about half of the water brought into a plant becomes potable. (Link) The remaining salts have to be disposed.

4) Fix leaky pipes -- According to a recent report https://www.ceres.org/ the United States loses 6 billion gallons of treated water per day –14% of the country's daily water usage– due to leaky pipes. Part of the problem of people not fixing leaks has been that the price of water is not that high. In times of drought, some cities are fixing leaky pipes for free.

5) Re-use water – Cities draw water from lakes, streams and underground water. People use it, the water goes into wastewater drains and ultimately is directed to a treatment plant. Generally treated water goes into a river or lake, or the groundwater table, where it may later be re-used by someone else. The more treatment that's required to have safe water, the greater the cost. This is already in use in many places, but the cost increases according to how much treatment is required.

6) Rainwater Conservation -- Rain falls over large areas, the runoff going into lakes and river, or groundwater, as well as evaporation. In cities rain and snow fall on roofs and streets. Normally this water flows into drains, picking up oil and other chemicals along the way, and ultimately ends up in sewage treatment plants. When cities have separate storm sewers and sewage sewers, it's possible to treat the stormwater, and then either direct it into potable water systems, return it to reservoirs or direct it to agriculture. For homes, with some adjustments to plumbing, the "gray water" that comes out of a sink or shower can be re-used in gardens and lawns. Link

7) Cisterns -- The average person uses about 80/100 gallons per day of water, primarily for flushing toilets, bathing, and washing clothes. Water for drinking and cooking is less than a gallon per day. For an initial investment and then minimal upkeep, each homeowner can augment the existing municipal water supply system by capturing rain or snowmelt and storing in a cistern. This is a strategy that can definitely decrease the amount of water drawn from reservoirs, which are also fish and wildlife habitat.

With minimal treatment cistern water can be made safe for washing dishes, or showers. This same water can also be used for gardens and lawns without need for any purification.

Modern Cistern Storage (Wickipedia photo)
Personal cistern home water storage systems are not costly. Homes already come with roofs and gutters to direct rainwater flow. Putting a piece of screen over the gutter as water comes off the roof keeps out leaves, rodents and insects. The water then is directed to a cistern, which can be either above ground or underground. After the initial cost of installation, there's very little cost of upkeep. A simple rain barrel system to catch water coming off the roof for watering plants will cost less than $100. Cistern tanks range in size from a couple hundred gallons to as much as 10,000 gallons, and you can always have multiple tanks. Plastic cistern tanks cost about $.50 per gallon, concrete ones can run about $1.00 a gallon to metal tanks at $4.00 a gallon. A water pump costs about $400 for a low-end pump to more than $1,000 for combined high-end pump and pressure tank.  Special filters can be installed to purify water for all uses except drinking. Link

The average household spends about $300 a year on water, so after 3-4 years, the cistern will be saving you money, and it will insure you a lot more water to work with. Link

If you want to make your own potable water system from cistern storage, filtration/disinfection can cost up to $1,000 or more. However, you can buy drinking water at an increasing number of grocery stores or water supply stores for less than 50 cents a gallon.

The drought will make things tough on people, fish and wildlife, and agriculture in the short run, but it can motivate us to take steps to make better use of the water that is available and that will make things easier in the future for everyone, including fish and wildlife.

--James Swan

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