Tell me to turn my sink off
June 13, 2007 12:59 AM   Subscribe

What's so bad about wasting water?

Hopefully I don't sound too randomly ignorant.

If you aren't paying your water bill, and assuming you don't care about pissing off your landlord, what are the environmental consequences (or otherwise) of wasting water when doing dishes or taking an extra long shower?

Conventional wisdom of course argues against wasting water, but I've been curious lately as to definite reasons why.
posted by ztdavis to Home & Garden (39 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
It depends on where you live.

In some places the source of fresh water is limited, and if there's too much waste, pretty soon there won't be enough for everyone. (San Diego is an example of that.)

In some places there's enough water but it costs a lot. Water in the UAE comes from desalinization plants; quite a lot of energy is required to produce each gallon.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:02 AM on June 13, 2007

Because fresh water is in limited supply. I was reading a recent Vanity Fair article that said one out of three persons on the planet lacks reliable access to fresh water. Wasting water is like wasting food when you know there are hungry people in the world.
posted by gfrobe at 1:15 AM on June 13, 2007

Assuming you're not joking . . .

In many populated areas, there isn't enough water. Take Los Angeles for instance. It imports much of its water from several states based on "deals" negotiated or bullied into existence long ago, leaving the states where the water originated high and dry. Aquifers, the natural water reserves deep underground, are running dry and the water in them isn't replaceable in the short or medium term. When people are forced to go "deeper" for water, they often get worse water and for this and other reasons - like changing weather patterns which cause a need for irrigation, the salinization of land is the result. Plants can't grow in soil with too high a salt level, and our gross mismanagement of water means that much of our best soil will be our worst soil soon.

Many scientists believe that future wars will be fought over water, not oil or land. And they're probably right!

Here's a quote from USA Today:
"More than half of humanity will be living with water shortages, depleted fisheries and polluted coastlines within 50 years because of a worldwide water crisis, warns a United Nations report out Monday."

I'm not an expert in this subject, and someone will probably come along who can put it in a better perspective, but take it from me - just because it runs relatively freely from your tap doesn't mean it's not a precious resource.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:15 AM on June 13, 2007

Because once it has gone through your sink, it's considered grey water, and has to be treated. The environmental effects aren't only upstream, they're downstream as well.
posted by Paragon at 1:19 AM on June 13, 2007 [3 favorites]

NOAA can let you know about drought likelihood in your area; keep in mind that while you might not live there, if your water comes from an area that is experiencing drought, you'd still be affected.

I'd say that the biggest environmental impact of wasting water is a greater need for water in dry times ahead, especially - though indirectly - in places where water isn't potable through a tap or reliable enough to count on. Water here in the US goes to sustain crops that feed the rest of the world.

Also keep in mind that using more than you need is something that we, as a nation, have received a lot of flak from other countries about, regardless of your opinion about the reality on this matter, so if you travel abroad and you want to be able to say that at least in your home, you're doing your part to preserve the environment, that might be a reason to save water.

Finally, I plan on having kids, and it would be nice to not have to bathe them in sand. TIA.
posted by mdonley at 1:25 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

PS: I lived without safe drinking water for a year in Indonesia, and it totally sucked. Totally, completely, 100% sucked. And the bottled water companies there, I imagine, have an interest in keeping it that way.
posted by mdonley at 1:26 AM on June 13, 2007

I recently moved to a house that's on a well and septic system, and am surprised to find myself still thoroughly hectored to conserve water. Why, I have no idea; if you're randomly ignorant, it's widespread -- nobody has been able to explain it to me yet.
posted by kmennie at 1:28 AM on June 13, 2007

I live in South East Queensland where we are experiencing the worst drought in 100 years. Nobody believed it much until they noticed that at the rate we were going, the dams were going to run out and leave over 2 million people without water. So now, people are encouraged to use no more than 140 litres a day, to have showers lasting less than 4 minutes, to use grey water (from the laundry) on the garden and not allowed to wash the outside of the house or their car or hose down their driveway. If it still doesn't rain in any quantity in the meantime, there is some doubt about there being enough water to drink before the desalination facilities currently being built come online.

So what if you don't have a drought? The more water people use, the bigger storage you require for your community. Every dam means someone's land or fields or soemthing's habitat going under water. It means community contributing towards the building and the maintenance of the dam and the pipes etc.

I don't grow vegetables any more. Oh sure, I'm allowed to water them, if I'm prepared to bucket water to them every second day between the hours of 4 and 6pm only.
posted by b33j at 1:32 AM on June 13, 2007 [4 favorites]

When local demand exceeds local supply, the consequences are often a lowering of the quality of the tap-water for everyone, and a raising of the price of the water for everyone.

In addition to this, the lowered quality means that many people will want to stop drinking the tapwater, at which point water filters and bottled water add to costs, etc.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:33 AM on June 13, 2007

on the other hand... in the south east of England almost every year year are told a drought is ahead.. and yet and yet.. there's plenty of fresh water in this country - just not in the south east - and the water infrastructure is crumbling after years of neglect. so when they tell us not to waste water, what they actually are asking is for us to spare the blushes of those who have creamed off profits, instead of investing properly in the system
posted by ascullion at 1:42 AM on June 13, 2007

Many scientists believe that future wars will be fought over water, not oil or land.

This is very, very likely.
posted by dreamsign at 1:43 AM on June 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

Many scientists believe that future wars will be fought over water, not oil or land.

People do fight over water, at least as part of their reasons. Some even fight with water. See here for a primer on Israel/Palestine. Also, Kashmir is an important watershed for both India and Pakistan. Both conflicts are of course very complex, but water is such a need that it is undoubtedly one of the root causes if not the root cause.

China has been having many internal 'wars' over water as well.

There must be others, but I'm not terribly current on the topic. Part of the problem is that news organizations rarely, if ever, report on water in any sort of coherent fashion. Water just isn't as sexy as a simplified, brutal land-grab or a concocted clan rivalry.

Sorry for the hasty links. Too tired to be comprehensive.
posted by a_green_man at 2:31 AM on June 13, 2007

A simple mapped overview of the world water crisis from the BBC.
posted by Nugget at 2:36 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you lived in Australia, particularly Queensland, you wouldn't be asking this question. That continent has always gone through wet/dry cycles, but it's now in one of the most extended droughts in its history.

It depends on the source, of course. If your ultimate source of fresh water is replenished, then you only have to worry about demand outstripping the available annual supply. This is the situation for the Great Lakes basin, for example. Right now there's plenty of water for everyone who lives there, and water is strictly prohibited by treaty from leaving the basin except for certain historical exceptions, like the Chicago River reversal that sends water from Lake Michigan down the Mississippi. On the other hand, right now, if you get your water from the lakes directly -- as Chicago does -- your "waste" just goes back into the lake, just a tad dirtier. (See grey water, above.)

But many parts of the U.S. are less lucky. My town gets water from an aquifer that -- at present consumption -- is estimated to have 250 or more years left. It's replenished to some extent by groundwater. I could waste that water, but whether I do or not, in a couple of centuries the aquifer will run dry and my descendants might have a problem.

In other places the aquifer life is measured in many fewer decades. When the Oglala aquifer under many of the prairie states runs dry, and it will unless drastic action is taken, the "corn belt" is going to dry up and blow away.

Some places depend entirely on snowmelt water. Climate change means that there's less snow each winter -- fewer cold days to freeze it and store it at the top of mountains, more warm days for it to run down to the sea -- and those supplies are becoming endangered.

One "solution" is building more dams and reservoirs to hold water for human use. This has its own environmental side-effects (do you know that the Hetch Hetchy reservoir for Los Angeles inundated a valley just as beautiful as Yosemite?), and increasingly competes with hydroelectric uses.

And there's really hardly words broad enough to encompass the extent to which Los Angeles is drinking up the water resources of a multi-state region.

So, unless you live in Chicago, you're probably wasting water that you really, really, really shouldn't. Not that it's free in Chicago either.
posted by dhartung at 2:45 AM on June 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

If you aren't paying your water bill, and assuming you don't care about pissing off your landlord, what are the environmental consequences (or otherwise) of wasting water when doing dishes or taking an extra long shower?

I'd say it's more of an economic consequence in the end. Environmental reasons would lead to shortage, therefore to higher prices, and then to water haves and have-nots. So.. the result of you using your money to "overuse" or "waste" water would ultimately result in higher prices, and poorer people not getting access to water.

Consider if all rich people thought residential property was a great investment (rather than stock), and attempted to buy every cheap house on the market. Also consider few new houses are being built (lack of new supplies, as with water). You'd end up with a situation where house prices rocket and the average person is unable to buy a house. This actually happened in the entirety of the UK in the past ten years.

Greedy overuse or overspeculation of a commodity leads to haves and have-nots of that commodity. With water, we really don't want to get to that point.
posted by wackybrit at 2:49 AM on June 13, 2007

Even in places where water is abundant, it costs energy and chemical impact to treat water to make it suitable for the American tap.

War has frequently been fought over water. This is nothing new and is unlikely to ever go away.
posted by Goofyy at 3:13 AM on June 13, 2007

Because of the drought, and the water police.
posted by pompomtom at 3:17 AM on June 13, 2007

Best answer: Two to three percent of the world's energy is used to pump and treat water. Additionally, excessive water usage will just be reflected in an increase in the rental cost of all the units which will impact you unless there are a lot of units.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:20 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

There's a drought going on in the US as well today, not just Australia, so there's your key reason for conserving water right there.

More than water itself, its been interesting to see the mountain of PET bottles that water comes in and how only 30% or so of them are recycled - the latest being school uniforms made of old plastic bottles.
posted by infini at 3:25 AM on June 13, 2007

I recently heard that Coke, Pepsi and Nestlé own the rights to most of the fresh water in the US. This troubles me.

On the other hand, I have water coming out of the ground in my yard. (In fact, there's enough pressure that I have a small fountain) Should I be 'conserving' that water? Am I wasting it by letting it flow through my yard, to the brook, to the river, to the lake, to the river to the sea? And (with a well and septic system) how much different is that from just watering my lawn?
posted by MtDewd at 4:42 AM on June 13, 2007

Just on water availability, this presentation by your municipal water utility is pretty interesting. Your area has had four droughts in the 20th century- 1947-48, 1951-53, 1964-65 and 1988. It may not be as plentiful as it seems.

That aside, power's necessary to keep water clean and coming out of your tap. Power == pollution.
posted by zamboni at 5:13 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner is an excellent book about water in the American west. This week NPR's Morning Edition is focusing on this issue, starting this morning with a story about obtaining water for Las Vegas, and about the competition for water between urban and agriculture users.
Water is being withdrawn from the Ogallala Aquifer (which supplies water to 8 western states) at a rate of about 100 times the natural resupply rate, and about the same ratio applies to the Great Lakes. Essentially agriculture in many states is a mining operation, and is in no way sustainable. What to do? One option is to invade Canada. By separating the James Bay from the Hudson bay with a dam, the James Bay would become a freshwater lake. A pipeline or a canal from there to West Texas would take care of things once the Ogallala runs out.
posted by Killick at 5:15 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

well, because once the water evaporates into the atmosphere, you can't control where it goes and how to retrieve it. so it goes from an aquifer--where it is readily available and in a stable location--through the city water system, into your apartment, thence into the sewer, and thence into some dumping area where it evaporates and then turns into rain that falls..not neccessarily back into the aquifer. it's not a big deal if you live somewhere with good rain, but if you live in an arid or very hot area, it can become a problem as you deplete the aquifer.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:29 AM on June 13, 2007

The reason to conserve water in places where the marginal cost of water and sewage treatment is low (e.g., metro Boston, which has a gravity-fed and lightly-filtered water supply from the massive Quabbin Reservoir) is to conserve the energy used to heat the water.
posted by backupjesus at 5:30 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

You've already heard from some other Australians. I'll just chime in that as an American living Down Under, it's been really eye-opening to have to live with the water restrictions we have down here. (And this is in Sydney, a long way away from Queensland.) When every week brings another newspaper cover story about how the levels in the dams keep dropping; and how no matter how much rain falls, it never seems to go in the catchment areas; and how the issue of "recycled water" has actually become an election issue here... you start to become really conscious of how important water conservation is.

Plus if they catch you breaking one of the restrictions, you get an instant $220 fine.
posted by web-goddess at 5:58 AM on June 13, 2007

Might your landlord decide to change the lease to make you responsible for your own water bills next time you renew it?
posted by skryche at 6:43 AM on June 13, 2007

Water has to be washed at some point, like nearly everything else. Regardless of how freely available it may appear to be, to get to the cleaner stuff, we still have to "pay" for it, one way or another.
posted by Smart Dalek at 7:00 AM on June 13, 2007

If you live somewhere where water is sourced from a local supply that's unlikely to dry up, there's less immediate concern. But every drop of water that comes through you faucet has been filtered and purified for safe use. That process is not free and you're encouraging the consumption of more of the materials used to filter and cleanse the water. Additionally, assuming you're not saving the water in a giant tub, you're pumping more wastewater through the system that must likely be processed before going back into the waterway.

My grandparents recently (within the last decade) had their house hooked up to a rural water system that's run from the city's water works. In the past, they were dependent on a well like many of the posters in this thread, with a key difference: their well tends to run dry several times a year. At that point they'd have to haul water for cattle and themselves. So if your water source is at all limited, you might be causing others to expend more energy and resources to get their water, even if you're not.
posted by mikeh at 7:01 AM on June 13, 2007

If this is true then how is it even remotely legal or economicaly doable for people to waste who knows how many millions of gallons of water just watering their lawns and gardens? Its funny that we're telling people to use less water when they bathe but see 10 sprinkers running on the way to work. Or an open hydrant. There's something fishy here.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:06 AM on June 13, 2007

damn dirty ape: that's because some people believe that personal responsibility is the most important factor in the conservation of our environment, while others believe that only top-down regulation of broad patterns of use can help. Of course there's a middle ground, and from my point of view, if you can teach everybody that waste is a bad idea, no matter at what scale and what cost, then the chances of electing politicians who hold the same values on a large scale becomes more likely. So, while biking to work, or not eating as much meat, won't actually change anything on the global scale, making people aware of the issues at play is still important. If you can convince people to turn their tap off a little earlier while brushing their teeth, you might eventually get consensus on not opening up the fire hydrant.
posted by one_bean at 7:23 AM on June 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

The environmental consequences of wasting water while washing dishes or taking a shower, while still important, are rather much less important than the environmental consequences of heating that water before use. The energy that goes into the water is most likely (in the US) directly or indirectly from a fossil fuel source, which means carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants.
posted by ssg at 7:26 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

I recently heard that Coke, Pepsi and Nestlé own the rights to most of the fresh water in the US. This troubles me.

That's silly. You think they picked up all rights to the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River, and the Columbia River?

posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:37 AM on June 13, 2007

dhartung: ".... One "solution" is building more dams and reservoirs to hold water for human use. This has its own environmental side-effects (do you know that the Hetch Hetchy reservoir for Los Angeles inundated a valley just as beautiful as Yosemite?), and increasingly competes with hydroelectric uses...."

Though I seldom would defend Los Angeles (especially on water usage), I feel compelled to mention that Hetch Hetchy provides water to San Francisco. For more info, including a discussion on the controversy, read the Wikipedia article on the O'Shaughnessy Dam. LA's water has traditionally come from the Owens River Valley and the Colorado River (via Hoover Dam).

I would also second the recommendation above for Cadillac Desert. While somewhat dated, it's a fascinating look at water management (and dam/reservoir development) in the western US.
posted by JMOZ at 8:08 AM on June 13, 2007

While there is certainly plenty of water getting used in sort of ridiculous ways, I don't think you can really single out Los Angeles. Is it more of waste to spend milions to make a region like LA habitable then to make the high desert a good place to grow subsidized wheat? Nthing the "Cadillac Desert" reccomendation, and I'd also add in "Water and Power" and "Imperial San Francisco" for the politics behind the the twin poles of CA urbanity.

Paraphrasing "Cadillac Desert," if you live in the East, water is considered wasted if you leave the tap open too long, if you live in the West, it is considered wasted if it doesn't get used for human industry before it runs uselessly into the ocean. Somewhere between those two is probably the resonable answer to your question.
posted by mzurer at 8:30 AM on June 13, 2007

I remember the exact minute that I resolved to start conserving water in my home. It was when I learned that the Colorado River no longer reaches the ocean, due to all the dams and diversions that humanity has placed upon it to water cities and crops. It's hard (for me, at least) to imagine an underground aquifer drying up, but knowing that a river that big just peters out before reaching its natural outlet, thanks to people . . . It's stunning. And scary. And sad.

I don't live anywhere near the Colorado River watershed, but this example really brought home to me how much of an effect we're having on the environment - and how screwed we're going to be when we run out of water. Check out this article on the Colorado River Delta at wikipedia. You can google around for confirmation, if you don't trust WP.
posted by vytae at 8:35 AM on June 13, 2007

Water needs to be pumped to your house, and this takes electricity and pumping stations. So there's waste of energy. Bear in mind that clearing up and pumping the sewerage after the water has passed through you/your house also takes energy. Pipes wear out (they burst), and need to be replaced, and it takes energy to both make and fit them. So it makes sense not to stress them unnecessarily by wasting water.

I live in an area with more than its fair share of water. It falls from the sky on a depressingly frequent basis, and we even have the problem of natural springs occasionally opening up in random spots. I've always found the concept of "wasting water" a little silly because of this, although people I know often talk about it. If an argument is to be made for "saving water" then we need to be more specific about the reasons, or we're into the area of superstition.
posted by humblepigeon at 8:54 AM on June 13, 2007

Regarding Chicago, I live near enough to go to Lake Michigan on a regular basis. Sometimes the beaches are closed due to contamination. It costs money/energy to clean the fresh water we drink.
posted by IndigoRain at 5:11 PM on June 13, 2007

dda: "Its funny that we're telling people to use less water when they bathe but see 10 sprinkers running on the way to work."

It is. Here in Western Australia, you're only allowed to water at night, and only on particular days of the week. In other areas, the restrictions are more severe -- no automatic sprinklers at all, and hand-watering during restricted hours. And you're fined if you break the rules.

Fair enough, too, I reckon.
posted by robcorr at 10:05 PM on June 13, 2007

At least here in England, the wastage is in the form of leaky pipes. Perhaps that's why, even though there's always a hosepipe ban every summer, the park is always muddy.
posted by happyturtle at 11:55 AM on June 17, 2007

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