OK, Coloradans, let’s clear the shampoo out of our eyes: Your shower water is likely connected to the Colorado River water supply crisis. But can you really help by conserving water at home?
In recent years, two decades of drought and prolonged overuse have brought the Colorado River Basin’s largest storage reservoirs to the brink of collapse. The crisis is reaching Coloradans’ lives in the form of summer lawn watering restrictions, higher utility bills and even a shortage of Sriracha. Some cities have bought agricultural water rights for more municipal water, and people with junior water rights often have their water supply cut in dry years.
Water experts say Colorado residents can help with the crisis, and they have plenty of tips to help the conservation-minded Coloradan start saving water at home. One drawback: In many cases, there’s no guarantee that in-home savings help refill the system’s struggling reservoirs.
“It’s like, OK great, our city is now saving 10% of what it was using,” said Gregor MacGregor, a water law expert at the University of Colorado. “The question is, what is your city going to do with that 10%? Are they going to leave it in the Colorado River Basin? Are they going to leave it in a reservoir for drought conditions? Or are they simply going to divide that savings out to build more and then use that savings on new development?”
The average American family uses more than 300 gallons of water per day at home, and about 70% of that use is indoors. In the arid West, states have some of the highest per capita residential water use because of landscape irrigation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
In Colorado, water users run through 5.43 million acre-feet of water per year. One acre-foot supports two families of four to five people for one year.
Of that, 90%, or about 4.8 million acre-feet, is used by the agriculture industry. About 380,000 acre-feet is used in cities and towns, and of that, only about 46% goes to indoor water uses like toilets, faucets, laundry machines and showers.
That means that the impact of in-home water conservation is going to be limited in the grand scheme of water use in the Colorado River Basin, where the amount of water stored in reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead has declined dramatically.
“While the bulk of that water to help prevent Lake Powell from collapsing will come from agriculture, cities need to do their part,” said John Berggren, senior regional water policy analyst for Western Resource Advocates. “Municipalities’ water use matters. It’s small … but it matters.”
How does water get used, and wasted, in homes?
Home water use falls primarily into two categories: indoor and outdoor.
In Colorado, residents tend to use more water outdoors watering their lawns and gardens. That’s led to the rise of water-wise landscaping efforts, like those currently being showcased at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Indoors, Colorado residents use about 60 gallons per capita each day. That leaves them with plenty of opportunities for conservation — and accidental waste.
In 2016, toilets were the main culprits of water use in homes nationwide, using 24% of household water, followed by showers, 20%; faucets, 19%; and washing machines, 17%, according to the EPA.
Americans use more than 1 trillion gallons of water each year just for showering. The average shower is eight minutes, which means it uses more than 16 gallons of water at 2.1 gallons per minute.
Letting your faucet run for five minutes while washing dishes can waste 10 gallons of water. Each year, household leaks waste nearly 900 billion gallons of water nationwide, which is enough to supply water to 11 million homes. And about 50% of the water used outside is lost because of wind, evaporation and runoff from inefficient irrigation systems, according to the EPA.
“We’re now in a world where feet matter in Lake Powell. Drops of water matter because we’re on a knife’s edge. When you’re in that tight of a spot, every single water use matters. No matter how small,” Berggren said.
How can you cut back on water use at home?
There are a few simple ways to cut back on water use at home, including some Colorado-specific programs.
Yes, taking shorter showers can decrease water use and cut back on your water bill. The EPA says that, if all 300 million people in the U.S. reduced their shower time by one minute each time, the country could save 170 billion gallons each year.
Turning off the tap while brushing your teeth can save 8 gallons of water per day, and only running the dishwasher when it’s full can save the average family about 320 gallons of water per year, according to the EPA.
But Berggren says rather than changing habits — which we all know can have a hit-or-miss success rate — he’d start with making purchases, like a more efficient shower fixture.
The EPA says households can boost their water efficiency by 20% when residents switch to products with WaterSense labels. And a shower that lasts for five minutes using a low-flow showerhead uses 12 gallons of water, according to a 2014 Colorado State University water use fact sheet.
Similar savings are possible with toilets: Those made before 1993 use 3.5 to 8 gallons per flush, while high efficiency toilets made after 1993 use 1.6 gallons per flush or less. That means a family of four can save 14,000 to 25,000 gallons per year by switching to more efficient toilets. (The date of manufacture of most toilets is on the underside of the tank lid.)
Updating your washing machine can also make a big difference. Conventional, top-loading washing machines use 35 to 50 gallons per load. Newer front-loading machines use 18 to 20 gallons per load, according to CSU.
What about reusing water in your home?
For those who have updated their appliances and are careful about water use around the house, there’s a way to take at-home efficiency a step further: grey water reuse.
These systems capture grey water — the runoff from showers, bathroom sinks and laundry machines — and then use it for other purposes, like watering ornamental plants outside or flushing toilets, at the same location. This water can contain dirt, oil, greases, lint and possibly human pathogens, so don’t use it to drink or water your vegetables, experts say.
Laundry-to-landscape systems installed by homeowners, which capture washing machine water for outdoor irrigation, can cost as little as $350, said Jon Novick, the environmental administrator for the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment.
Whole house systems pipe water from showers and bathroom sinks through a treatment process and then send it to toilets to provide water for flushing. The system alone can cost $6,000 to $8,000, not including installation costs, so they’re more feasible for new houses or developments with multiple units, Novick said. They’re often cost prohibitive for existing homes.
These systems also come with a catch: Local governments need water rights that allow for reuse, which limits the adoption of grey water programs, and new installations are only legal if the local government has officially approved grey water reuse. People with pre-existing systems should check with their local programs to see if their system can be grandfathered in.
As of July, six local governments have approved grey water reuse, including the city and county of Denver, Pitkin County, Fort Collins, Grand Junction and Golden.
Those who draw water from wells will need to check their permits. Exempt well permits, for example, do not allow reuse of indoor water for outdoor irrigation.
If a grey water system saves 25 gallons per day and is installed in 500,000 homes, it could save 14,000 acre-feet per year. That’s enough water to supply 28,000 homes, Novick said.
But the counties that have approved grey water ordinances have seen little uptake. As of June, Denver had approved 30 systems; Castle Rock, 29 systems; and Pitkin County, zero, according to each county’s program manager.
But … does it really help the Colorado River crisis?
Whether water efficiency measures translate into conservation in the Colorado River Basin depends on factors ranging from where a resident lives to local water management decisions.
Water pulled from the Colorado River Basin on the Western Slope never returns to the basin. Front Range residents could use less water in the hope that more water could stay on the Western Slope, but there are no incentives for Front Range water providers to give up such a valuable resource because of water savings, said MacGregor, the water law expert at CU.
“Anyone who pockets (water) savings can make a ton of money by selling those savings to another water user,” he said. “The question is, what is the mechanism for leaving water on the Western Slope through conservation?”
Even if a water efficiency program is enormously successful, cities and towns can still choose to use their water savings toward building new developments, rather than leaving them in reservoirs.
“This is the really frustrating part of what’s happened in a lot of areas. It’s like, you look at it, and efficiency has increased per capita, use has decreased over time, but we’re still susceptible to drought,” MacGregor said. “It’s because we’re not actually banking those savings.”
If at-home water efficiency measures are adopted widely, and the unused water is conserved for the future, those savings can help storage at local reservoirs and even help meet environmental and ecological needs by keeping more water in streams. It could even be used by downstream water rights holders who might have their supply cut off earlier in a dry year.
But there’s no guarantee that the water will reach the Colorado River’s main storage reservoirs, like Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border. That would require complicated, interstate legal and administrative procedures — an option being explored by Colorado.
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Experts are adamant: Residents should still try to use water efficiently at home.
If Colorado residents are more efficient in their water use, then cities and towns could pull less water from rivers and streams on the front end, which leaves water in the stream for others. Landscapes could be better able to withstand wet and dry years with the addition of native plants. Treatment plants spend less money on treating water before releasing it, which could help with water bills, experts say.
“This isn’t a situation that there’s going to be one thing that’s going to solve the problem. It’s more of a case of incremental change, so every little bit helps,” Novick said. “If you’re saving a gallon of water by taking a shorter shower, or two gallons of water — if everyone were to do that … all of that would add up. We have to think of this more holistically.”