Water shortages: Honest — they're real

Wrinkles — poster dog for beauty-challenged canines — just brought me home from my daily walk. The sky is clouded, but clearly, spring has sprung. Flowers compete for attention and trees produce pollen by the pound. No rain, but sidewalks are wet and gutters mimic streams. "Sprinklers!" he growls. He hates getting wet and believes water serves no purpose but to wet his delicate palate. What does a dog know?

He doesn't read much; I do. I know how we use it, and how much: Less than 1 percent for cooking and drinking, more for showering, laundry and the like, but better than three-quarters of our water goes for outdoor use. The waste is incredible, but we aren't so wasteful with other utilities. Why?

First, power has a sensory component. We know it's there. We see lights, TV, and the computer monitor. Cool air in the summer, warm in the winter, a humming fridge, and stove burners remind us. With water, we don't see most of what we use.

Secondly, power has a serious cost factor — very serious. Use more, pay more — lots more — and after a point, unit costs increase. That's not always true with water. There is no serious price incentive to encourage conservation.

Thirdly, we don't believe there is a water shortage. We buy boats, taps run, and developers build homes. Rivers and streams still flow. It's the Christmas light thing. Doomsayers warned us of power shortages if we didn't turn out Christmas lights. We called their bluff and the power stayed on. Then, one day there were blackouts, not here, but we saw it on TV and read about it in the papers. We believed.

When this happens with water, it will be too late. There's no speeding up permits for water-generating plants. It's too late for conservation. You can't save what you ain't got and rain dances don't work.

Conservation does work. It's trite to suggest showering with a friend. Shower with a bucket. You'll be amazed how fast that bucket fills. Dump it on the spot in the yard that's always dry.

Some structures on slab foundations have overhead piping that heats during the summer. Getting a glass of cool water means running a gallon of hot water down the drain. Perhaps you've forgotten, you needn't run water when you're brushing your teeth.

Check out low-flow toilets. They work. Today's clothes washers are not only more energy-efficient, many are more water-efficient. The potential for savings is enormous, and it's even greater outdoors.

Start with the lawn. Irrigation is the biggie, and the source of greatest waste is the timer. That nasty little box is the reason you see sprinklers running during rainstorms, or when howling winds blow water into neighboring counties. Get in touch with that box. Touch it with a hammer. Too drastic? Put it in the "rain" or "manual" mode, and cycle it only when your landscape needs water. It's as simple as pushing a button.

We know we aren't supposed to water in the early morning hours. We don't know why, we just do. Well, it's an English thing. England is where we got the idea of having manicured grass surrounding our estates, but we don't have their climate. We can and should water after midnight and before 6 a.m. It's bloody smart. The ground is cooler during those hours and evaporation slows. Water percolates into the soil, which helps plants develop healthy roots. It also shifts power use associated with water pumping to off-peak hours.

Healthy grass roots extend as much as nine inches into the soil, shrubs and trees go deeper. They like deep, infrequent watering. Properly watered, they are not likely to fall victim to the winds that occasionally sweep through the valley. They need less water than you might think and are perfect for drip systems.

We love our shrubs here; rhododendrons, roses, ferns, and aralias are also ideally suited for drip. We kill more plants by drowning than we do by dehydration. Don't go for this bunk about water-efficient plants. Our irrigation habits must be efficient. Our nutritional needs change with the seasons, and it's no different for plants.

We have to conserve water now and change our bad habits. The folks at your water commissions and districts are more than happy to give you tips. Navy showers and dead landscapes are a poor substitute for wise water use. If that's not enough to persuade, consider this: Wrinkles insists on water with his meals.

Dave Walker of Medford operated a landscape company for 20 years and is a former director of the Fair Oaks Water Board in California.

Share This Story