I think water is our most precious and endangered natural resource. As you can imagine then, water management is a vital undertaking for each and every person — especially in Western Society. Water conservation helps reduce the impact of water pollution and the depletion to our water systems, and is something you can easily do anywhere you go. Water management only takes a little bit of planning and thinking to reduce your water use and become waterwise.
Water management lessons have been my blessing through the years. Waterwise landscaping and water conservation was forced on us during droughts in Oklahoma. Waterwise showering was learned during the Berkeley, California, droughts of '77. But the most intriguing and possibly versatile water conservation training received to date is doing dishes with minimal water.
I had a cabin in the mountains above Boulder that I used as my retreat for many years. It's a one room cabin, with enclosed porch; a coal-/wood-burning stove heated the cabin and cooked my food; there is electricity and cold running water in the summer. It's a great little place.
During the summer I could turn on a spigot, in the “kitchen” sink to get cold, spring water. I had to heat the water before doing dishes with it, for the best result in clean dishes. That taught me a bit of care in my water use. But in the winter I had to collect snow to melt and heat before I could do dishes (at least until the spring opening was discovered and I could trudge through the snow to collect my ice cold water to heat for dishes). Winter-time dishes is when I really given my water conservation lesson. I could do dishes for four with a gallon of water — half for washing and half for rinsing. Initially I was just pleased I didn't have to collect, melt and heat the water to get my dishes clean, but later I realized that was a wonderful lesson in how to save water.
When you have to collect your water, or are on a limited supply, you learn to treat the water with care. Campers and RVers probably share the same passion for ways to conserve water, at least while they are on the road, as I developed at the cabin. Part of the secret is water recycling. And another secret is to adopt that philosophy every where you are.
Now, I don't expect you to move to an undeveloped area and start collecting your own water to join my band wagon of careful water use. But you could start your water conservation program by pretending you have a limited amount of water to work with and teach yourself how to get by with less water, not only for doing dishes but also baths/showers, laundry and lawns, not to mention the other ways we use water on a daily basis. Once it becomes a habit you'll find you conserve water everywhere you go.
Regarding dirty dishes, the big question is which is more water conserving: doing dishes by hand or with a dishwasher? Most people use much more water doing dishes by hand than by using the dishwasher. Germany's Bonn University studied this issue and reports dishwashers are more efficient (though their partner in this was a dishwasher manufacturer, which may have tainted the study) — with water, energy, and soap. One-sixth of the water is used by a dishwasher as by hand, half of the energy is used by a dishwasher, and less soap is used. Of course, that depends on the age of your dishwasher, and it assumes you run a full dishwasher.
The average dishwasher uses six gallons of water per cycle (the average E-Star rated dishwasher uses 4 gallons per cycle). If you have a sink faucet that uses only two gallons of water per minute, and you can run the water for less that three minutes, you can wash dishes as efficiently as an average dishwasher (two minutes of running water gives you a match with an E-Star rated dishwasher). Older dishwashers use more water and energy than new ones do, so that's a factor in your personal analysis on this issue of machine versus hand washing.
Washing dishes is just one way of using water in the kitchen. This is where it gets really exciting and good! There are other sneaky ways water is consumed in the kitchen without you even noticing. Here are a couple of pointers to help you master water conservation in the kitchen:
- Don't leave the water running when you wash by hand.
- Soak dirty pots and pans after use. Put a bit of water on the bottom of the pan and then cover it; the cooked on food “soaks” off like magic.
- Fill two containers with water — one for washing and one for rinsing.
- Run the dishwasher only when its full.
- Don't rinse dishes before placing them in the dishwasher; just remove larger particles and let the dishwasher do its thing.
- Repair leaks, and don't let the faucet drip.
- When you need hot water, catch the cold water and use it for other things. Or heat your water on the stove.
- Use as little detergent as possible because dishes rinse faster.
- Don't defrost food under running water.
- When cleaning vegetables, don't let the water run. Instead rinse them in a pan or sink of water, using the least amount of water possible to get the job done.
- Use the garbage disposal less. That means scraping food scraps either into your trash can or compost pile.
- If you like cold drinking water, keep it in the fridge rather than running the water to bring up the coldest possible water from your faucet.
You may have even more pointers to share, in which case, please do!
This is just one room in your home you can focus on your water management, and it's an important one. Take these lessons and expand them to your bathroom and laundry room to make an even bigger difference.