Your water usage doesn’t hold water

Dear DumbAgent,

My extreme-recycling, hybrid-driving, local-produce buying girlfriend keeps scolding me for wasting water when I leave the tap water running or wait for the shower to warm up. She says I’m ruining the environment and wasting precious water. I wanted to research the veracity of these statements, but most people I ask seem to have some sort of agenda. What does economics have to say about this? Are there any concrete numbers? Am I really ruining the environment?

James Arthur,
Scarsdale, NY

Dear James,

I’m afraid your girlfriend is incredibly right on both counts: You are ruining the environment AND you’re wasting water. However, your girlfriend is the bigger enemy of the environment: There is a difference between being A) Someone who cares for and is saving the environment and B) just following certain norms that allow you to stop thinking but actually do more harm than good. The person who tells you not to keep your tap water running, or to skip a shower, or even to be parsimonious with your lavatory flushing, and who is then buying produce from their local farmers, falls squarely under B.

40% of water usage in the United States is for farmers, another 40% is for power generation, while only 8% is for household consumption. Actually, only 5% is for ‘indoor’ household consumption.
Interestingly, of the water you use in your house, about 75% goes back in the system and is then reutilized. The reutilization rate is 98% with power generation, but only 40% for farmers.

In other words, you running your water makes a miniscule difference in the scope of things. On the other hand, your patronizing of local farmer produce keeps them farming, which does much more harm for the environment. If you want to go green, it’s good to start by using your brain rather than social convention, and tell your girlfriend you’ll turn the tap off once she starts buying global.

10 thoughts on “Your water usage doesn’t hold water

  1. Adam Forni

    To Dumbagent: It sounds like you have developed an overseas supercrop that can grow without water. Nice. Let’s fire all the farmers.

    James’ question was whether he was ruining the environment. Yes, most of the water we use in residences is reutilized; that process uses energy (think CO2 release) but a relatively small amount. It takes much more energy to heat up the water — 14% of that used in the home according to the DOE, 2009. How much you are harming the environment depends on your heat source (gas or electric), efficiency, etc. Good rules of thumb to minimize losses include upgrading to a more efficient water heater and installing your water heater as close as possible to the fixtures served. There have been great leaps in technology lately so investigate what’s available if you are interested in saving energy, $, and the environment. There are also many resources including DOE, NREL, EREC, and many private firms.

  2. Ocean Post author

    Re: “overseas supercrop that can grow without water”: I wish. But due to the high water usage, and the low reutilitzation rate of water in farming, I’d think encouraging more local farmers in every town, county and locality could do much more harm to the environment than letting tap water run.

    Those are interesting points you bring up about heating water, however. I guess it would behoove James not to heat his water too much if he’s letting it run, and to have his heater as close as possible to the fixtures. Am I correct in judging by your website that this is one of the services you provide?

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  6. Bahattin

    … it depends on the qliauty of your tap water. We use water straight out of our kitchen tap (or the daycare tap). I carry a bottle of bottled water in the diaper bag for making bottles when we are out and about. I had checked with our peditrician when we started formula to make sure it was acceptable to use tap water and based on our community water the response was “Yes”.

  7. Ocean Post author

    Bahattin: Then I would recommend you use the water and not feel guilty about it. If someone says not to use tap water just send them to this post!

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