What the Desert Can Teach Us About Saving Water

Melissa Daniels

A recent move to Phoenix, Arizona, imbued me with a deep love for the desert landscape: the mountains, the brown dirt, the cacti, and the captivating sunsets. But it also made me more conscious of how I interact with the environment. Without plentiful nearby natural water resources and continued drought conditions in the Southwest, much of the water we use here comes from somewhere else.

Since moving from Los Angeles, I’ve been more aware of my personal water use. And the more I learned—1.5 gallons of water can run through a sink in one minute!—the more I felt my stomach turn over how absent minded I’ve been about the tap. In Arizona, more than one-third of the state’s water comes from the Colorado River where, as reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, two decades of drought have depleted the water levels in the river and shrunk its largest reservoirs.

“There’s a limited amount of water, and in many areas we are seeing water scarcity,” says Heather Cooley, director of research for the Pacific Institute, a think tank that advocates for sustainable water policies. “It’s a resource we really need to protect and ensure that there’s a sufficient amount for both people in ecosystems today and in the future.”

While I love a long, hot shower as much as the next person, living in a place where droughts can stretch on seemingly forever, I wondered how much my personal use could be tamed as part of an overall effort to cultivate a more sustainable lifestyle. Was there anything, even as a single individual, I could change in my life to really make a difference?

Outdoor spaces

Cooley says one of the biggest areas for individuals to conserve water is outdoor landscaping. Here in Phoenix, there are countless neighborhoods full of beautifully manicured grass—and frequently running sprinklers to keep them lush.

“If you look at communities in the west, it’s not unusual for half of water use to be outdoors for, essentially, lawns that people really don’t use that frequently,” Cooley says. “It’s a huge opportunity in terms of water savings.”

Instead of putting in grass, Cooley suggests the increasingly popular trend of climate-appropriate yards full of colorful, low water-use plants. In Phoenix, that often looks like a mix of stones, cacti, and certain types of trees. There’s plenty of options for native greenery and blooms that thrive in the arid desert climate.

While some people might consider a yard full of moss or clover as nontraditional, there’s something uniquely beautiful about these lawns compared to the standard green carpet of grass. And in addition to cutting down on water-use, they can also provide habitat for birds, bees and other native species.

“We’re seeing more and more of these landscapes, it will take time, but I think it is changing the perception about what is a beautiful landscape,” Cooley says.

Appliances and plumbing

Anyone interested in trying to save more water in their daily life should go through their home and check to see whether their appliances are up-to-date for water efficiency. Cooley suggested finding front-loading washing machines that use about half the water of the top-loading kinds. In the bathroom, individuals can cut down on water waste by using water-saving showerheads and dual-flush toilets (flushing is the largest use of water indoors).

“Replacing our appliances and fixtures is something we can all do, and it’s not changing the service our water provides,” Cooley says.

An added bonus to putting those kinds of features in your home: saving water also saves energy, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Watch your waste

Once I opened my eyes to how much water an individual household can use in a day, I started paying attention to when, where, and why I was using water. Even changing my cat’s water dish—she prefers a larger bowl—had me feeling guilty, so I started pouring the old water on the plants on my windowsill instead. Cooley says she uses water collected from her shower as it’s warming up on her houseplants. I also started making a conscious effort to turn off the sink while brushing my teeth, filling a pan with water for washing dishes instead of letting the tap run, and flushing the toilet less frequently.

I also cut down the amount of times I run my washing machine. I started throwing my white clothing in with towels, and so far, no laundry mishaps! But that simple step condenses two cycles (one for clothes, another for towels) into one. If I hypothetically do laundry every two weeks, that’s 26 fewer times a year I’m using my machine! At 14 to 25 gallons a load, that’s 364 to 650 gallons of water saved each year—just by me.

Admittedly, changing appliances and cutting down on lawn water will go a longer way than some of these smaller actions. But these little measures check me on my commitment to living a more sustainable and eco-friendly existence—even if I am not saving a ton of water, I am reminding myself that the resources we use are not unlimited, and carrying that philosophy with me throughout my day.

I’m not alone: Cooley says educating people about water is one major way to help cut back on the amount we use. And overall as a society, we are using less water: improvements in efficiency, due in large part to federal standards passed in the 1990s, have led to a drop in the total water use nationally despite population growth.

“It shows that it’s possible, and it’s happening, but we can make it happen even faster,” Cooley says.