I spent a week exploring how we’ll have to live in post-water America

Cutting water consumption requires more consideration than you'd think
Scoles My Week water dump
Matt Nager

One Saturday morning in December, I drank half as much coffee as usual and then, ­dull-eyed, walked to a hardware store to purchase the 18-gallon ­storage container I would use to take showers for the next seven days. Because for one week, I was going to shrink my water footprint to see how that small shoe felt.

Much of my home state of Colorado is in a drought. Last May, when I moved to Denver, where I share an apartment with my sister, Rebekah, the locals promised me snow by October. None fell till mid-November. Rainfall was about half the amount normal for fall. I’d come from California, where drought is so severe that lawns have turned brown and swimming pools go unfilled. Colorado isn’t that bad yet. Neither is most of the U.S. But while we’ve largely been spared, a big chunk of the world is struggling. In some places, it is our carbon that is melting their glaciers and shriveling their lakes. So I decided to find out what an average citizen—me, you—could do here at home.

How often you and I turn on the tap would hardly seem to make a dent. Of the 355 billion gallons of water that wash through American pipes daily, less than 10 percent is for domestic use. Thermoelectric power accounts for nearly half of the total, while irrigation amounts to a third. Much of the rest goes to livestock, aquaculture, and mining.

But did you ever think about how much water your shirt uses? Not just to wash it, but the amount that went into making it? Then there’s the water that feeds the food you eat and helps produce the gas that makes your car go.

In other words, our individual choices add up to an enormous demand as a society—664 billion gallons per day. In a 2014 Government Accountability Office study, water managers in 40 out of 50 states said they expect shortages in their states in the next 10 years. By late last year, nearly a third of the contiguous U.S. was in moderate to exceptional drought, the latter defined as widespread crop loss, shriveling reservoirs, and water-shortage emergencies.

I decided to see how low one person could go to ease the problem, and whether that could make a difference.

Feeling overwhelmed by all the complicating factors, I walked back to my apartment, big blue bucket in hand, and set it on the living room floor while I used an online ­calculator to tabulate how much water I had consumed— directly and indirectly—in the heedless days before this one.

The result: 1,320 gallons per day, compared with the American average of 2,088 gallons per day.

Well, congratulations to me.

I took the bucket into the bathroom, plunked it in the tub, and got ready to go lower.

Then I headed to the kitchen.

You are the water you eat

I knew that changing the way I ate would make the ­biggest difference. It takes 500 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of chicken. The same amount of beef needs 1,840 gallons. A single egg floats on 50, while a half-pound of cheese can take as much as 350.

Going vegan was the obvious solution. To help me plan, I invited my friend Tasha Eichenseher, an editor who helped create National Geographic’s water-use calculator, over for dinner the first night. She gave me some general guidelines. “No meat or dairy,” she said. Food should be “locally sourced to avoid transportation water footprints.” An average tractor-trailer can go only 6 miles on one gallon of fuel. For every 6 miles cargo travels, it sucks up 13 gallons of water. And then came more considerations: “Small portions so there is no waste,” Eichenseher said. “Minimal cooking. Minimal packaging. No diuretics.”

“OK,” I said, and then simply googled “drought-friendly recipes.” Luckily for me, television chef Nathan Lyon has a tag on his blog called exactly that. I picked out his “eggless shakshuka,” normally a dish of eggs poached in a simmering spiced tomato-and-onion sauce. His suggestion to include avocado seemed water unwise (141 gallons per pound), as did his call for goat cheese (very dairy). So we decided to chuck both—meaning we’d basically be ­eating tomatoes and onions sopped up with bread.

Later that day, recipe in hand, Eichenseher and I visited Sprouts Farmers Market, a Denver mini chain with lots of to choose the best version of each ingredient faltered. Was it more water-efficient to get tomatoes from California because it was closer, or from Florida because it rains more there? A small amount of spice from the bulk section cuts down consumption but requires a plastic bag. I could get prepackaged versions in glass bottles, but glass is heavier so it requires more fuel to transport. We talked circles around each decision, trying to weigh conserving water against other Earth-friendly factors.

Turns out we were not alone in our perplexity, according to Christie Manning, a professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, who focuses on environmental issues. “People frequently find themselves paralyzed by ­confusion,” she writes in her handbook The Psychology of Sustainable Behavior. “They want to do the ‘right’…thing but are not sure which of their options is the most sustainable.”

They’re all intertwined. If you want to recycle a marinara jar—a water-friendly choice—you have to face up to the fact that rinsing the inside costs water. If you want to wear synthetic fibers because they’re less water-costly than cotton, you accept that you’re using up fossil fuels.

You won’t be perfect, but Manning suggests keeping big-picture impacts in mind and then just doing your best.

For our part, we chose the California tomatoes and spoon-them-yourself spices, and tried to be at peace with our decisions. For the rest of the week, I would eat oatmeal for most breakfasts, ratatouille and baked root vegetables for dinners, and leftovers (largely) for lunches. This wouldn’t be so hard—after all, vegans do it every day.

But it did seem like a diet—not because the dishes had fewer calories but because of the prescribed set of restrictions. The rules made me want to break them and have a Tuesday cheeseburger. And while I wouldn’t do that, the desire to shirk the self-imposed austerity pervaded the whole experiment.

Scoles My Week items

In the water closet

On that first night, the shakshuka was ­delicious, and I felt noble and thoughtful and full. There was another dilemma, though, that I wanted Eichenseher to advise me on. It was late into the evening, and Eichenseher had not, as I’d anticipated, used my toilet—maybe because we hadn’t been drinking alcohol. So I came right out and asked her: “What would you think if you went into my bathroom and had to look at a day’s worth of my urine before you could add your own to it?”

Without pause, she said, “I’d think that you’d probably lived in California.”

Right. In California, about half the homes I’d been in had toilets tainted by their inhabitants’ pee. When Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought state of emergency in January 2014, he asked residents to curb water usage by 20 percent. One popular tactic was to flush less. Yellow toilet bowls, in other words, have become the norm there.

So are short showers, another habit I adopted for the week by halving my usual wash time. Every day, I turned on a song (often Six Feet Under by The Weeknd, in case you were wondering) before hopping in, and I made sure to be out before the 3:57 track was over. I stood in the big blue bucket, all the water, soap, and shampoo falling into it, and graying up as it pooled around my legs. My showerhead produced around six gallons each time I washed up.

Despite the musical timer, turning off the stream of steamy heat was a daily triumph of will. My experiment coincided with a winter cold snap. I usually showered each day after a run in the subfreezing morning. And while my apartment wasn’t cold, the shower was the only place where I didn’t want to be under a blanket. The rational decision-maker inside me—which told me I was helping Earth—fought the impulsive, sensory-motivated part of me that said being warm was nice.

Manning’s handbook suggests finding ways to make personal reforms seem simultaneously good and wise. I told myself three minutes is not much shorter than six, and that I’d enjoy showers more if I didn’t stay long enough to get used to them. We know, after all, that the first few bites of cake thrill our taste buds more than the last couple.

Robert Jones of Missouri State University in Springfield, who studies the psychology of sustainability, maintains that the discomfort of short showers and ­other watery sacrifices is modest. If you don’t think you can undergo even modest unease or resist the temptation to alleviate it, change your routine. “Create an environment that doesn’t expose you to those opportunities,” he says. If you crave a long shower, go for a walk until the feeling passes. That’s a bit of a hard-line approach, but the argument holds in less-extreme versions. Learning to stop overconsumption is like quitting any other habit, and taking up conservation is just like forming any other new routine.

For me, guilt was a big motivator: Each day, I had to look at all the liquid from my shower. I also put a Tupperware container in my bathroom sink to catch everything that dribbled from my hands and mouth—about a quarter gallon by day’s end. On day two, my younger sister proved an even bigger incentive, as she constantly checked in on how good a job I was or was not doing, and felt no compunction about commenting on my efforts.

Trips and homecomings

The holidays were approaching, and Rebekah and I had planned a midweek trip to federal land outside Denver to cut down a Christmas tree to make our parents happy during their upcoming visit. The U.S. Forest Service lets people remove a limited number of small trees that would otherwise become kindling during the fire season, so I felt little guilt about removing nature’s bounty. I packed a reusable bottle of water, some leftovers, and a saw, and we hit the road, headed toward the snow-covered mountains.

A couple of hours later, as we searched for the ideal tree, my car got stuck in a particularly drift-covered back road. Cardboard placed creatively under the tires got us out, but at the end of the expedition, I was, predictably, tired, cold, thirsty, hungry. We stopped at a gas station, where Rebekah bought trail mix full of water-hogging nuts and a plastic bottle of Gatorade. “Want anything?” she asked. Yes, I thought.

“No,” I said. I opened up my Tupperwared food and gulped my tap water. The National Academy of Medicine sets “adequate intake” of hydration, including from both water and food, at about 15 cups a day for men and 11 for women. If you’re doing anything endurance-related, you need more—along with electrolytes—to replace fluid lost to sweat and other bodily processes. On most days, “adequate” was enough for me. But at that particular moment, my non-electrolytic water was definitely not satisfying, nor were my leftovers. Yet what Jones had said was true. The feeling passed, at least as soon as my sister stopped crunching away on her trail mix right next to my face.

When we got home, I peeled off the outer-wear I would continue to use to go running for the rest of the week. How gross they were, sweaty and slightly smelly. For supper I had a baked-potato and cabbage concoction, while Rebekah made meatballs for herself.

“Let me just smell them,” I said to her, ­before heading to an abbreviated shower.

It was then, my blue container nearly full, that I faced the practical issue of what to do with all the gray water. With no yard, I had no good purpose for it. I decided to use it for flushing: letting that bucketful of skin-cell-and-soap water spill into the toilet bowl, ­forcing the appliance to flush without using any tank water. Problem solved, right?

No. My toilet requires about 1.3 gallons for each flush, and I don’t have 4.6 bowel movements per day, which is now a thing you know about me. I had more gray water than I could use. With this realization, I felt as I had in the grocery store. I wanted to do good, and well, but I didn’t know how. So I started pouring out the leftover gallons to flush the yellow I should have mellowed. But I didn’t feel great about it. And the occasional splash-back was gross.

In addition to being full of dirtied water, my apartment was also full of dirty everything else. By the end of the week, glasses and mugs that I’d repeatedly reused­—as well as plates, pots, and pans that I hadn’t pre-rinsed— packed the dishwasher. Its interior held an almost-fossilized record of what I’d eaten.

And I needed to do laundry. All week I’d worn the same jeans (2,600 gallons of water to make). I put them in the freezer daily, which, like hanging them in the UV-filled sunshine, is said to kill some of the odor-causing bacteria (but there doesn’t seem to be any science to back this up). And I’d worn only two shirts: one, a thrift-store flannel that had used up 700 gallons in the factory—but that was on the original owner’s conscience; the other, an athletic top whose synthetic fibers had a smallish water footprint but a sizable carbon one. My running clothes, also synthetic, could probably have sprinted on their own. I realized how easy it had become to wear the same outfits repeatedly—almost nice, in the no-choices way of school uniforms. I work from home and hadn’t seen anyone more than once except my sister, and I could not care less what she thinks of my fashion choices.

But even with the experiment nearing completion, these garments did not amount to a full load of laundry. According to good conservation principles, I’d have to mess up more clothes or add sheets to turn on my high-efficiency washer. It was a source of pride to me that Denver prizes sustainability-friendly appliances, giving rebates for those certified by the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense program, which is like the Energy- Star of water. Machines with this label use 20 percent less than do standard appliances.

But still, my house left me feeling off-kilter. I like order, neatness, and cleanliness—and now I was surrounded by evidence of all the messes I’d made throughout the week.

Scoles My Week toothbrush

Recalculating, recalculating

Friday morning, the final day of my experiment, I peed on top of my pee, pulled my jeans out of the freezer, drank one paltry cup of ­coffee, grimaced at my oatmeal, and sat down to calculate how much more responsible an earthling I had become.

Adding up drinking water, showers, hand-washing, tooth-brushing, and cooking, I’d used about 6.25 gallons every day. My dishwasher had drawn about three for its single cycle, bringing my direct use to 46.75 gallons, or just under seven gallons per day. Denver water conservation manager Jeff Tejral told me that efficient customers use around 20 to 30 gallons per day. I patted myself on the back.

I had also done well in terms of indirect use. I’d walked everywhere except for two driving trips—to the mountains for the tree and to the suburbs to pick up mail for a ­vacationing friend—totaling 216 miles of travel and ­guzzling about 76 gallons of water.

The food for my vegan meals had been produced at a cost of about 500 gallons of water a day; my diet before this week had taken around 850 gallons per day (a omnivorous one would have consumed 1,056). The two beers and half bottle of champagne I’d drunk—I finished writing a book, OK? I deserved it!—required 410 gallons of water. After adding in 37 gallons of water for each of the two cups of coffee I had per day, my drinking totaled 928 gallons of water for the week. In sum, my footprint on the water world was 4,550 gallons for the week, or 650 per day, not including the wet cost of electricity. When I checked my math using the same online water calculator I’d used at the beginning—which considers electricity—I got 730 gallons per day. I had decreased my water use by about 45 percent, to just 35 percent of the national average consumption.

That sounds like it justifies bragging, but our national average is actually terrible. My experimental footprint was the same size as a Chinese citizen’s normal one. Over in Norway, the per-capita use is just half a U.S. citizen’s, and right around the global average. Which is to say there’s room for improvement here at home. If everyone in the U.S. used 20 percent less—still more than twice what I did—they would each save 152,424 gallons of water a year. That’s 49 trillion gallons across the whole country. When you think about it that way, each of us can make a huge difference—especially if our sustainable actions encourage others to behave similarly.

And that is how large-scale water-use changes happen, says Missouri State’s Jones. If enough people start employing a particular conservation tactic—leaving liquids in the toilet, ripping out Bermuda grass and putting in native plants—that thing becomes the expected behavior. “It’s a culture change,” he says.

The community flips its reward-punishment system. Instead of shaming you for your brown-grass yard, friends might instead criticize your lush landscaping. Conversely, they might start telling you how great your cactuses look. We’re hard-wired to want to conform. Essentially, we all want to think that we take action based on personal choice or because we want to help the planet—not because we’re following the crowd. But in reality, if our social circle is water-friendly, chances are much higher that we personally will be too.

And if not, not.

So while my individual sacrifices might not register at my water utility, they can influence my family, friends, and neighbors. Those one-by-one modifications create collective change: They make conservation normal. I knew that after dawn the next day, I’d probably eat eggs for breakfast and have a cheeseburger once in a while. I would definitely wear more than two outfits. In the shower, I would sometimes let myself have two songs.

But I would also turn off the taps more quickly. I would evaluate my groceries for their origin and water usage. I would let all yellows mellow. Sometimes I’d gravity-flush the toilet with gray water. And before I would eat meat or drive or buy a new cotton shirt, I’d think about how much water saturated those decisions. I’d probably do less of all three.

And that’s what really changed that week—not the choices I would make going forward but the thought process behind them. For every action I’d take, I’d think about how water factors in. And I’d hope that the people around me took notice. Because water, water is not everywhere. But it’s pretty much involved in everything. After a week of remembering that 15 times an hour, I’ll remember it forever.