Everything You Know About Water Conservation is Probably Wrong...

You might be surprised by how much water you use around your house.

Do you know a lot about water use? Let’s find out.

1. Which of these actions saves the most water in a day?

  • Taking shorter showers.
  • Using low-flow toilets.
  • Turning off the water when you brush your teeth.

2. Rank these four foods — rice, coffee, sugar and cheese — in order by the amount of water it took to produce a serving of each item (including water for irrigation, manufacturing, transportation, etc.).

How did you do?

For Question 1 did you pick taking a shower? If you did then you're in good company. According to a new study that looked at perceptions of water use in the US, 43 percent of people surveyed chose shorter showers as the best way to reduce their water use (ANSWER: installing low-flow toilets are best because all those flushes throughout the day add up to more than a typical shower).

How about the food products in Question 2 ? Were you able to correctly rank them? If you didn’t even know where to begin, you’re not alone. Most study participants weren’t able to either (ANSWER: the correct order is coffee, cheese, rice and sugar.)

The study provides some great insights into the general public’s understanding of how much water we use in a day, including: 

  • When asked what are the most effective actions they can take to reduce their own water use, most people recommended changing their behaviors by using less water rather than installing appliances and devices that use water more efficiently (the opposite is true).
  • When asked what are the most effective actions Americans can take to reduce water use, most people recommended actions that use water more efficiently — like upgrading toilets and faucets — more than behavior changes that promote water conservation, contradicting what they thought best for themselves.
  • In general, people were able to properly rank the relative water use of various activities.
  • Most people overestimated lower water use activities and appliances and underestimated higher water use activities and appliances.
  • On average, people underestimated water use by a factor of two.
  • In general, people were not able to correctly rank the four food items listed above by their virtual water content (also known as water footprint.)

What do these findings mean for water users in the US? When it comes to water, we just don’t know how we’re using it or how to save it. This is important because no place in the country is immune to drought and water shortages. Today California and Texas are in varying stages of severe droughts. A few years ago it was the Southeast.

According to Shahzeen Attari, the study’s author, "Well-designed efforts to improve public understanding of household water use could pay large dividends for behavioral adaptation to temporary or long-term decreases in availability of fresh water.” We at GRACE couldn’t agree more and we have the Water Footprint Calculator (WFC) to prove it!

GRACE’s WFC features a brief set of questions that get you thinking about how much water you and your household use and how water connects to almost every aspect of your life. The WFC helps you explore how you use water, estimate your household’s water footprint and learn ways to conserve. But wait, it gets better!

We’re in the process of revamping our WFC so it will be even clearer just how much water it takes for all those water-using activities you do throughout your day. It will also demonstrate how virtual water — the water it takes to produce the food you eat, the products you buy, the energy you consume and even the water you save when you recycle — makes up the majority of your water footprint, especially where your food is concerned.

Stay tuned because we’ll have our shiny new calculator ready to go this summer. We’re looking forward to helping you, dear readers, learn even more about your water footprint so when you get a chance to be in a water use study, you’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.

Responses to "Everything You Know About Water Conservation is Probably Wrong..."

  1. Richard Wilk

    I can't find anywhere the study you are referring to - I am at Indiana University, and I would really like to know if there are others here who work on water consumption.

    Kristen
    04.07.2014

    Hi Richard, there is a link to the study in the post. (Please see the paragraph beginning "For Question 1".) Thanks for reading!

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