Q: We are doing a discussion course on sustainability at work, and someone asked, “Is it necessary for us to conserve water here in Portland despite the seeming abundance and replenishment? If so, why?” My response was not as strong or compelling as I would like. Can you help? —Rick R., Portland, Oregon
A: With our nation’s range of climates, some see the need to change water habits now as others wonder if it will ever stop raining. But two issues will affect global water supplies: climate change and population increases. North America has 7 percent of the world’s population and 15 percent of its fresh water, but we are wasting this bounty; within 10 years, scientists predict water shortages in 36 U.S. states.
An easy answer to folks unsure about water conservation—but who support reducing energy consumption—is this:
Water conservation often also conserves fossil fuels. Easy places to conserve are in laundry, dishes and personal hygiene, which make up 50 to 60 percent of indoor water use (toilets and leaks make up the rest). Efficient fixtures and appliances can reduce use up to 35 percent. And about 50 percent of landscape water, a third of total use, goes to waste. Municipal water requires a complex infrastructure of filtration, storage and delivery. If a population expands, its system’s capacity must expand. This has environmental and financial costs: Where will the water come from? Who and what suffers from removing it? Conservation can reduce these expansions.
Our transforming weather has serious implications for water availability. With more droughts, more heavy rain or heavier snow melt, our current storage systems may not be prepared. Water conservation will also require new technology, from low-flow faucets to larger solutions for industry, utilities and landscape design. Americans play a role in supporting, testing and adopting such technologies.
Q: I’m a renter in the San Francisco Bay Area, where temperatures are generally mild. Still, my energy bill is too high. What can I do to bring down costs and waste? Suggestions for non-homeowners? —Sarah J., Oakland, California
A: Renting is a blessing and a curse: little responsibility, little control. You can’t make long-term investments, but you can still reduce your energy bills. IN THE KITCHEN, reduce water use. Install low-flow faucets throughout your home. If the dishwasher isn’t a dinosaur, use it; newer models are more efficient than handwashing. Run it full and skip “heated dry.” Keep the fridge and freezer relatively full with the fridge at 38 degrees and the freezer at 5. (Replacing an old fridge with an Energy Star one is good if you can persuade the landlord...) Microwaves and toaster ovens are more efficient than stovetops and ovens. Wash laundry in cold water and hang dry when possible.
In the bathroom, further reduce water use. You’ve got a low-flow faucet; now install a low-flow showerhead (and take short showers and fewer baths).
In the bedroom, dress the bed for the season. The goal is to keep the thermostat low when it’s cold and high when it’s warm. A programmable thermostat may be worth the cost. They’re fairly cheap, and they always remember to lower the heat while you’re away. It’s more efficient to reheat or re-cool the place when you get home than to heat or cool it while you’re away.
Throughout your dwelling, replace incandescent bulbs with CFLs. Turn off unused lights. Turn off the computer if you won’t be using it for an hour. Unplug electronics with LED lights or standby functions, which draw bits of power that add up. Power strips turn off a bunch at once.
You also can improve window efficiency with curtains, caulk and glazing. If your apartment has a door to the outside, weatherstrip around the jamb.
Umbra Fisk dispenses advice on all things green for Grist Magazine
, an online publication tackling environmental topics with irreverence, intelligence and a fresh perspective. To submit a question, e-mail