Flush with water— Thinking conservation amidst plenty
- Published: June 14, 2012
This is the final installment in a 12-part series of articles examining issues regarding local water.
• Click here to view all the articles the series
With Lauren Heaton
Ask villagers about their experience with Yellow Springs water and the stories will flow. Brown water pours from faucets. Rust stains toilets. Black muck clogs household water filters. Limescale cakes on pipes, dishwashers, washing machines and faucets. Sediment rings form on drinking glasses.
Like electricity, the modern convenience of running water is easy to take for granted. Turn on a faucet and fresh water gushes out endlessly. Wasteful water practices — like long showers, washing dishes in running water and watering the grass with a sprinkler — are even more tempting with an abundant local supply.
While the United Nations estimates that by 2040 two-thirds of the world will be water stressed, the Miami Valley is blessed with massive buried valley aquifers, such as the kind that feeds the Village well field, and abundant annual rainfall to replenish them. Even with last month’s long dry spell, the flow of water from Village pipes continued unabated. When it comes to water, Yellow Springs’ cup runneth over.
Still, many villagers actively conserve water, citing ethical reasons and emergency preparedness, as well as the desire to lower utility bills and not contribute to the global warming that could bring more frequent droughts to the area,
“It’s in line with my values — I try not to waste anything,” said Ellen Dawson-Witt of her frugal water practices, adding that those who rely on electric pumps to deliver water could be “in a fix” during the next power failure.
For the Village, water conservation has additional benefits. It could bolster the recent community-wide effort to cut energy use by reducing the energy required to treat and reclaim water. And keeping local water use low could extend the life of Village water infrastructure.
Lacking a strong local push to conserve water, (the Environmental Commission, in its 32-year history, has never pursued such a campaign, according to member Doug Bailey) villagers have nonetheless sought to save water in their homes with a variety of tools and techniques. But the results are mixed. Public water supply use in Yellow Springs is 115 gallons per person per day, 60 percent higher than the Ohio average.
Local water use
The amount of water Yellow Springs uses every three days would cover a football field three feet high with water. Daily water use in town varies from a low of around 300,000 gallons per day in the winter to a high of 500,000 gallons in the summer, largely from watering lawns and gardens, according to Brad Alt of the Yellow Springs water plant. Though local water use fell from an annual average of around 450,000 gallons in 2002 to 420,000 in 2005, in recent years it has been on the uptick, according to Village Utility Department Clerk Susie Butler.
Compared to other Americans, local households might be more conservative at the tap. Butler cited local estimates that an average villager uses 3,000 gallons of water in 90 days, or about 33 gallons per day. But total use, when commercial and industrial withdraws are added, is closer to 115 gallons per day per capita. The typical Ohioan, by contrast, consumes 68 gallons of municipal water per day, according to a 2005 USGS report. Compare that to Maine residents, who use 51 gallons per day on average, Arizonans, who consume 140 gallons per day, or residents of Fresno, Calif., who go through 211 gallons per day.
Some local water savings can be attributed to climate. Out West more water is needed for irrigation, leading to higher household consumption. While it rains less than 10 inches per year in Albuquerque, N.M., and less than 5 inches in Las Vegas, Yellow Springs gets an annual dose of about 39 inches, which fills its streams, rivers, lakes and underground aquifers.
There is ample evidence from the domestic sump pumps in basements around Yellow Springs to the industrial pumps that protect properties around the Great Miami River in Dayton, that the water table tends to overflow rather than come up short, according to local environmental engineer John Eastman. The City of Dayton has recently undertaken a campaign to market the valley as a home for industries that need water in their production processes.
Historically, the village has sometimes been too wet. The wetter western part of the village used to be known as Frogtown, and Bailey, known locally as Thor, has found an archeological site in the village from the 1850s where underground drainage pipes and tiles were manufactured for local use.
Since more than 70 percent of a household’s water use is indoors, many villagers start their conservation efforts there. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Sense program, the bathroom is where most water is wasted and toilets alone consume more than one-quarter of a household’s water.
But treated, potable water seems unnecessary for such a task and, according to Rhonda Newsome, owner of Ecomental, there are alternatives. The local environmental product store now carries a device that cycles used sink water into the toilet tank for flushing. For others in the village, it might be prudent to upgrade to a new toilet, since older toilets can use up to seven gallons per flush and leaking toilets can waste 200 gallons per day.
Besides installing newer, more efficient appliances, smarter water practices can save a lot of water — and energy. Running a faucet for five minutes uses an equivalent amount of energy as letting a 60-watt light bulb burn for 14 hours because energy is consumed to treat and deliver water, according to the EPA.
Dishwashers can actually save energy compared to washing dishes by hand, depending upon the practice, according to local resident Carla Steiger, an expert in international water politics who saves water as good practice. Most dishwashers use 6 to 10 gallons of water for a normal cycle, while washing dishes with an open tap can use 20 gallons, according to the EPA. Soaking dishes in a filled sink or bowl takes around 10 gallons, and the water can be re-used for gardening.
Steiger also cited water-saving techniques she currently practices or has observed on her travels abroad, including low flow-fixtures and bidets, which reduce the need for bathing, and so-called navy or military showers where the water is turned on for wetting, off for soaping and shaving, then back on for rinsing.
Dawson-Witt, who fills up a four-gallon crock once per month in her tiny part-time cabin on North High Street, said she has an extra incentive to conserve water compared to those who need only turn on the tap.
“In the cabin if I waste water it causes me extra work to lug it,” she said.
Antioch College in its resurgence has adopted many water-saving systems and features, according to Facilities Manager Reggie Stratton last week. Recognizing that the college has in the past wasted a significant amount of water due to leaky pipes and aging fixtures in older buildings such as the library and Curl gym, the college plans to cut its annual water consumption from the 5 million gallons it used in 2007 to about 2.5 million gallons over the next five years, Stratton said.
The renovation of North Hall will be the most dramatic, as much is required by the LEED gold standard the college is aiming for. All of the restrooms in the building have commodes with low-volume flush features as well as low-flow showerheads and faucets. The features will eventually save about 25 percent of the water consumed in a conventional building. The college has also experimented with waterless urinals in McGregor Hall, and found that the toilets are both effective and able to save about 7,000 gallons of water per year per toilet. Stratton predicts more will be installed soon.
And as part of the master stormwater plan, the college eventually hopes to route all the runoff from its buildings to a retention pond near the campus farm and use it to water the gardens.
Harvesting the rain
Outside water use only accounts for about 30 percent of the average American’s total use, but wasteful practices in the yard, such as improperly irrigating or planting large swaths of turfgrass, can squander large amounts of water. As a result, many local residents have turned to more diverse landscaping and to capturing rainwater to use on their lawns and gardens.
Laurie Dreamspinner has installed four 55-gallon rain barrels at each corner of her house on North College Street to use the runoff from her roof to water her garden. While she has never measured the water she saves with the barrels, she never has to use Village water to care for her yard, a single-family plot with both flower and vegetable gardens, she said last week. And because the Village charges for wastewater at the same rate as fresh water, she also saves money with the rain barrels by reducing the total volume of water coming from her property.
Eric Johnson, who uses the water collected in his rain barrel for his vegetable garden, ornamental garden and bird bath, said his rain barrels are “no big deal” but that it “feels good to use.” Johnson said he is amazed by how rapidly his rain barrel fills up when it rains, though during the May dry spell, when the village was four inches behind on its monthly water tally, the barrel was empty. Seven inches of rainfall on a 1,500-square-foot roof will yield about 6,300 gallons of water, according to the Ohio Department of Health. On average it takes 625 gallons of water per day to apply one inch of water to a 1,000-square-foot area.
But rain barrels are just one element of what is known as a stillicidium system, in which the dripping water on roofs and into eaves is collected for use, according to Bailey, who has researched early water conservation practices in town. Bailey said this system was “very robust” locally before 1930 and included storage cisterns and wooden rain barrels.
“Up to the 1930s, when we started to get piping and sewage treatment, people relied on those to collect rainwater and retain it for use,” such as gardening and washing, Bailey said.
Bailey estimates that the remains of hundreds of cisterns underlie backyards around town. Two cisterns are located on the Barr property. A prime example is a massive neighborhood cistern recently discovered on the block bordered by Limestone Street, Xenia Avenue, Davis Street and Phillips Street. The underground brick and plaster cistern, capable of holding 120,000 gallons of water, was possibly built by hydro engineer Arthur Morgan in the 1920s, according to Bailey, and may have collected water from the dozen houses on the block to be used for fire protection.
“We should be rehabbing those [cisterns] in the places they exist,” and not filling them in, Bailey said.
Rainwater storage devices even out the variability of the weather, Bailey said, and can lessen the effect on plants of droughts, which are projected to increase with global climate change.
Dawson-Witt said dry weather is felt first and foremost by plants, which is why most rain barrels are used for gardening.
“We don’t wither as fast as plants, so we don’t notice it,” Dawson-Witt said. “We can get it by just turning a faucet. The plants can’t turn a faucet.”
Dawson-Witt uses the water from her rain barrels for her potato garden, using a soaker hose that delivers water directly to the soil, rather than spraying water in the air, which wastes water from evaporation.
Neighborhood gardeners, since their plots are often located in sites without a water tap, have had to improvise, according to Bailey. Many gardeners mulch their beds to reduce the need for water. One resourceful gardener created a water collection contraption using a child’s swimming pool.
“A sprinkler is not conservation,” Bailey said.
The major consumptive use of water in the United States is for irrigation, which accounts for 80 percent of the country’s consumption. Because the area’s water table is so full and stable, and rainfall is plentiful, agricultural land users in the area have little need for broad irrigation, according to Steve Hall with the Greene County Soil & Water Conservation District. But the conservation district offers training in practices that help farmers conserve the existing moisture in the soil, such as refraining from tilling between planting and harvesting and planting cover crops after harvest. Those practices have the added benefit of sequestering nutrients back into the soil and preventing erosion.
Conservation of water includes protecting the dozens of wetlands scattered around Greene County, Hall said. Aside from being a critical bug and bird habitat for the region, wetlands are a key filtration feature for surface water runoff and also help to recharge the region’s aquifers. Though the Miami Valley used to have more, Hall estimates that wetlands currently make up 1–2 percent of the county.