The persistent drought in the U.S. West, including this week’s announcement of the first-ever water shortage for the Colorado River and vital Lake Mead, prompts a fresh look at how much water is wasted in homes across the country — though many homeowners have little idea how much water they actually use or how to effectively conserve the limited resource, experts say. 

Farms and large businesses use much more water on average than households; for instance, agriculture is 80% of water use in California. Still, the average U.S. family can waste 9,400 gallons of water annually, just from leaks, the Environmental Protection Agency says. That’s equivalent to the water needed to wash more than 300 loads of laundry.

All those drips add up to about 900 billion gallons of water annually nationwide, enough wasted water to match the annual use of nearly 11 million homes. No doubt, residential homes are impacted by droughts, and add their own impact as well.

Water bill awareness, usage rates, energy-efficient appliances and refining daily habits can have an effect in stretching water during restrictions and as preventative measures. Homeowners often have little idea what features of their home use the most water and when, says Nelson Pedreido, a California-based former aerospace engineer who with his municipal water-manager wife, has created a device called Pleco. It slips on the home water meter and sends real-time data displayed by color graphic on a smart phone app, distinguishing between appliances, toilets or pool, for instance.

“We found the typical knowledge of the average home water user to be nil. Some can tell you what their total water bill is routinely, but few even pay attention to that,” said Pedreido.

Historic times, unprecedented action

Right now, the seriousness of the situation in the Western U.S. leaves a lot of homeowners taking a closer look at their usage, or it should, Pedreido believes. He recalls a customer lamenting that cutting shower time, eliminating lawn watering and only running the dishwasher at night when fewer homes were doing the same wasn’t bringing enough change. That’s because a swimming pool valve was suffering from a slow, leaky drip that the homeowner was in the dark about.

Pools and other home water usage may soon be sharply curtailed in parts of the country, if they’re not already, given the sizzling dry summer and what some scientists say may be the formation of a long-lasting “mega drought” not seen in centuries.

The U.S. Drought Monitor estimates that nearly 60 million people are living in drought areas right now.

Levels at Lake Mead, the largest reservoir among several on the Colorado River, have fallen to record lows. Already, levels at the manmade water source, which serves 40 million people, have been retreating since 1999 in part from increased demand in rising-population areas. Persistent higher temperatures for longer parts of the year and less melting mountain snow because of climate change have reduced the river’s flow. Droughts have also fueled several major wildfires. The U.S. Forest Service said last week it’s operating in crisis mode, fully deploying firefighters and maxing out its support system.

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The Colorado River reservoirs supply household water, irrigation for farms and hydropower to Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and parts of Mexico. With usage cutback agreements in place, Arizona will be hardest hit and lose 18% of its share from the river next year, or 512,000 acre-feet of water. That’s around 8% of the state’s total water use, the Associated Press reports. An acre-foot is enough water to supply one to two households a year.

California is spared from immediate Lake Mead-related cuts because it has more senior water rights than Arizona and Nevada. But California had already implemented its own voluntary drought-related water cutbacks earlier in the summer.

It’s not just the typically dry spots that are hit; the historic drought extends into the Pacific Northwest, much of the Intermountain West and onto the Northern Plains.

In all, the U.S. Drought Monitor estimates that nearly 60 million people are living in drought areas right now. Its site provides regular drought condition updates for all of the U.S.

Dark red areas are suffering under the most severe drought conditions. The U.S. Drought Monitor is jointly produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USDA and NOAA. Map credit: NDMC.

What to do at home

First, it’s important to understand how conditions have changed. This means water-use habits may also have to change or will become much more expensive and could cause more damage and cost to communities. Transparency and tracking water use will matter.

Drought in the West is normal. But areas that might have typically gone a few weeks without rain may now go a few months with nary a drop. In the mountains, more precipitation falls as rain rather than snow, decreasing snowpack. And snowpack melts faster than in recent memory, making it harder to manage “feast and famine” water supplies. Plus, soil and vegetation lose more moisture as temperatures rise.

According to a 2014 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, 40 out of 50 state water managers expect water shortages under average conditions in some portion of their states over the next decade.

Giving a home’s main bathroom a high-efficiency makeover by installing a WaterSense labeled toilet, showerhead and faucet aerator can pay for itself in as little as one year, the EPA says.

Habit changes can have an impact. First habit change: reading your water bill and its usage rates regularly, if you don’t already.

Running the dishwasher only when it’s full can eliminate one load of dishes per week and save the average family nearly 320 gallons of water annually.

Turning off the tap while brushing your teeth can save 8 gallons of water per day and, while shaving, can save 10 gallons of water per shave. Assuming you brush your teeth twice daily and shave 5 times per week, you could save nearly 5,700 gallons per year.

New appliances make a difference. The EPA pushes consumers to check for its WaterSense labels, saying these products are 20% more water-efficient and perform as well as or better than standard models.

The average family can save 13,000 gallons of water and $130 in water costs per year by replacing all old, inefficient toilets in their home. Updated faucets and aerators with WaterSense labeled models can save the average family $250 in water and electricity costs over the faucets’ lifetime. And replacing showerheads can reduce the average family’s water and electricity costs by $70 and can save the average family more than 2,700 gallons of water per year, equal to the amount of water needed to wash 88 loads of laundry. Shorter showers can always be encouraged, especially as younger family members catch on to climate-change headlines.

Read: Biden says it’s time to reverse Trump’s low-flow shower rule, especially as drought grips West

Giving a home’s main bathroom a high-efficiency makeover by installing a WaterSense labeled toilet, showerhead and faucet aerator can pay for itself in as little as one year, the EPA says.

Ask yourself if your choice in lawn and garden plantings are best for your area. Outdoor water use accounts for more than 30% of total household water use, on average, but can be as much as 60% of total household water use in arid regions.

If the average sized lawn in the United States is watered for 20 minutes every day for seven days, it’s like running the shower constantly for four days or taking more than 800 showers. That’s equivalent to the amount of water needed for the average family to take one year’s worth of showers.

Don’t just set it and forget it. Irrigation systems need regular attention. A household with an automatic landscape irrigation system that isn’t properly maintained and operated can waste up to 25,000 gallons of water annually.

Native plants can be key for smart water usage and soil health.

Finally, know your settings. Pedreiro said his own home’s idiosyncrasies are part of what moved him to develop the water-tracking device.

His bill indicated he was using an extra 500 gallons a week that he couldn’t account for, and at 2 a.m., when the house was virtually shut down. It turns out his water softener was set to regenerate three times a week, when product guidelines only called for one time a week.

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