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As our needs for water increase and climate change pressures its availability, utilizing multiple methods of water conservation is increasingly important.
Water conservation methods include reducing water needs, improving efficiency and reducing pollution at the household, industry and government levels. Improved technology, processes, and policy can all be used to conserve water and prevent things like water scarcity.
Water is needed for everything from growing food to providing the power that we use every day, but pressures like droughts, population growth, and climate change mean that water conservation is becoming more and more essential. In this article, I’ll provide a comprehensive look at why water conservation is important as well as the various methods of water conservation in use today.
Water-saving technology and individual actions are important in water conservation, but larger-scale, industrial-level changes are also necessary to ensure meaningful change. I’ll use my background in environmental science and policy to give you a well-rounded view of the importance of water conservation at various levels and how this can be accomplished.
What Is Water Conservation?
Water conservation involves reducing the use of freshwater and ensuring it is used efficiently in order to address issues of water scarcity. Conserving water also involves preventing pollution to maximize the amount of freshwater available for use.
Water conservation usually refers to the preservation of freshwater as opposed to salt water, since we need freshwater for things like drinking water and agriculture. Freshwater is water found in lakes, rivers, and other ‘surface’ water, and makes up only about three percent of the earth’s total water. Freshwater is defined as having less than 1,000 parts per million (ppm) of salt by weight, compared to saltwater, which can have between 1,000 to 35,000 ppm of salt. For reference, ocean water usually has about 35,000 ppm of salt.
One thing to note when defining water conservation is that desalination, or removing salt from water, isn’t necessarily a form of water conservation. While this is a process that can be useful for certain regions experiencing water scarcity, it requires large amounts of energy. Many argue that conserving freshwater is a more important goal than creating it from saltwater because it addresses the underlying issues of water scarcity, overuse, and drought that I’ll cover in the next section.
Why Is Water Conservation Important?
Freshwater is not only needed for drinking water, but it is essential to grow food, produce nearly everything we buy and use, and support wildlife and the healthy functioning of ecosystems.
The agricultural systems we depend on for almost all our food are hugely dependent on the availability of water. Water is required for livestock, applying pesticides and fertilizers, controlling frost, and of course irrigation.
Droughts in places like the US and Chile have impacted agricultural production recently, as they have reduced groundwater and surface water reserves, making irrigation and other agricultural processes difficult. At the same time, agricultural production itself impacts water availability, as it is an important contributor to water pollution. Pesticides and herbicides used in agriculture are washed into water and can contaminate drinking water as well as pose risks to fish and wildlife.
Increasing population density in urban areas also means that agricultural uses must compete with urban and industrial water needs, jeopardizing availability of water for both uses.
Many regions rely on watersheds to provide freshwater from melting snow and rain. Watersheds are referred to as the land area that carries this water from its origin to its outflow point (often a larger body of water), and are essential for many ecosystem services. Watersheds are also important to supporting biodiversity and often serve as habitat or movement corridors for many species.
Watersheds are also a key part of nutrient and water cycling, protecting freshwater quality and lowering otherwise costly water treatment needs by filtering water. Watersheds and the wildlife that are a part of them also help reduce the impacts of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide and emitting oxygen, helping to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and other activities.
Conserving water through the methods I’ll go over below help to preserve watersheds by reducing water consumption from freshwater sources. Reducing water pollution and improving efficiency of freshwater use help to ensure that watersheds stay healthy and can provide services to us well into the future.
One of the most important reasons water conservation is needed is rising water scarcity. Water scarcity within a certain region is defined as insufficient water resources to meet demand. Droughts, severe climate change-related weather, water pollution, and overuse can all contribute to water scarcity, and the UN estimates that about 4 billion people experience severe water scarcity during at least one month per year.
Water scarcity is growing with climate change. Changing weather patterns make water availability unpredictable and things like floods and extreme weather can contaminate drinking water. UNICEF estimates that 74% of natural disasters between 2001 and 2018 were water-related, emphasizing the growing need to address water availability issues.
Water availability has also been associated with and is expected to exacerbate conflicts in countries that experience scarcity. Water scarcity generally worsens existing sociopolitical conflicts, raising tensions over things like reservoirs, dams, and resource issues. These conflicts can happen both within and between countries, and are expected to rise into the future as the impacts of climate change worsen.
What Types of Water Conservation Methods Are There?
Just as there are many different ways that water is used, there is also a huge variety in how water is conserved depending on the situation and available technology.
The average American household uses about 300 gallons of water per day, so addressing water conservation in homes is extremely important. There are quite a few ways that water can be conserved at home, both indoors and outdoors. A benefit of household water conservation methods is that they not only help achieve conservation goals, but usually result in significant financial savings as well.
One important way of conserving household water is by checking for and fixing leaks as quickly as possible. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 10% of average households have a leak that wastes at least 90 gallons of water per day. Toilets, faucets, and showerheads can all be sources of leaks that are relatively easy to fix but can result in huge water savings.
Outside the home, leaks in outdoor irrigation systems and hoses can add up to huge water loss every month. The EPA estimates that an irrigation leak the thickness of a dime can result in 6,300 gallons of wasted water per month.
Installing Faucet Aerators
In addition to preventing household leaks, installing water-efficient faucets and showerheads can save additional water by reducing the amount of water needed for various tasks. Also called aerators, these faucet heads reduce the amount of water coming out of the faucet without reducing the pressure. It is estimated that replacing old faucets with aerated ones can save an average US household 11,000 gallons of water over the lifetime of the faucet.
Drought-Resistant and Climate Friendly Plants
Replacing plants that need large amounts of water (like grass) with drought-tolerant plants and varieties that are native to an area is another important household method of conserving water that can also ensure that gardens look nice year-round, especially in areas that experience seasonal droughts or water restrictions.
Drought-resistant plants have special adaptations that help them minimize water loss and better absorb water from below the soil. Not all native plants are drought-resistant, so it’s important to do research and plan accordingly to the needs of the particular area, but utilizing these kinds of plants can save up to 75% of landscaping water needs per household.
There are a wide variety of trees, shrubs, and perennial and annual plants that are drought-tolerant and require little water while providing important functions and aesthetic appeal in a garden or other landscape. White fir trees, Bearberry shrubs, Barrenwort, Wax Begonia, and Verbena are all drought-tolerant varieties, but there are many more to choose from depending on location and climate.
Energy Star Rated Appliances
The Energy Star program is a joint effort between the EPA and the Department of Energy (DOE) that certifies a wide variety of household appliances as water- and energy-efficient. The Energy Star program operates under the Clean Air Act (CAA) as well as the Energy Policy Act, and is primarily focused on reduced energy usage, but it also includes water-saving requirements.
Items can receive an Energy Star rating if they reach certain specifications that the EPA sets. Depending on what kind of item it is (appliances, computers, etc.), there are different specifications, but most have to fall under a certain energy factor (energy efficiency) and water extraction rate (water usage).
Energy Star rated appliances are not necessarily always the most efficient ones available, as there is a range of energy factors and water usage amounts that can fall under the category. However, it can be a good starting place to find household appliances that can contribute to significant water savings and conservation.
In addition to upgrading faucets and appliances, there are quite a few water-saving habits that can be implemented in households to greatly increase water conservation and reduce monthly water bills as well. They may require developing some new habits, but as I’ve mentioned, even small fixes and changes add up to huge water savings over a month, year, and lifetime.
One of the most important household habits that can conserve water is being mindful of when water is running. Shortening showers when possible, turning off the tap while brushing teeth or shaving, and reducing the amount of times water is running to get it cold or warm can all conserve huge amounts of water.
In addition, running the washing machine or dishwasher on a partial load can waste up to 10 gallons per load, so ensuring that these machines are only run when fully loaded is important.
It is estimated that high-income countries like the US use about 59% of their water for industrial purposes, equating to about 16 billion gallons of water per day in the US. Water is used in industry for things like cooling, washing items, and diluting chemicals, in addition to creating chemical and food products.
A good example of a water-intensive industry is the clothing industry, which uses water for dyeing, treating, and washing clothing, not to mention the water required to grow cotton. It’s estimated that it requires about 2,700 liters of water to make the average cotton t-shirt. The massive amount of water used by the industry is only compounded by consumer behavior and trend turnover, which encourages high levels of consumption and waste.
There are a few different ways that water can be conserved on the industry level, including somewhat similar methods to household ones, only on a much, much larger scale.
Just like in households, ensuring that equipment is functioning properly and preventing leaks can result in massive water savings - on an industrial level, these savings are compounded.
Industrial facilities can install water monitoring systems that alert operators of abnormal water flow, or even automatically shut off if needed. Measuring the amount of water used is also an integral part of being able to reduce that amount, since if it can’t be measured, it can’t be improved.
While upgrading equipment itself can be a hefty initial investment, ensuring that the most efficient models are being used can save huge amounts of water and money in the long-term. Often, older or outdated equipment will use more water than newer models, which are moving towards greater efficiency.
There are many examples of equipment upgrades that act as water conservation methods in industry, but one important one of note in many industries is the cooling tower. Cooling towers are used in industries like chemical manufacturing, oil refineries, and thermal and nuclear power in order to remove heat and expel it into the atmosphere. Many cooling towers use water evaporation as the method of cooling, so they go through large amounts of water.
Advanced cooling tower controls have been developed in order to reduce the amount of water needed for this process. Advanced controls involve real-time monitoring of cooling tower systems in order to react dynamically and ensure that efficiency performance is maximized.
In addition to upgrading equipment, altering the way that industrial facilities operate or items are manufactured is a major part of water conservation. These methods will vary greatly depending on the industry, but usually involve finding ways of completing the same process with less water.
One example of improved methods can be seen with manufacturers in the clothing industry, who are beginning to use waterless dyeing processes to reduce the amount of water traditionally needed to dye each piece of clothing. The clothing industry uses about 79 billion cubic meters of water each year, making it the second-most water intensive industry in the world and necessitating improved processes.
In addition to waterless dyeing processes, improving finishing techniques in the denim making process are another example of water conservation in the clothing industry. Some companies have reduced 96% of water needed in this process, making a huge impact on the water footprint of popular clothes like jeans.
Sustainable and organic cotton is another important way of supporting water conservation in the clothing industry, and organic cotton can reduce water pollution up to 98% through the prevention of pesticide runoff. In addition, a large majority of organic cotton is rainfed, meaning that less water must be pulled from other sources for irrigation.
In agriculture, methods of more efficient irrigation are being utilized in order to reduce the amount of water used to grow the same amount of food. Scheduling irrigation around weather patterns as well as utilizing drip irrigation systems are two ways of not only saving energy and money, but also conserving water. Using cover crops also helps to reduce water and nutrient runoff as well as increase soil health and resilience into the future.
Water treatment plants are essential to our access to clean, safe water. However, they are becoming overloaded by excess water and waste, especially in growing areas like the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. Other areas, like the Southeast, are experiencing worsening droughts. Water conservation is essential not only to prevent overloading these often-outdated systems, but also to conserve water.
Water reuse is one way that treatment plants can help to address these issues and conserve water. Recycling, or reusing, water involves reclaiming used water for beneficial purposes.
Water that gets recycled must still be treated, but doesn’t necessarily always have to be treated to the same level depending on what it will be used for. Instead of taking freshwater from rivers or aquifers, reused water is taken from what would be wastewater and repurposed for certain, often agricultural and industrial, uses. Potable (drinkable) water must be treated to a level that it is safe for human consumption, but there are also uses for non-potable (not safe to drink) water. This conserves water by decreasing the amount of freshwater that must be taken from natural sources, increasing its availability for future use.
Preventing environmental pollution is an integral part of conserving water, since environmental pollution can lower water availability and jeopardize freshwater resources. Environmental pollutants can leak into drinking water, harm wildlife, and damage ecosystems necessary to water cycling processes. I’ll cover more about how environmental pollution that harms our water sources is prevented with policy in the next section.
Policy can impact industrial and household water conservation methods, but I’ve put it in its own category here, since it approaches water conservation in a different way. Policy is generally used to impose regulations on activities that could harm water sources as well as regulate its use. In the US, water conservation policy varies depending on the state, with some states taking much greater action than others to conserve water. However, there are still federal laws in place to conserve wildlife and water, a few of which I’ve outlined below.
Clean Water Act & Safe Drinking Water Act
The Clean Water Act (CWA) and Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) are two of the most important water-protection laws in the US. The CWA regulates how pollution can be discharged into bodies of water, prohibiting the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters without a certain type of permit. The SDWA, on the other hand, protects drinking water specifically by imposing certain standards on public water systems.
In addition to maintaining drinking water quality, the SDWA also includes amendments that require the EPA to provide guidelines to water utilities in order to develop water conservation plans. These guidelines are not required by federal law, but states can decide whether to require that their utilities file conservation plans in accordance with those provided by the EPA.
Environmental and wildlife conservation policies are also integral to the conservation of water. While I won’t go through every single conservation act, it’s important to note that pretty much any time natural resources are being conserved, so is water. Natural areas like the watersheds I mentioned before are essential to proper water cycling and maintaining the health of water and the wildlife that inhabits it.
The Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and National Environmental Policy Act are just a few of ways that US agencies promote conservation of land and water in the US. The Department of the Interior (DOI), which includes the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Parks Service (NPS), are all involved in conservation efforts that include preserving water for the use of humans and wildlife alike. The Department of Agriculture (DOA) also oversees the National Forest Service, which preserves over 193 million acres of forests, including the ecosystem services they provide like water flow and timber.
A discussion about policy methods of water conservation isn’t complete without acknowledging the role of climate change. Preventing the impacts of climate change that increase the frequency of droughts and severe weather is essential to conserve the freshwater that is available to us and ensure we can use it into the future.
Policy that helps to reduce fossil fuel emissions and transition to renewable energy will help to reduce the impacts of climate change by lowering the amount of human-caused greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere every day. This will decrease weather-related impacts that make it difficult to have consistent water availability and that harm both humans and wildlife.