Posts tagged water conservation

Photo: Chuan Ding

Photo: Chuan Ding

It’s been over a year since our Governor officially declared a California state of emergency due to the state drought. However, it’s important to note average temperatures have been rising for over the past 15 years, meaning if the trend continues we are likely to face more extremely hot dry summers for years to come. Heat waves have already swept through Asia and Europe in the last couple weeks, during which time thousands of Europeans went out to seek relief out in the water. Swimming pools, public water fountains, mist fountains, and any body of water were popular destinations for families – and even pets – seeking relief during the heatwave and it’s no different here in Los Angeles when temperatures rise into the triple digits. With summer in full swing here in Los Angeles, the question arises, “How can we enjoy water in a time of drought?” in a city which has long relied upon swimming pools for summer relief?

Creative Commons Photo by Matt Deavenport

Creative Commons Photo by Matt Deavenport

But before we talk about any tips and recommendations, here are some facts about swimming pools every Angeleno should know:

  • There are 43,123 swimming pools in the Los Angeles basin, with an average depth of 5.5 feet and a surface area of 430 sq. ft. The average total volume is about 18,000 gallons per pool. This means that 760 million gallons, or 2,300 acre-feet of water, is stored in Los Angeles swimming pools at any given time. People in Southern California consume about 130 gallons of water per day, which means the amount of water in those 43,123 pools could provide water for all of our city’s residents for about 1.5 years.
  • Water evaporation from pools without covers accounts for around 2,000 acre-feet of water per year.
  • Families with swimming pools use an average of 22% – 25% more water than households without one, a figure cited from a 1999 study done by the California Urban Water Conservation Council surveying 194 homes with swimming pools.
Wikimedia Commons Photo by Jeff Sandquist

Wikimedia Commons Photo by Jeff Sandquist

So knowing all these facts, what are those 43,123 households with swimming pools to do outside of draining and filling in their pools? What strategies can pool owners take to efficiently enjoy their pool while wasting less of the precious resource of water?

Infographic via LA Times Twitter.

Infographic via LA Times Twitter.

1. Get a pool cover. Swimming pool covers can stop 90% of the evaporation rate, and in turn save 30%-50% total water loss. You might be surprised to discover a pool with a cover uses less water over three years than a turf lawn of the same size, and even a drought tolerant landscaped garden.

2. Keep the pool’s water level lower. Keeping the pool levels below the edge to reduce water loss caused by overflow and splashing.

3. Reuse the drainage water and spa backwash to water your backyard plants. Swimming pools seldom need to be drained, but when the need arises consider reusing the water. Just remember to neutralize the acids and do not use chemicals for 72 hours prior to draining. Pool water and spa backwash water (approximately 75 gallons per rinse), can both be used to irrigate a variety of salt-tolerant plants like oleander, rosemary, olive, aloe, deer grass and others once properly treated. More about reusing pool and spa water for gardens here.

4. Use a public pool: I’ve fond memories of learning how to swim as a child, and also spending hot summer afternoons with friends in Las Vegas, both done at public pools. Public pools are a more efficient use of water since the resource is shared amongst more people at once. Here’s more information about the best Los Angeles public swimming pools and water features.

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About 12 years ago I did a major home remodel and I remember when the building inspector told me that in order to get final sign-off of my permit that I needed to install rain gutters throughout the house. The gutters had to be directed to the driveway or directly to the street. I proceeded to comply to get my final approval, but I wondered why my rain water had to be drained away from my landscape.

After two years of watching rain water flow to the street, I decided to do something about it. I re-hired the same rain gutter contractor and had them reconfigure all of the downspouts so that rainwater would flow into several rain capture strategies, including landscape planters, dry well, permeable driveway, and a rain barrel. Fortunately, my house sits in an area of Los Angeles that has well-drained soils – my soil is very sandy and drains about 2 to 3 inches per hour. – which is key to having these strategies succeed.

Here are four rain capture strategies that I used around my home.

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1. Use Raised Planters: I built a raised planter in front of the house to capture half of the roof drainage. Since I buried part of my raised foundation I made sure we waterproofed the house footing to eliminate moisture from migrating to the wooden sill. I kept the soil level 6 inches below the top of the foundations. I reconfigured the front portion of the roof water to this planter.  I planted a combination of Chondropetalum and Agaves which will take both drought and wet conditions. However,  mostly drought these days. (image A)

Diagram by: Richard Quinn

Diagram by: Richard Quinn

2. Install a Dry Well: I raised my front yard around 14 inches so that none of my front yard drainage would run over the sidewalk. I installed a “Dry Well” along the street edge. You can see the two plastic drain covers which not only captures the surface water, but also gave me a place to observe the drywell. The drywell basically consist of a 20 foot long, 24″ diameter perforated PVC pipe in a 36″ deep trench that is filled with gravel and a 12″ layer of topsoil. This has been my flower garden, strawberry patch and vegetable garden for the last 10 years. (Image B)

3. Think Permeability:  I re-built my driveway to be more permeable. I placed gravel strips along the entire length of the driveway to capture all the surface water. It essentially created a series of “mini-check dams” that stopped the miscellaneous water from running down to the curb. Each gravel strip had a 24″ deep by 12″ wide gravel filled area to hold the water. What you see on the surface is a 4″ wide strip which most people think is simply a aesthetic design feature.

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4. Add Rain Barrels:  I installed rain barrels to capture, hold and re-use the rain water. We use this water to irrigation our surrounding landscape. If you go on to the City of Los Angeles DWP website you may qualify for a rebate. Check it out.

If you need help installing it, the City of Los Angeles has a great video. Rain barrels are inexpensive and easy to install. Here is a video from the DWP website:


I have to admit I was shocked the first time I learned about cultures where showering normally was a once a week – or even one a month – practice. You see, I am from south China, a coastal city with an abundance of water, an area of the world where people shower at least once a day. Curious about the global average, I discovered 43% of global consumers take a sponge bath at least once a day according to the  Euromonitor International’s Personal Appearances Survey. However, people do not think or live in the same way as we do in north China.

Average Showers and Shampoos Habits by Country, from Euromonitor.

Average Showers and Shampoos Habits by Country, from Euromonitor.

Whether you recognize it or not, expectations related to frequent showering may arise from pressure related to societal norms. In warmer climates frequent showering seem to make sense, yet in balmy regions like Turkey and Spain, bathing is less frequent. Dermatologists Dr. Joshua Zeichner and Dr. Ranella Hirsch discovered “a lot of the reasons we do it [bathing] is because of societal norms” and that it’s “really more of a cultural phenomenon”. I found this personally true; my mother in the south called me “unhygienic” after noting my shower frequency had reduced to 3-4 times a week after living in Beijing for four years.

But here’s the thing: frequent showering may actually be doing you more harm than good.


Showering too often, especially with hot water, actually is bad for the skin. Frequent showering washes away the good bacteria which aid the immune system, while also drying out the skin, resulting in small cracks that put the body in higher risk of infection. Babies and toddlers exposed to dirt and bacteria may develop less sensitive skin, preventing allergies and conditions like eczema.

So, back to the question: Scientifically speaking (vs. culturally), how often do you REALLY need to shower?

In general, you can probably skip a day or two. Under California’s dry climate, you could probably go even longer between shower. Think of all the water and time you’ll save! The length of the average shower is 11 minutes and uses about 27.5 gallons of water. Skipping showering every two to three days actually saves you 33-43.2 hours a year. If all 38 million California’s residents decreased their shower frequency to three times a week, we’d save over 217 billion gallons annually.

For those no shower days just use a washcloth or a cleansing towel to wipe clean sweatier parts of the body like the under arms, under the breasts, genitals, butt, and your face (perhaps not in that same order, nor with the same washcloth). Of course, your showering needs will depend on climate and how active your are. But be reasonable…if you’re filthy, hit the showers.

Besides taking fewer showers, how can we save more water while showering?

1. Take shorter showers. Aim for less than 5 minutes: We can all be more mindful about how long we take in the shower. Setting a kitchen timer or stopwatch is an easy way to keep track. Or try making it a competition with others in your household to see who can wash the quickest. Showers that last less than 5 minutes use less water than one bath, though that varies by showerhead.


An EPA-certified WaterSense showerhead.

2. Install a low-flow showerhead: It may cost you some money up front, but water conservation efforts will save you money down the road. Conventional showerheads flow at 5 gallons per minute or more, whereas low-flow showerheads typically flow at 2 gallons per minute or less. Some people may wonder whether such shower heads produce enough flow; look for EPA-certificated products on the market, as they’ve been reviewed and rated to “provide a satisfactory shower that is equal to or better than conventional showerheads on the market”.

ShowerStart TSV (Evolve Technologies)

ShowerStart TSV (Evolve Technologies)

3. Cut down behavioral waste with a special shower valve: Hot water doesn’t arrive immediately when you turn on the shower, and some people have developed a wasteful habit of turning on the shower then walking away to do other things until the shower warms up to their liking.

While some people suggest putting a bucket in the shower and reusing the water later for watering plants, flushing the toilet, or for cleaning, it is not a convenient solution. The truth is most people don’t want to really change their habits a whole lot, nor be inconvenienced. Evolve Technologies’s “thermostatic shut-off valve” can be installed behind the showerhead and was designed to abate this wasteful habit. The device permits cold water flow out freely when first turned on, but then tamps down on the flow when the outgoing water temperature hits 95 degrees. So when water stops flowing in the shower, you know the shower is sufficiently hot; the flow can be started back up at the pull a cord.

Navy shower rules.

Navy shower rules.

4. Shower Navy style: “Navy showers” as they’re known originated amongst sailors serving onboard naval ships where fresh water supply was often scarce. The Navy shower method is comprised of three steps: 1) an initial thirty seconds spray to get sufficiently wet, 2) followed by turning off the tap while soaping and lathering without running water, and finally 3) rinsing off in a minute or less. The total time for the water being on is typically under two minutes, conserving a great deal of water in the process. But even when stretched out to a luxurious 4-5 minutes by civilians, incorporating a “water off” lathering habit is a great idea for water conservation.



5. Keep airplants in your bathroom: If there is sufficient natural daylight in your bathroom, an efficient way to make use of the mist from a shower is keeping the elegant and drought-tolerant Tillandsia. Do note that the moisture from showering is supplemental to watering these airplants; never rely on the humidity produced by showers as the sole source of water for keeping airplants alive. However, airplant kept and cared in bathrooms with frequently used showers may prove to be healthier and happier than those kept elsewhere around the house.

Lake Tahoe Recession-5
While attending my nephew’s graduation at the University of Nevada in Reno, I spent this past weekend on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. I spent much of my outdoor childhood in the area hiking, skiing, camping, and backpacking. The Sierra Nevada was my backyard wilderness while growing up, so I was looking forward to my visit to the Lake.

Lake Tahoe Recession-9
Ascending the mountain through Virginia City, the drive was beautiful and scenic. There was one noticeable element that was missing during the drive – SNOW. You could see patches on the upper ridges, but it was something that I’d never experienced before. Not to sound too alarmist, but I’ve been going to Lake Tahoe for over 50 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.

Lake Tahoe Recession
The North Shore and Incline Village area received only 3% of its normal snow fall. I remember usually at this time of year this rustic community would be thawing from the winter with patches of dirty snow everywhere, but there was no snow to be found this time. Although it rained over the weekend and a dusting of snow fell in the mountains, the Tahoe basin felt dry, empty, and quiet.

Lake Tahoe Recession-3
I could even see the drought stress showing on a few of the large native Ponderosa Pine. Not a good sign. Lake Tahoe’s water level was so low that most of the private boat docks and ramps were unusable since the lake shore was over one hundred feet away. I stopped by one of the Nevada State Parks and found closed boat launching ramps, protruding boulders from the lake surface, and unusually wide beaches. The Park Ranger told me the boat launch area has been closed since mid-summer last year and is not schedule to be open anytime soon. It was sad to see the impact of the drought on the environment, ecology, community and it’s local economy. I know it is more distressing news, but it is critical that we continue to make present the caring of our sacred natural resource—water…

Lake Tahoe Recession-4

Photo: Topographic Map by TBWA Istanbul.

Photo: Topographic Map by TBWA Istanbul.

Several years ago my family decided that sustainability should begin with us. Thus we started reducing our household water, waste, and energy consumption. The transformation was not immediate despite our commitment. Although the people who lived around us seemed equally concerned about environmental issues, I remember nervously awaiting my neighbors’ reactions when we removed our front lawn. In the few years since, my drought tolerant front garden is among several in my area. The traditional lawn, however, is still prevalent in the neighborhood; so we can do much more as a community.

On April 1st, Governor Brown issued an executive order mandating a 25% reduction, from 2013 levels, in California’s water consumption. A frenzy of news reports and opinions followed the Governor’s announcement, accompanied by many eye-opening images showing the record lows of our lake and snowpack levels, the depletion of the Central Valley aquifer, and so much more.

Living a sustainable life sustainably is a practice that I am committed to personally and professionally. Our state’s crisis demands more rigorous conservation practices, even if it is disruptive to the way we live. In our profession of landscape architecture, water management and water distribution considerations will have greater significance in the design of spaces.

But, not everyone shares this point of view.

In the days since the Governor’s announcement, I have been surprised by people’s attitude of temporary compliance. Do people truly believe that our diminishing water supply will magically go away if the restrictions end? “Water fairies” will apparently save us.

Studies on human behavior reveal the complexity of a change in social practices. One such study, called the Consensus Project, examines sustainable consumption through multiple factors. Its findings indicate that people develop, over time, perceptions of what is “normal” for their daily routines and physical comfort and these perceptions shape behaviors. A new definition of “normal” must be reached for a change in social practice to occur. The situation we now face seems to be a defining moment for social transformation.