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21st October 2019
...continued from Part 1

No. My toilet requires about 1.3 gallons for each flush, and I don’t have 4.6 bowel movements per day, which is now a thing you know about me. I had more gray water than I could use. With this realization, I felt as I had in the grocery store. I wanted to do good, and well, but I didn’t know how. So I started pouring out the leftover gallons to flush the yellow I should have mellowed. But I didn’t feel great about it. And the occasional splash-back was gross.

In addition to being full of dirtied water, my apartment was also full of dirty everything else. By the end of the week, glasses and mugs that I’d repeatedly reused­—as well as plates, pots, and pans that I hadn’t pre-rinsed— packed the dishwasher. Its interior held an almost-fossilized record of what I’d eaten.

And I needed to do laundry. All week I’d worn the same jeans (2,600 gallons of water to make). I put them in the freezer daily, which, like hanging them in the UV-filled sunshine, is said to kill some of the odor-causing bacteria (but there doesn’t seem to be any science to back this up). And I’d worn only two shirts: one, a thrift-store flannel that had used up 700 gallons in the factory—but that was on the original owner’s conscience; the other, an athletic top whose synthetic fibers had a smallish water footprint but a sizable carbon one. My running clothes, also synthetic, could probably have sprinted on their own. I realized how easy it had become to wear the same outfits repeatedly—almost nice, in the no-choices way of school uniforms. I work from home and hadn’t seen anyone more than once except my sister, and I could not care less what she thinks of my fashion choices.

But even with the experiment nearing completion, these garments did not amount to a full load of laundry. According to good conservation principles, I’d have to mess up more clothes or add sheets to turn on my high-efficiency washer. It was a source of pride to me that Denver prizes sustainability-friendly appliances, giving rebates for those certified by the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense program, which is like the Energy- Star of water. Machines with this label use 20 percent less than do standard appliances.

But still, my house left me feeling off-kilter. I like order, neatness, and cleanliness—and now I was surrounded by evidence of all the messes I’d made throughout the week.

Recalculating, Recalculating

Friday morning, the final day of my experiment, I peed on top of my pee, pulled my jeans out of the freezer, drank one paltry cup of ­coffee, grimaced at my oatmeal, and sat down to calculate how much more responsible an earthling I had become.

Adding up drinking water, showers, hand-washing, tooth-brushing, and cooking, I’d used about 6.25 gallons every day. My dishwasher had drawn about three for its single cycle, bringing my direct use to 46.75 gallons, or just under seven gallons per day. Denver water conservation manager Jeff Tejral told me that efficient customers use around 20 to 30 gallons per day. I patted myself on the back.

I had also done well in terms of indirect use. I’d walked everywhere except for two driving trips—to the mountains for the tree and to the suburbs to pick up mail for a ­vacationing friend—totaling 216 miles of travel and ­guzzling about 76 gallons of water.

The food for my vegan meals had been produced at a cost of about 500 gallons of water a day; my diet before this week had taken around 850 gallons per day (a omnivorous one would have consumed 1,056). The two beers and half bottle of champagne I’d drunk—I finished writing a book, OK? I deserved it!—required 410 gallons of water. After adding in 37 gallons of water for each of the two cups of coffee I had per day, my drinking totaled 928 gallons of water for the week. In sum, my footprint on the water world was 4,550 gallons for the week, or 650 per day, not including the wet cost of electricity. When I checked my math using the same online water calculator I’d used at the beginning—which considers electricity—I got 730 gallons per day. I had decreased my water use by about 45 percent, to just 35 percent of the national average consumption.

That sounds like it justifies bragging, but our national average is actually terrible. My experimental footprint was the same size as a Chinese citizen’s normal one. Over in Norway, the per-capita use is just half a U.S. citizen’s, and right around the global average. Which is to say there’s room for improvement here at home. If everyone in the U.S. used 20 percent less—still more than twice what I did—they would each save 152,424 gallons of water a year. That’s 49 trillion gallons across the whole country. When you think about it that way, each of us can make a huge difference—especially if our sustainable actions encourage others to behave similarly.

And that is how large-scale water-use changes happen, says Missouri State’s Jones. If enough people start employing a particular conservation tactic—leaving liquids in the toilet, ripping out Bermuda grass and putting in native plants—that thing becomes the expected behavior. “It’s a culture change,” he says.

The community flips its reward-punishment system. Instead of shaming you for your brown-grass yard, friends might instead criticize your lush landscaping. Conversely, they might start telling you how great your cactuses look. We’re hard-wired to want to conform. Essentially, we all want to think that we take action based on personal choice or because we want to help the planet—not because we’re following the crowd. But in reality, if our social circle is water-friendly, chances are much higher that we personally will be too.

And if not, not.

So while my individual sacrifices might not register at my water utility, they can influence my family, friends, and neighbors. Those one-by-one modifications create collective change: They make conservation normal. I knew that after dawn the next day, I’d probably eat eggs for breakfast and have a cheeseburger once in a while. I would definitely wear more than two outfits. In the shower, I would sometimes let myself have two songs.

But I would also turn off the taps more quickly. I would evaluate my groceries for their origin and water usage. I would let all yellows mellow. Sometimes I’d gravity-flush the toilet with gray water. And before I would eat meat or drive or buy a new cotton shirt, I’d think about how much water saturated those decisions. I’d probably do less of all three.

And that’s what really changed that week—not the choices I would make going forward but the thought process behind them. For every action I’d take, I’d think about how water factors in. And I’d hope that the people around me took notice. Because water, water is not everywhere. But it’s pretty much involved in everything. After a week of remembering that 15 times an hour, I’ll remember it forever.