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“Water is the new oil”

September 6, 2013

I can recall when our monthly water bill was barely fifteen bucks. Today it hovers around $70 and the headlines tell us that the world is experiencing a decline in usable freshwater. That’s why my husband and I invested in a 50-gallon rain barrel (189+ liters).  We installed it five days ago and today it’s nearly full, even after watering the numerous plants on the deck. These 50 gallons were easily accumulated by altering our household habits.

Menard's square rain barrel costs less than $50.00.

Menard’s square rain barrel costs less than $50.00.

It was a light-bulb moment in which things suddenly become obvious; we couldn’t believe that we didn’t see this earlier. Our basement is humid and we keep two dehumidifiers running 24/7. It dawned on me last week that it was an act of colossal stupidity to generate good water and then pour it down the drain. The basement plumbing empties into a pit where a pump then lifts the contents to sewer level, which means that not only did we generate the water using electricity, we also disposed of it using electricity. The two dehumidifiers need to be emptied four times a day which amounts to eight gallons of good clear water. This is an obvious waste and we resolved to begin pouring the dehumidifier contents into a rain barrel instead of jettisoning it.

Another obvious source of waste is the bathtub. In our ongoing attempts to be more energy-efficient, we switched to an on-demand hot water heater three years ago. Although we indeed saved on gas, we began to waste much more water, because whenever we turned on the shower we would have to wait about two minutes while the pipes emptied their load of cold water and allowed the new hot water to flow from the utility room in the basement to the bathroom upstairs. We are now catching that wasted cold water in a five-gallon bucket. The bucket fills halfway each time we start the shower first thing in the morning, which means that we have been wasting 2.5 gallons per day, 365 days per year, for a total of probably a thousand gallons a year of good water down the drain. But no more! We are using that captured shower water to flush the toilet instead, thereby reducing our household water usage.

A 50-gallon water container is really nothing when compared with the amount of rainwater that lands on a roof during a single heavy rain. A cistern holding one to five thousand gallons would be a far better solution . This portion of south-central Indiana is prone to late-summer dry spells and the early inhabitants of this area knew that very well. Every old house on the Near West Side of Bloomington had cisterns made of brick or limestone in their cellars or buried just outside the back door, convenient to the old kitchens. Gutter downspouts fed these cisterns and they provided drinking and washing water for families well into the early 1900s.

We should learn a lesson from our great-great-great-grandparents and build a new generation of cisterns behind every home. We cannot rely upon the artificial lakes hereabouts to continue supplying  high-quality water. None of them were designed to function indefinitely; they are currently silting up and accumulating toxins from motorboat fuel spills. If they become unable to supply the same quality and quantity of water that we are used to, then the future of the city, the county and the university is threatened.

Lake Griffy, constructed in the 1920s, was emptied last year so the dam could be repaired and the bottom dredged. This used to be a deepish lake; now it resembles a pasture.

Lake Griffy, constructed in the 1920s, was emptied last year so the dam could be repaired and the bottom dredged. This used to be a deepish lake; now it resembles a pasture.

A large cistern has the ability to provide sufficient water to meet household needs throughout the year, barring a calamitous year-long drought. We have had ninety years of complacency since Lake Griffy was completed, enough time to learn to think of water as a given thing, a perennial resource. But historically, in this part of the state, water was never something that could be relied upon. And with the climate becoming disrupted, it’s likely that we will have heavier rainbursts, longer periods of drought, and higher temperatures. It’s good to get into the habit of conservation now, before the problem grows worse. And a rain barrel is an excellent way to start.

For a sobering read, see

From → ideas and trends

  1. I’ve been trying to talk my husband into a rain barrel for awhile. He’s not buying it yet. We have a well, so a water bill isn’t an issue for us.

    I toss the water from my basement dehumidifier in my washer to use for the next load.

  2. janice permalink

    good for you, julie! i grew up in ohio. we had a cistern. we took the lid off once when we had problems with the pump. i was little and don’t remember the details. but i agree, it could have been used for washing the clothes.
    i now live in arizona and very much appreciate the value of water. we have learned to find ways to conserve, unlike many other people here. my husband has used clean rinse water for the next load of wash, saved the little bit of rain water for the plants, taught the children to respect water. we have a plastic dish tub in the sink for the plants and have done the bucket in the shower thing also. thank you for the article

    • People who live in arid regions have far more reason to conserve water than those living in the Midwest, certainly. I wish I’d begun doing this years ago, but late is better than never. Hats off to you for sensible water conservation, Janice. And thanks for writing!

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  1. Update: the home water conservation project | housesandbooks

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