Living with less water: Lessons for Californians – and the rest of us – from a New Mexico village
Let me start right off by saying that I failed. Miserably. Last summer I moved to western Colorado after spending most of my 29 years in exceptionally rainy places, and amid discussions of water rights and fights and rivers drying up and unraveling, I decided it would be a good idea to limit my own water footprint. For one week, I’d live on just five gallons of water a day. Then I’d write about it.
I could envision two possible endings:
Scenario One: While standing naked in the bathtub, smugly dribbling water over my head from a cup dipped in a bucket, I conclude that I must be in the 99th percentile of environmentally conscious Americans because living on five gallons a day requires little sacrifice. My houseplants thrive, I remain clean and good-natured, and the brilliant essay I planned to write suffers because it was too easy.
Scenario Two: One week into my experiment, I am ragged and filthy. My plants have withered and I've been shunned at work for peeing in a chamber pot under my desk. I am desperate for a hot shower, and when I finally turn on the faucet and step into the tub, I experience deep revelations that lead to a brilliant essay about limiting my water supply.
Scenario Three never made an appearance in my daydreams, but this is what really happened: It's Monday night – a mere three days after my resolution to live for a week on limited water – and I am sitting in bed freshly showered. I did not shower with a bucket. In other words, I didn't even make it to the end of the week.
For me, five gallons a day was a quirky experiment. For the 17 California communities on a list released last month by state health officials, it may become reality: As drought tightens its grip on the state, each community is at risk of running out of drinking water within 100 days. Officials are discussing trucking in water as a possible solution.
In one such place, a town of 1,200 called Lompico, water comes from underground aquifers replenished by rainwater. The problem is, there hasn’t been much rain lately: California received an average of just 7 inches in 2013, compared to their usual 22, and the Sierra Nevada snowpack that feeds many reservoirs is at 12 percent of normal. Lompico residents have been asked to cut their water usage by 30 percent, but as Water District Board president Lois Henry pointed out to the San Francisco Chronicle, “We live in the Santa Cruz Mountains. People don't have lawns. They don't have gardens. How are they going to conserve 30 percent?"
California isn’t the only state to face water shortages; residents of Magdalena, N.M., might be able to offer a few water-conserving suggestions. Last June, Magdalena’s sole well ran dry, and for several weeks Socorro County officials had to truck in water from the county seat, 30 miles away. For a while, families received two plastic water bottles and a five-gallon tank per day. The medical clinic shut its doors. Restaurants switched to disposable plates. Tourism effectively ceased, and some people living in rental properties packed their bags and moved on. It was like a glimpse into a drought-wracked dystopian future – or a not-so-distant future, if predictions that the California drought will persist for several months or longer prove accurate.
Dara Machotka-Hafey and her husband, Jonathan, wanted to stay in Magdalena. The year before, they’d bought the only Laundromat in a 60-mile radius, added a mercantile where locals could buy fresh produce, and were renovating an Airstream trailer to live in with their 4-year-old daughter, Nia.
The Laundromat drew customers from as far away as the Navajo reservation and the town of Datil, 40 miles west. The Machotka-Hafeys were still living paycheck-to-paycheck, but they had hope. “We were struggling,” Dara says, “but it was getting better, you know?”
Municipalities in New Mexico are encouraged to have at least two public water sources, but long-term financial strain meant that Magdalena only had one. Socorro County has reduced its water usage by 10 percent since 1995, which seems great until you consider that neighboring Sierra County has reduced its usage by more than half. It’s arguable whether Magdalena went dry because of drought, poor planning or a combination of the two, but on June 4, after a protracted dry spell, utilities manager Steve Bailey checked Magdalena’s water supply and was “dumbfounded.”
So the town went without. Nurses couldn’t wash their hands, elderly residents couldn’t run swamp coolers, and Dara and Jonathan were forced to close their business, which used up to 24,000 gallons of water a month. They’re seeking legal council to help recover the financial loss, and have relocated to Datil, where there’s no preschool for Nia. “I was thoroughly depressed for a month,” Dara says.
Yet though the lack of water devastated Dara’s business, it didn’t affect her personal habits much. She says her family had already cut their water usage down to a few hundred gallons a month. It’s a stark difference from Palm Springs, Calif., where the average comes to 736 gallons a day per person (see left)– which itself is a big jump from the 79 daily gallons that residents of East Palo Alto, Calif., use. Water use in California varies greatly with climate (desert towns use more water than the foggy coastal regions), local policies and socioeconomics (rich towns use more than poor), but overall, the state guzzles the most water in the U.S.
Not far away in New Mexico, the arid climate has forced many residents to cut back. Though the changes may not be by choice, Machotka-Hafey says her neighbors have adapted.
“We live on very little for our personal selves, so it’s not a big deal for us to do sponge baths and stuff,” she says. “It was a hassle in certain aspects, but … as far as our comfort, we’re used to not being comfortable. A lot of people (around here) are used to struggling. You put one more struggle into the basket and they can do it.”
I thought I could do it too. I’d spent a year in a developing country, a winter in an off-grid cabin and many months in the wilderness collecting water from streams. But I was uninformed about American toilets. A toilet built after 1994 uses 1.6 gallons of water or less, so the first morning of my experiment, I flushed without hesitation. Then a friend informed me that my toilet is like the 1969 Cadillac Deville of toilets — definitely a pre-‘94 model. He examined the tank and concluded it may use five gallons per flush. Five gallons! I’d just flushed my entire daily ration down the drain.
That night, my housemates decided to have a barbeque, which was good because it meant less water for cooking. It also created a lot of dishes.
Machotka-Hafey laughs when I tell her this. “Oh no,” she says. “You have to use paper plates and stuff. Like in a developing country, where everyone’s eating with their hands or eating out of one pot.”
“You shouldn’t be taking a shower every day,” she adds. “And you shouldn’t be doing crazy things like flushing your toilet every time you pee.”
After the barbeque, I refrained from washing dishes, but the dishes nonetheless got washed. I surreptitiously turned on the tap to wipe gunk from my hand when no one was looking. And brushing my teeth later that night, it wasn’t until I was in the midst of spitting into a stream of rushing water that I realized what I was doing. This using-less thing, I realized, is going to take some doing.
Correction: 'Living with less water' has been updated to reflect that New Mexico municipalities are encouraged to have two water sources. A previous version stated they were required to have two water sources. The story also now states that residents received two water bottles and a five-gallon tank at the beginning of the water shortage. Later, say state officials, efforts were made to distribute a greater ration.
Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.