How to Conserve Water: A Lesson From the Rain


In the first 13 days of December we’ve already gotten 6 inches of rain here. The normal rainfall for the entire month in our area is 3.2 inches. Last month we had 9.6 inches of rain; the norm for November is 3.06″. That’s 15.6 inches of rain in a month and a half in an area where the norm is 4.44″ for the same time period. So why am I talking about something close to a flood in a post about water conservation? That’s a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way.

I thought I’d gotten pretty good at conserving water at home. We don’t let the water run when we brush our teeth. We run only full loads in the dishwasher and we have a front-loading high efficiency washing machine. When we replaced the toilet in our downstairs bathroom, we bought a “low-flow” model. We also have low-flow shower heads in both showers.

But then the rains came.

Our house was built in 1964 and is one of the first three houses in our neighborhood. Ours was the first side street. Most of the neighborhood is on the county sewer system, but our house, like the rest of the houses on our street, has a septic system. Septic tanks fill and then leach into drain fields through a series of pipes in the yard. It turns out that once the ground gets really saturated (from something like 3 times the normal rainfall), there’s nowhere for the stuff in the pipes to go. The only option is for it to go back into the tank. Once the tank is full, it can either go back into the pipes, or back into the house.

Ah. . . water conservation.

The septic system did back up into our house, but only a little bit, thankfully. It was enough to completely gross me out, but not nearly as horrible as many of the stories I’ve heard since from others. We quickly called a company to pump out the tank. The nice man who came to our house pumped 1500 gallons out of a 1000 gallon tank. He explained that as soon as he emptied the tank, the “stuff” in the lines poured back in because there was nowhere for it to go. “Until it dries out around here,” he said, we should try to use as little water as possible. He suggested things like, flushing only when “absolutely necessary,” taking super-fast showers, making sure to run only completely full loads in the dishwasher, and not doing that any more than we had to.

As someone who has prided herself on her conservation skills, I wondered how we could cut back further, but it’s amazing what you can do when you’re paying acute attention. And I assure you, when my attention would determine whether or not I ended up with septic back-up in my house again, it was acute. I have been much more aware of how much water I’m using. Instead of turning on the faucet full blast to rinse my toothbrush, the task is accomplished just as well by turning it on only half-way. Instead of mindlessly sloshing water all around the sink while I rinse out the coffee pot, I’ve been careful to use just what’s needed and then turn it off.

While I’ll be happy when the ground dries out and I won’t have to worry about sewage pouring into my home, I don’t think I’ll abandon my attention to the water. One of the things I stress here on the blog is that being greener isn’t hard, it just takes some thought and paying attention to our habits. It’s easy to overlook the little things, but those little things add up. While every wasted drop may not result in your floors flowing with septic sludge, it doesn’t take any more effort to use less; it just takes your attention.

How about you? Have you ever been in mandatory conservation mode? What did you learn?

Photo Credit: Greig