Water Conservation News and Tips
from Please Conserve

Water-Wise Gardening in the Southwest

Water is one resource that can’t be manufactured, and despite all the technological advances made over the decades, water still dictates where and how we live.  In the Southwest, rapid commercial and residential development has put increased demand on available water supplies, and with years below-average rainfall, local municipalities have put the brakes of domestic water consumption with water-conservation regulations and usage restrictions.

When faced with hot, dry weather, and higher utility bills, homeowners must get creative in conserving water and increasing savings. Reducing your consumption can start with looking out your front window. What do you see? If the answer is a large expanse of grass, get out your spade. Watering lawns accounts for a large percentage of water usage in households, particularly in arid climates. Rip out the lawn, and then rent a roto-tiller to turn over the soil. Then, you can place plastic sheeting over the area and stake it in place for a few weeks. Hot sun and resulting high temperatures will kill any remaining roots or grass seed.

What to use in place of grass? There are many alternative ground covers that look attractive and require no irrigation. Decorative pea gravel, bark mulch and river rock are inexpensive options. A newer product, rubberized, recycled mulch, stays in place and looks tidy. Now that your water-greedy lawn is gone, update your irrigation systems to make them more efficient. If you have in-ground sprinklers, install an automatic timer with multiple zones so you don’t waste water on plants that don’t need it. Smart irrigation doesn’t have to be expensive — simple soaker hoses snaked through your perennial beds deliver water directly to the soil where plants soak it up. You minimize wasted water on evaporation and spillage.

Think shade in summer, particularly on the west and south-facing exposures of your property. Large, vented garden umbrellas provide an instant and portable shelter for potted plants and awnings attached to your home shade planting beds as well as the interior of the house.

When hot, dry weather and water restrictions turn your water-thirsty plants brown and sickly replace them with drought-tolerant plantings. Plants native to the Southwest have adapted to deal with low-water conditions and are more available in commercial nurseries than ever before. Plants such as salvias or sages provide you with color and interest in the yard as well as provide food and shelter for birds and honeybees. Succulents do well in dry shade, and cactus plants thrive in well-draining soil and full sun. Landscaping for water conservation saves you money as well as improving your home’s curb appeal. Smart gardening lets you make a positive difference in our thirsty nation.

Save water and money with a composting toilet

Composting toilets have been a common sight at cottages, cabins and other remote sites for decades. In 2011, as growing problems of water supply, water quality and drought become ever more evident to the public, the idea of a toilet that uses no water is growing in popularity.

Many companies are taking advantage of this popularity and marketing a wide variety of waterless toilets. Some are freestanding, some are connected to under-floor holding tanks, some use electric fans and some are completely passive. All of them, however, are a major investment for a person of average or lower income. Commercial composting toilets start at around $600.00, and can easily cost more than $1000.00.

Happily, Joseph Jenkins offers an excellent alternative in his book The Humanure Handbook [Chelsea Green, 2005]. For the cost of a five gallon bucket and a few pieces of wood, you can reduce the amount of drinking water that you flush down the toilet to zero. The secret lies in the proper use of sawmill sawdust to suppress odors and to assist in the composting process. The bucket is emptied into an outdoor composting bin, and Mother Nature takes care of the rest.

Over the span of 250 pages, Jenkins explains everything you need to know about composting toilets, and goes into great detail about the safety of compost with human waste in it, effectively counteracting those he accuses of “fecophobia.” 

According to Jenkins, the traditional use of “night soil,” or uncomposted human waste, on agricultural fields in Asia, as well as the controversial practice of spreading sewage sludge on fields in North America, have given human waste a bad name. He explains the critical difference between raw waste, sewage sludge and composted waste. Raw human waste is smelly and unhealthy, while sewage sludge is mixed with anything and everything that goes down storm drains or toilets, including pharmaceuticals, petroleum products and other toxins. Composted human waste, particularly if it has been raised to a temperature high enough to encourage thermophilic microorganisms, is not only safe but a great asset to soil health.

Modern agriculture has created a linear system that is dependent on massive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, followed by the disposal of human waste into increasingly scarce supplies of clean water. By replacing the chemicals with compost, and removing the waste from the water, we can begin to reconnect a circular system that is healthy, self-regulating and sustainable.

In keeping with Bill Mollison’s permaculture proverb that “the problem is the solution,” Jenkins demonstrates how the very source of widespread poor health and water pollution can be transformed, through the alchemical magic of composting, into a valuable resource.

As rain barrel use grows so do questions and answers

Call it Yankee ingenuity if you will, but Americans are becoming more curious – and acceptable – of the idea of using rain barrels on their property because they have figured out ways to make them look good and operate properly.

This newest wave of acceptance for rain barrels is fueled mostly by the growing green movement – because the rain barrel captures rainfall and directs it back toward trees and plants, instead of down driveways and streets into the sewer system. It is also fueled by a better understanding and growing knowledge of what the barrels do and don’t do, in addition to addressing some common worries about placing these rain collectors near a home.

First, it seems that most fears about rain barrels have to do with the nuisances they attract, as they can become an inviting breeding ground for mosquitoes or a gathering spot for thirsty animals. The solution is fairly obvious. It is highly recommended that a screen, much like those used on windows, is placed atop the rain barrel. A good caulking job at the spot where the downspout comes into the barrel can fill up any potential gaps.

Those not familiar with rain barrels seem to think you have to scoop the water out of the barrel with a pail or bucket when you want to use it for watering. A rain barrel with a hose fitting is the most common, and it allows you to just screw on a hose and start watering when needed.

There are also general concerns about rain barrels in terms of the amount of rainwater they can handle. Or, more accurately, will a rain barrel ever overflow during heavy rains, or will it go dry quickly during dry spells?

Experts reveal that every inch of rainfall on a 1,000-square-foot roof will result in 600 gallons of rainwater collected. This basically means you will fill a barrel, or several barrels around your home, in very little time. Those thinking in terms of saving money on tap water usage can get very interested in a rain barrel with those kinds of numbers. A watering can will be used hundreds of times with that kind of rainwater storage on your property.

If you live in a rainy part of the country where, say, it is not uncommon to get 20 inches of rain in the spring and summer, it adds up quickly to as much as 12,000 gallons of free water. It makes sense to build or buy a rain barrel that has an overflow mechanism, such as an inside tube that directs water away from a house to garden or yard.

And finally, after all of the financial and conservation savings on tap water use, those who support the rain barrel concept simply feel that rainwater is excellent for lawns, flowers and trees. There is no denying that argument, based on how plant life has flourished from rainwater since the dawn of time.

The movement is on for recycling human waste

There is a movement afoot to make better use of human waste to cut down on the heavy use of water and machinery at wastewater treatment plants. A growing number of experts are examining the potential of using composting toilets to make fertilizer, in addition to transforming sewage sludge into fuel that could heat buildings.

The main benefit is the conservation of water used in the wastewater treatment plants, and in the flushing of toilets, which occurs about five times a day in a typical American household. Reports from five years ago through the U.S. Geological Survey indicated that Americans use about 410 billion gallons of water a day, 30 percent of those gallons coming from flushed toilets.

Water reclamation districts throughout the country, particularly in big cities, are spending millions of dollars treating wastewater, lending credence to the theory that better use of human waste could translate to significant money savings as well.

At its basic level, the recycling of human waste creates soil compost that can be used by gardeners.

Researchers and “green” authors are calling for a close look at recycling human waste, saying it has long been ignored as a potential resource. Residents who buy into the concept across the country have begun using composting toilets, which work much the same way as a flushing toilet, except the waste is collected in a composter. A fan draws the waste down into the composter and the odor is released through an outdoor vent.Organic mulch or wood shavings are sometimes added to break the waste down. After breakdown is complete, the compost is released through a lid, put into sacks and eventually used as fertilizer.

Green enthusiasts view this as the ultimate connection between man and the land. There is nothing illegal about using human waste as a compost product, but there are regulations in place about composting that must be followed.

Conservationists hope another step will take hold as a connection between technology and the waste that humans produce, if major cities begin to embrace the use of sewage sludge as a way to produce methane gas and convert it into a less expensive power source. An experiment already underway in San Antonio, Texas, and California is researching a fuel-cell conversion device that would convert human waste into hydrogen fuel.

Those pushing the use of human waste as a resource have a simple math equation working in their favor. Think of the population of this country and the amount of human waste produced. And then ask how much water it takes to treat all that?

Good for environment and corporation’s public image

If major corporations and universities all converted their campuses with sustainable earth care in mind, there would be far less damage to our rivers and forests.

And it would cost less money, conserve energy and water, and cut down on pollution caused by lawn mowers.

If every resident had a rain garden and a rain barrel in an attempt to keep any rainfall of one inch or less on their own property, it could eliminate up to 80 percent of today’s flooding problems.

Those are the facts as Bill Bedrossian of Bedrock Earthscapes in Wheaton, IL, sees them. Bedrossian, with more than 35 years of experience in landscape design, grounds and facility management, recently shared his ideas during a “Renewability and Sustainability” seminar at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Wheaton.

“We need systems to capture rainfall, clean it and reuse it,” Bedrossian said. “We do that through green roofs, rain barrels, rain gardens, vegetated swales, native plantings and porous pavement.”

Bedrossian said the current system of rain gutters, rainspouts and man-made retention ponds and wetlands actually hurts the environment.

“All we do is move our floodwater with salt and oil and other run-off and move it off our property and into our streams and rivers, where it flows into our forest preserves and kills native plants, allowing only invasives to grow and thrive.”

When major corporations utilize native plantings and landscape plans that handle water run-off and reuse it, they are showing good corporate social responsibility and saving money.

“We spend more money on water and fertilizer on our lawns in this country than we do on agriculture,” Bedrossian said. “Sustainability is defined as using only what we need so there is something left for future generations.

“Sustainable practices are the wave of the future because they enhance biodiversity and support the LEED and emerging stormwater best management practices.”

Bedrossian said a vegetable garden on your property is a great way to process rainwater and help the soil.

“Young people today don’t know how to plant a vegetable garden, because they’ve never been exposed to it,” Bedrossian said. “They are teaching it now in college, if you can imagine that.”

Bedrossian said that huge parking lots at businesses or college campuses are perfect places to start employing bio-swales – the green areas with plants or trees that break up a large parking lot.

“We are also starting to see more no-mow types of turf, especially in areas near parking lots or on sloping hills,” he added. “It doesn’t make sense to mow long grass near a parking lot, and then all of that grass sits on the parking lot, until it flows off into the sewers.”

For homeowners, Bedrossian suggests that those who have low-lying areas that collect water and are hard to mow through, should consider a rain garden in those areas.

“If everyone had a rain garden in their front yards, we’d eliminate a lot of our flooding problems, while also conserving on the use of our own water,” Bedrossian said.

Artificial turf debate picks up green steam

The benefit of utilizing artificial turf as a standard feature on high school football fields across the nation is a debate gaining  momentum – mostly because it cuts down on the cost of replacing or patching natural turf, watering it and lining it with chalk and/or paint. But the artificial turf question is relevant for businesses, airports, and as a general part of any landscaper’s plans.

The dramatic money savings in water and other maintenance, as well as artificial turf’s environmental benefits, can offset the thought of a little less natural green in our world. Granted, athletic departments at high schools operate with budgets that make it entirely impractical to consider the actual watering of a dry football or soccer field on a regular basis — but it’s that lack of water that can deteriorate a field. Or, it can be too much water during a rainy football season that renders a field a muddy swamp – eventually torn up and in need of major replanting and watering.

Some 40 years ago, when artificial turf made its debut at the Houston Astrodome, the surface was criticized because it could become as hard as concrete in an outdoor setting during the cold winter months, and it didn’t look like natural grass.

Today, the turfs being used are much softer and last up to 15 or 20 years. School districts and sports boosters are quick to point out how much water, turf and other maintenance costs can be saved over that period of time – with some estimates being close to $2 million over that 20-year time frame.

Landscapers are starting to realize the benefits of artificial turf in some settings, pointing out that when strategically placed it can aid in controlling surrounding soil erosion.

In airport settings, artificial turf is now being considered as a way to minimize erosion from aircraft maneuvering, which cuts down on asphalt and concrete and any run-off into nearby soils.

Conservationists who see the benefits of artificial turf in certain circumstances generally point to three major environmental aspects – no need for watering, thus protecting natural resources; no need for pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides and fungicides; and most importantly a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions from mowing, weed-whacking and edging.

Artificial turf has had its place in modern life, but its benefits in saving money for school districts and businesses, while also conserving resources and reducing air pollution, is increasing the desire for a closer look.

Worldwide Desalination Plant Investment to Double by 2016

Water scarcity, population and economic growth, pollution and urbanization are all placing increased pressure on freshwater resources around the world. The gap between the supply of freshwater and demand for water for industrial, agricultural and domestic use is growing at a rapid pace. At the same time, the cost of desalination has come down steadily, and it is becoming a more affordable means of meeting the world’s growing freshwater needs. According to a new report from Pike Research, all of these factors will contribute to strong growth in the desalination technology market over the next several years. The market intelligence firm forecasts that global desalination investment will double from $8.3 billion in 2010 to $16.6 billion per year by 2016, representing cumulative spending of $87.8 billion during that period.

“The desalination plant supplier market is highly fragmented, despite a great deal of mergers and acquisitions activity during the last decade,” says managing director Clint Wheelock. “The top five suppliers captured only 25 percent of the market from 2007 to 2009. And as reverse osmosis is increasingly adopted as the major desalination technology, the barriers to entry are being lowered.”
In contrast, however, Wheelock notes that the market for key desalination components is far more concentrated. For example, more than 65 percent of the market for reverse osmosis membranes is controlled by three large players. The markets for high-pressure pumps and energy recovery devices are also quite concentrated. Pike Research’s analysis indicates that these competitive dynamics will be critically important as the stakes continue to increase in the rapidly growing global desalination market.

Pike Research anticipates that the Middle East/North Africa region will continue to be the global hub of desalination plant construction, but there will be significant growth opportunities in other parts of the world as well. The firm forecasts that, in 2016, the top five markets in terms of installed capacity will be Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, China, and Israel. Worldwide desalination capacity will reach 126 million cubic meters per day by 2016, up from 76 million in 2010.

Pike Research is a market research and consulting firm that provides in-depth analysis of global clean technology markets. For more information, visit

Healthy water supply calls for proper disposal of unwanted meds

As awareness grows about the damage that unwanted pharmaceuticals could cause to the nation’s water supply, more government agencies and communities are hiring recycling companies to conduct “drop-off” days or weekends to collect such unwanted medications.

One such drop-off day in the suburbs of Boston, Mass., in the summer of 2008 resulted in a 30-gallon barrel being filled to the brim and overflowing with medications that the residents no longer needed.

At universities and high schools across the country, the dilemma of medications getting into the water supplies or groundwater aquifers has been prominent enough to develop class studies. A “Disposal of Unwanted Medications” curriculum has been developed to help high school youth understand why chemicals from medications are being found in the environment, the harm these chemicals can cause, and what can be done about it. Such courses often have a heavy emphasis on the science behind wastewater.

Part of the dilemma, of course, is that the federal government for years advised flushing prescriptions down the toilet once they were no longer needed. The premise had been it was the most effective way to keep the drugs out the hands of young children in the home. While it was safe and sound advice in that regard, it is now a cause for concern in that testing has shown pharmaceutical waste is getting into the nation’s water supplies via groundwater. An Associated Press investigation a year ago found that the drinking water supplies of 41 million Americans are contaminated with some level of pharmaceuticals.

Not all states mandate testing of water supplies for traces of controlled substances, but it is likely to become more common – as will “drop-off” days for the purpose of incinerating the drugs — which can be costly but is considered safer for the environment.What are the options at this time? Ask if your pharmacy is involved in any program in which unused medications are collected. Ask your local government leaders if the recycling companies they use have any protocol for unwanted pharmaceuticals. Watch for any possible “collection” days or weekends in your area.

Your state health or environmental protection departments may conduct annual “household hazardous waste” collection days as an alternative to special take-back events, and it is possible those events would include unused medications as well as supplies, such as hypodermic needles.Some states are testing mail-back programs, in which the drugs are sent directly to state drug-enforcement authorities for disposal.

Travel the lawn-care time machine to conserve water and money

Could the current “green” awareness movement result in millions of Americans and Europeans going back in time?
If so, the place to start this time travel apparently is in our own back yards – and front yards.

The green, weed-free and well-manicured lawns of today didn’t exist in America until late in the 18th century. Before that, a typical rural home would simply have packed dirt or a garden with various plants and vegetables in the front of the home.

Wealthy folks in Europe were the first to start manicuring their lawns and actually defying nature – by trying to make one species of plant, in this case grass, dominate a wide area. Nature, being what it is, will fight that notion and push for a more diverse setting – thus the years-old battle against weeds and other invasive plants on our beautiful lawns.

When industrialists from America traveled to Europe, they came back with the thought that these beautiful, sweeping lawns on an estate were a sign of prestige and beauty.

So it was, the well-manicured lawn was born in America. It wasn’t until years later, with the creation of power mowers and garden hoses that having a green lawn became more practical. And its staying power has been significant, with a major upswing during the Baby Boom era and the creation of the modern subdivision in the 1950s. Until then, taking care of a lawn took too much time and effort for most families.

So, fast-forward to the modern day “green” movement – and we’re back to talking about the environmental and financial benefits of creating low-maintenance gardens or natural prairie plants on one’s property in place of the lavish, sprawling lawn.

There is no doubt that those little patches of green at the homes of most Americans have translated into huge business. Before the current recession took hold, a Gallup survey in the early 2000’s indicated that more than 26 million households had hired “a green professional” and that the number was expected to grow.

Environmentalists estimate that there are about 40 million to 50 million acres of lawn in the United States. Considering that in some parts of the country, an average size lawn can soak in 10,000 gallons of water a month, the amount of water used in greening up our lawns nationwide is staggering.

Slowly, some are switching over to native plants and grasses, some of which need to be cut only twice a year and can also be used to create a “meadow” as a play area for children.

A grass seed known as “eco-turf” seed is becoming more popular, as it is blended with plants such as wildflowers and clover. Most feedback from owners of such a turf claim it holds up better for kids and pets, requires very little water and virtually no fertilizing.

For many, it means putting away the sprinklers and spreaders while saving money and water through a process that actually creates an environmentally friendly habitat on their property.

Getting Rid of Your Old Cell Phones Without Harming the Environment

You see a notice on occasion that a cell-phone recycling program is taking place in your community, but too many of us just let old cell phones pile up in a drawer or supply closet.

The same happens at any number of businesses, large and small. The result is that nearly 800 million cell phones, piling up since 1980, are no longer in use. The bad news is that, eventually, we get tired of seeing old cell phones gathering dust, and far too many of us throw them out with our regular trash.

The Environmental Protection Agency calculates that in a single year, such as 2009, the total number of cell phones disposed of and ending up primarily in landfills is 129 million – or 17,270 tons of old cell phones.

On the opposite side of that equation, the EPA reports that about 11.75 million cell phones were recycled, or about 1,570 tons.

The numbers aren’t too impressive yet, but recycling options for your cell phones are becoming more prominent and consumers have more choices to consider.

Still, understanding the potential damage of not recycling your cell phone is taking some time to sink in. Experts in the land pollution sector of the EPA say that if a cell phone is disposed of improperly, the metals such as lead and cadmium can leach into the ground and pollute drinking water.

On a national scale, only 10 percent of cell phones are recycled. The EPA estimates that for every 1 million cell phones recycled, we could recover 75 pounds of gold, 772 pounds of silver and 35,274 pounds of copper. Multiply those figures times the more than 100 million cell phones retired each year and it is easy to see why environmental experts are continuing to push cell phone recycling.

The second annual National Cell Phone Recycling Week was held in early April to raise awareness and decrease the number of cell phones in our landfills. Your community recycling program may accept old phones, as well as nearby phone or electronics stores. There also are numerous web sites that direct people to drop-off sites such as or

You can also find information about cell phone recycling on

The EPA estimates there are 57.8 million old unused cell phones “in storage” in people’s homes. That’s 9,271 tons of valuable material that could be recycled. Turn in your old phones and do your part to keep America from becoming a nation of electronic hoarders.


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