Waste Not, Want Not: Water Wisdom

by Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN

I’m hearing more and more often from female friends the phrase, “I’m becoming my mother.” Sometimes this is said proudly, more often a bit ruefully. Right now, I’m desperately trying to become my mother when it comes to water management..

My mom grew up during the Great Depression. She lived on a farm in western North Dakota. In addition to a devastated economy, that part of the U.S. was also experiencing a devastating drought. Fields were barren. Cattle were dying of thirst. And every precious drop of water was conserved. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” was all the rage before anyone in advertising made it a catchy, memorable phrase.

Last night while cooking dinner I was talking to mom and telling her how guilty I felt cooking pasta. We Californians are supposed to be cutting our water use by 25 percent, and cooking pasta in a large kettle of water seems indulgent, wasteful. My mom cleared her throat (never a good sign) and began a lecture I remember all too well from my childhood about water use.

She first scolded me on how I do my dishes, with the water running the entire time. My mom pointed out how foolish that practice is and assured me that putting a tub in each sink, filling one with soapy water and the other with hot rinse water was far more efficient. She then encouraged me to buy at least four drain racks with mats to put on the counter. Call me a snob, but I can’t stand the thought of ugly plastic drain racks covering the counter of my beautiful kitchen.

She closed this part of the lecture by telling me to save the wash and rinse water and give it to plants. “Get a big bucket to put the water in and then carry it out to your backyard plants once a day. Hmmm…I just got a new bucket. I should send it to you.”  Really? She’s going to send me a bucket. I assured her I could buy a bucket in California. We don’t have much water, but we’ve got buckets!

But what about the dish soap, I pleaded? Won’t it hurt the plants? “Oh goodness, no,” she replied. They’ll be fine. And they’ll love the little bits of food that come off your plates! “Plant food,” she chuckled. I wasn’t laughing at this point. I was thinking about my future…and feeling once again like a sullen teenager. I just didn’t want to do it. I don’t want to change.

But my mom had a point. I can’t continue my wasteful ways. I need to make a change to my dishwashing habits. Dishwasher, you say? Yes, I have a brand new dishwasher, but I hate to use it. Not everything comes out spotless and many dishes still have to be dried by hand.

So, I committed to trying. Here’s how I started, with an old pot with handles over which I could wash dishes with running water. Dishes last night created one pot full of water, about a gallon. The recipient of the inaugural pot is a sad shrub that has clearly not gotten enough water lately.

Sink Sad Shrub

Breakfast and lunch dishes today created a second pot, which went to a dwarf Minneola Tangelo tree I planted recently. Last year’s drought caused massive damage to our full-size orange tree. The first rainfall of the season caused the fruit-laden tree to take on water too quickly, which caused two big branches to break. I planted a dwarf tree hoping it wouldn’t succumb to “rapid-water-uptake-itis”, but I failed to consider the water a young tree would need its first year in the ground. The drip irrigation line in this photo will never provide enough water for this young, eager tree, but daily buckets of dish water may do the trick!

Minneola Tangelo Tree

The conversation with my mom came to an abrupt end when she asked about our pool. She cleared her throat again. “Will you have enough water to keep your pool filled?” This was her nice way of asking if a pool should be a top priority during a drought. I assured her the pool would be fine. If it comes down to making a choice between doing dishes or filling the pool, the pool will win!

In all seriousness, thankfully our pool doesn’t require much water. Despite summer’s heat in this part of California, the evaporative losses are minor. And spending some time in the pool is good therapy when I’m mentally fighting good advice from my mom. Or debating the best places to buy plastic bins, drain racks, and buckets.