Is a low-snow winter a good thing?

Environmental Notes  

Jim Persoon
Oakdale Environmental Management Commission    

Compared to the average winter, the one we just had was a real laugher. Snowfall was way below average, and I am taking credit for it! That’s because, while remembering the snowy winter of 2013-2014, I took the plunge and bought a new snow blower last November. I was going to be ready for any blizzard that might come our way.

You guessed it. I brought my beautiful new snow blower home, assembled it with the help of my mechanic brother, started it up and made sure it worked. It has not been out of the garage since. Oh, I started it every few weeks over the winter to make sure it would still run, but the last time I did that was in early March. In fact, the next time I start it will be to run the gas tank dry so it is ready for next year.

But a low snowfall winter isn’t always good news.

We’re recently seeing reports from California about their lack of snowfall this year, which has made it necessary to impose severe water restrictions on the residents – a 25 percent reduction in water use was mandated by their governor.

I wondered what a similar situation would mean for us in Minnesota?

According to the Freshwater Society, most of the residents in this state get their household water from groundwater, whether from private wells (23 percent) or municipalities that depend on wells (52 percent). The rest get their water from municipalities that use surface water sources. Many residents in California depend on the mountain snowpack to fill their reservoirs, and this year that snow pack is almost non-existent. In Minnesota we tend to think that the supply of groundwater is unlimited, but the recent low levels of White Bear Lake, Turtle Lake and other lakes in the northern suburbs are being linked by some to a lowering of the water level in the main groundwater aquifer that supplies most of the greater Twin Cities metropolitan area.

So, what if we were to impose severe water use restrictions like those in California? Where would we cut back in our home usage? A little Internet research provided me with some insight. In Minnesota, we use about 70 gallons per person per day (GPD) for what are considered domestic purposes – that is, in our homes, exclusive of outdoor uses such as lawn watering. The most common ways we use this water are toilet flushing (28 GPD) bathing and showering (25 GPD), laundry (11 GPD), dishwashing (4 GPD), and drinking and cooking (2 GPD). So, if you want to cut this usage back by 25 percent, or by 17 gallons, where would you start and how?

Let’s start with the biggest use, toilet flushing. To reduce this usage by 7 gallons per day, you can take the following steps. First, you should check for leaks. Put a little food coloring in the tank of the toilet. If, without flushing, the color appears in the bowl within 30 minutes, there is a leak that should be repaired. Most replacement parts are inexpensive and can be installed without hiring a plumber. Secondly, don’t use the toilet as a waste basket. This wastes water. A single toilet flush can use 1.5 to 3 gallons, depending on the age of the toilet, with the newest ones using the least amount of water. So, if you have an older toilet, you can reach that reduction goal of seven gallons by two fewer flushes per day. You can also reduce the amount of water used per flush by putting a screw top plastic bottle filled with an inch or two of sand or pebbles in the toilet tank. Make sure it is placed so it does not interfere with the toilet operating mechanism, and test to make sure there is still enough water per flush to operate the toilet on a single flush. For those with newer, low water volume toilets, you will need to cut the amount of flushes by four or five per day. This may seem like a lot and may not be achievable, so you may want to consider other ways to cut your household water usage.

For showering and bathing, the reduction goal is 6 gallons per day. For showers, the solution may be as simple as installing a low flow shower head or flow restrictor. These installations are usually simple, do-it-yourself projects, and the devices are available at most home improvement stores. Cutting your shower time by just one minute can usually save 6 gallons.

If you take baths instead of showers, consider filling the tube only 85 percent full. You will have saved the six gallons since most full bathtubs take about 36 gallons of water.     

For clothes washing machines and dishwashing, you should save about 4 gallons per day per person. Do this by using the water level adjustment on your clothes washing machine to use only the amount of water needed to cover the clothes to be washed. You could also save up the dirty clothes until you have a full load to run. For dirty dishes, run the dishwasher only with a full load and don’t rinse off the dishes before placing them in the machine. If you wash dishes by hand, fill the sink with water and soap and do all of the dishes using one sink full of water. Use a second sink of clean water to rinse them. You can also install a low flow aerator (less than 2.5 gallons per minute) on your sink faucet. This second option is the cheapest way to lower your water usage for all the sinks in your home.

Other ideas include turning off the water while brushing your teeth or shaving. If you follow the recommendation of dentists to brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes, turning the water off while brushing will save four minutes of water usage per day and, even with a low flow aerator (which allows 2.5 gallons to flow per minute), you will save 10 gallons per day – over  half the reduction goal.

Try these ways to save water for a few weeks. Challenge family members to do the same. Make a game out of it. Find out who can come up with the most ideas while still staying clean and healthy. (Remember, totally eliminating showers and baths is one way to reach the goal, but that may create other issues!)

Even though we frequently have snow in April, I’m hoping my snow blower stays in the garage until it’s time to bring out the lawn mower!

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