CORVALLIS - Predictions that the Pacific Northwest could be in for the driest summer since 1977 should be a wakeup call to conservation for Oregonians, according to an Oregon State University scientist who specializes in water and fisheries issues.

"Our high water consumption rates are, to a large extent, due to water pricing schemes that do not reward efficiency and result in practices that use more water than is necessary," said Guillermo Giannico, a fisheries specialist for OSU's Extension Sea Grant.

Americans use an average of 100 gallons of water each day - the highest per-capita consumption rate in the world. By comparison, Canadians consume 71 gallons per person per day, and relatively water-conscious Europe even less --- Sweden at 44 gallons, Belgium at 36 and France, 33.

Although 77 percent of the Earth's surface is covered with water, most of it is unavailable or unusable. A mere 1 percent is in the form of liquid, fresh water, and nine-tenths of that is locked away in deep aquifers. That leaves less than one-hundredth of a percent of the planet's water available in fresh-water lakes, rivers, streams, ponds and wetlands.

But the world's thirst shows no sign of abating. Human water consumption increased sixfold between 1900 and 1995, Giannico said, more than twice the rate of population growth.

Giannico points out that water waste can occur at home (gardening, laundering, dish washing), around town (street cleaning, park maintenance), and in farms (irrigation) and factories (food processing, commercial laundering).

"Although many individuals and some industries may use water very efficiently, they still constitute a minority among us," Giannico said. "This trend needs to be changed if we want to ensure an uninterrupted supply of fresh, drinkable water."

Households can take steps to reduce their water waste, and the first place to start is in the bathroom. Toilets use up to 45 percent of a household's total water use, Giannico said, compared with an average 20 of percent for laundry, 30 percent for showers and baths, and 5 percent for drinking and cooking.

"Every flush sends between 2.8 and 5.8 gallons of water down the drain," he said.

Giannico suggested the following conservation tips, courtesy of the Household Guide to Water Efficiency published by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation:

  • Replace old high-water-use toilets with Ultra Low flush (1.3 gallons of water per flush) models or retrofit an existing toilet with a flow reducing mechanism. 
  • Repair leaky toilets and faucets. 
  • Replace old standard shower heads (4-6 gallons per minute) with low flow heads (2 to 2.4 gallons per minute). 
  • Fully load the dishwasher before sending it through a cycle.
  • Wash only full loads of laundry, but avoid overloading the machine. When time comes to replace your washer, consider a water-efficient model; the tax credit for this type of machine, combined with savings in water and energy bills, should offset the relatively higher purchase price over time.
  • Keep drinking water in a covered container in the refrigerator instead of running the tap while waiting for the water to get cold. 
  • Plan the garden before planting, taking into account soil and drainage conditions and exposure to sunlight. Plant hardy, water-efficient plants in dry, sunny areas and water-thirsty plants in more shaded areas, or in organic soils that retain moisture. 
  • Set the sprinkler to avoid watering patios, drives and walkways.
  • Over-watering of lawns accounts for much of the summer increase in residential water use. Over-sprinkling can damage the lawn's root system and make plants vulnerable to disease and pests. 
  • Sweep the driveway instead of washing with a hose. 
  • Avoid using power washers to clean structures around the house. 
  • Install rain barrels at the downspouts of your eaves to capture rainwater for use on the garden. 
  • Wash cars over the lawn or in designated car wash areas. Turn off the water between soap applications. 
  • When mowing the lawn, avoid mowing too often and cutting too short. Grass blades help to shade the soil and reduce evaporation. Leave the grass clippings on the lawn (they are an excellent source of nitrogen).

More information on water conservation is available at the OSU Extension and Experiment Station web site. Select "Featured Topics," then "Water Conservation Publications." Additional information about water quality and safety is available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency web site.