Try to imagine a ticker, or counter, that tallies all your water use: every cup of coffee, every shower, every flush. That’s what I did for this story. I went out and checked my water meter (OK, first it required … locating the water meter), outside near the front curb.
To show how ignorant we can be about our water footprint, I started by making a guess: 500 gallons a day for five Tongs. Then, I asked moms and dads at the bus stop to place their bets.
And I solicited estimates via Twitter and Facebook. Here’s how they guessed:
The median guess: 225 gallons a day. Low: 30. High: 5,000.
For context: The United Nation's estimate for the bare minimum a person needs to drink, bathe and clean is 13 gallons a day. My family of five lives in Arlington, Virginia, in an old brick house. Midmorning check: 60 gallons. That’s after one bath, two shampoos, five toothbrushings, one overnight load of the dishwasher and … roughly eight flushes.
How much does 60 gallons cost? Under the rate charged by my county, a mere 25 cents. Yeah. A bargain. Consider how U.S. drinking water rates compare with other countries:
Many, including Stanford University’s Newsha Ajami, consider American water underpriced.
Water scarcity – a problem in many parts of the country – is not baked into the price, as scarcity is with other products, say strawberries in winter, diamonds or Picassos. My bill just charges me for treating and delivery of water. The actual water costs zero.
In many cases, what we pay does not cover the utilities' full costs of sending water, replacing century-old pipes and adhering to Clean Water Act mandates.
Early afternoon check: 200 gallons. Yikes. The culprit, as best I can tell, is two loads of semi-dirty, semi-full laundry. It turns out a single load in an, um, legacy model like ours can drink 40 gallons.
My early-afternoon shower, lasting nine minutes, uses about 18 gallons. Which seemed like a good time to ask: How clean is this water?
“Quite stunning” is how Duke law professor Jim Salzman puts it. He wrote "Drinking Water: A History," and speaks of what’s known as the Great Sanitation Awakening.
“100 years ago it was commonplace to die of typhoid and cholera. Wilbur Wright, the famed aviator ... died of typhoid. It’s said [German field marshal] Rommel lost more men to dysentery than the Allies."
Back then, people figured they got sick from bad air, not bad water. The 19th century awakening brought us sewer systems and the biggie: chlorination. Consider: In 1900 America, your chance of dying from waterborne disease was 1 in 200. It’s now 1 in 2 million.
That does reframe the question: How appropriate is it to use this ultraclean drinking water for flushing? Or putting through our garden hose? It doesn’t happen everywhere.
“If I told a Dutch person he should go outside and water his lawn with his drinking water, he would look at you like you were crazy,” says economist David Zetland, author of "Living with Water Scarcity." He’s from California but teaches in the Netherlands. “Because it’s money. And Dutch people don’t like spending money. If they do have gardens usually those gardens are rain-fed."
There are cultural differences around the world. But Zetland says when something is underpriced, we tend to overuse it – around the world.
Let’s return to this global chart, a slight variation on the previous one (adjusted for income). Note the inverse price/usage relationship:
Here’s another way to think about overuse: We pay for water way after we use it, in my case quarterly.
To behavioral economist Dan Ariely of Duke University, the timing is crucial. He’s the author of several books, including "Predictably Irrational."
Ariely explains a concept called "pain of paying." If you pay as you go, he found, you tend to buy less of something. It hurts.
“I charge the students 25 cents per bite. And you know what, they eat such big bites that they suffer from the whole thing. Because you sit there with the pizza and you say, ‘If can only push a little bit more in, I will get more value for my money.’ But you are really decreasing your joy.”
By contrast, what happens if you pay after the fact, the way I do with water? Ariely tested that. “People consumed five times more,” he says.
Final check: 9:30 p.m. Verdict: 310 gallons. Here it is on the scatter chart.
That’s much less than my guess of 500, which many experts say is about the national average – 100 gallons per person daily. The winning guess of 300 gallons came from 10-year-old Willem Desimone of Washington D.C. (Lorna Baldwin, Karin Rotchford and Marketplace’s David Weinberg also guessed 300, but they’re not 10). I should note that our own correspondent, Amy Scott, talked a bit of trash early on. She let us know she is past champion of a seventh-grade count-the-gumballs contest. Amy’s guess: 425 gallons.
310 gallons. It’s not bad for an American family of five. But it’s a ton of water (1.15 tons, to be precise). And that one ton for one day costs $1.30.
Put another way: It’s about the price of one bottle of water.