Water, water, nowhere

The news story this week (see page 8) raises a question we’ve been hearing a lot about from our neighbor to the west, but it’s like it’s within a cone of silence on this side of the Sierra. We’re seeing the beginnings of a drought, and judging from the dropping water tables, it’s got the potential to be a severe one.

True, maybe we don’t hear as much in the media because we live in a desert, and we’re accustomed to always being a little short of the wet stuff, but this dry spell seems a little more than the usual thing.

Nine Nevada counties have been declared federal disaster areas. We’re past the time we can expect the reservoirs to refill this year. The surface level of Lake Tahoe is already down. And with the levels of the aquifers also falling, we need to look a bit downstream about things that can be done before water restrictions start.

First, we’ve asked this question before, and we’ve yet to see any sign that the University of Nevada, Reno is concerned: Why does every area that isn’t covered with blacktop or concrete have grass on it? UNR could become a jewel of xeriscaping, and yet, except for the lovely horizon, it looks like any small California university. The university should begin carving out sections and replacing the plants that require a lot of water with drought-tolerant foliage. It doesn’t have to be saguaro cacti, but there are many better options than grass. The Manzanita Bowl and the quad should be the rare exceptions to this plan.

A few years ago, the Truckee Meadows Water Authority increased the days available for watering, under the assumption that people won’t overwater when they’re paying by the gallon. Now, before the restrictions are reinstated, is the time for homeowners to begin putting in decomposed granite, drought-tolerant plants, and increasing the size of eaves and awnings. While grass naturally decreases the absorption of heat, there are other plants that can both cool ground temperatures and survive conditions that will turn a lawn to dirt. And for those who simply can’t live without a green carpet, there are new varieties of grass that require less than half what the typical red fescue or bluegrass lawn requires.

There are other things homeowners can do to decrease water use. Many homes got low-flow toilets during the remodel boom of the last housing bubble, but this is still an option for many others. Also, remember that slogan “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down” from one of the many droughts of years past? It rarely makes good ecologic sense to flush when there’s only urine in the toilet bowl. And not to be indelicate, but there are lots of good reasons to pee in the backyard, and not just because you’re toasted: http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/8-reasons-why-you-should-pee-your-garden.html.

Some cities in the West have ways to get water that hasn’t been treated to drinking standards. This saves energy and personnel hours. Perhaps there’s a way to take advantage of a program like this in Northern Nevada.

All these ideas are likely to be projectiles as we quiver at a future of draconian water-saving measures. If we get started now, we might not have browner days ahead.