Farmers driving a 4 wheeler on a drought riddled farm - SimonScottPhoto

When every drop counts… the glass is still half full

Photo credit: SimonScottPhoto

There are three things in the world I am positive I could not live without… iced coffee, my friends and Netflix. Well… these were items I was sure I couldn’t live without until the current drought crisis brought forward a ‘slap in the face’ way of highlighting how important water is, and how indispensable community action can be….

This morning after I timed my shower and diligently placed the grey-water bucket from under the tap over a chosen part of my dwindling garden, I thought about all the times I had taken water for granted. Those times when I had let the hose run whilst washing my car, indulged in weekly baths and filled up the blow-up pool on the eve of summer, all seemed like lavish past-times of a different life, and the concept of a ‘day zero’ was unfathomable.

For those unfamiliar with ‘day zero’, it is the estimated date the Armidale Regional Council has published for when Malpas Dam will dry up and Armidale will have no supply of local water. Without any substantial rainfall, day zero is set for November 2020 – it’s quite startling to think a dam with a capacity of 13 000 to 26 000 megalitres is on the verge of being empty.

However, a few weeks ago New England residents, as well as many other communities in northern New South Wales heard a long-awaited symphony of rain on their roofs. The rainfall gave my household’s water tank an extra two months of water and a new sense of hope for my home and many others.

These few (and emphasis on few), days of rain were welcomed after the region had experienced one of the driest winters on record, but there is little relief forecasted for the rest of spring and summer.

In June, my household had estimated that our personal rainwater supply would last us until May 2020. Because we aren’t connected to the town water it became a necessity to start saving our water. At first, it felt like a daunting task to be constantly conscious of how much water we used and recycled. However, the more we worked on our water usage, the more we began to slowly see our own ‘day zero’ extend in weeks and even months as our new lifestyle changes had not only given us a new perspective on water usage, but also confidence in battling what dry days lay ahead.

The drought can create a bottomless feeling for members of a community, but after speaking to a handful of members of the UNE community, it became clear that finding optimism during these times is not as far-reaching as it may seem, and that action rather than inaction can be the superpower a community may need.

October 1st was the day Armidale Regional Council tightened their water restrictions to level 5.

The new restrictions came with an action plan from the council as they urged residents to use 160 litres of water per person per day. Environmental Sustainability Manager for UNE, Suzannah Mitchell told us that 120L per day will be the next implementation from the council if we reach the next ‘trigger point’ which is 250 days from Day Zero. Suzannah recommends we should start aiming to reach 120L now while we have a buffer of 40L to help us get used to the new routine. “This time next year it will be 50 litres per day if we don’t see significant rainfall,” Suzannah said.

“There are families on tank water struggling and facing a waiting time of weeks to get water delivered. I am very mindful of this whenever I turn on a tap.”

If the Councils’ recommendations seem unattainable, they aren’t. Just like my household and many others, it is possible to reach that target with only a few alterations to your daily routine. If you’re not sure where to begin or how well you’re managing your water usage, this article has everything you need to know on how to save and recycle your water at home.

 It’s a team effort that we push the day zero further into the future; and here is where your individual actions can help.

Let’s explore some tips on water-saving at home.

Starting with the bathroom

Every part of the bathroom uses water, but you don’t need to compromise hygiene to save water…

UNE student and St Alberts resident Claire Metcalf, spoke to us about her water usage whilst living at college: “When I shower I usually take up to 30 seconds to a minute, and that’s by just suds up and rinse off” Claire adds. “But for a long ‘hair washing’ shower it’s no longer than 3 minutes and that’s every 3-4 days… I try to set a timer on my phone for a long shower.”

 Claire is a great example of how her water-saving strategies correlate with the councils recommended water usage, as they state that 30 litres from the daily 160 litres should be set aside for showers.

Most shower-heads on average use between 15 to 20 litres per minute… so that’s 300L for a fifteen-minute shower – yikes! By aiming for a three-minute shower you can cut down to nine litres per minute and save around 50 000 litres per year/per person!

Other shower saving tips include:

  • Using a bucket under the tap whilst you wait for hot water to run
  • Turn the water off while you wash hair and shave
  • Changing your shower-head to a 3-star WELS rating.  This can cut water usage by 25%
  • Setting a timer like Claire does or by aiming to shower within a single song of choice (so long as it’s not Bohemian Rhapsody… those six minutes of goodness won’t help save water)

The toils of the toilet:

Council recommends that 16 litres of water should be used with the toilet – that is equal to five half flushes a day.

Older single flush toilets use up to 11 litres per flush, compared to dual flush toilets which only use 5 litres per flush! The best way to limit the number of times you flush in a day may be the “if it’s yellow let it mellow”.

Laundry days:

30 litres of water use is recommended for laundry. That is equal to one full load every 2 days, with a 6kg, 4 star rated machine. However, households can extend laundry days by aiming for two full loads a week, and you can do this by:

  • Washing bed linen every two to three weeks, and pillowcases once a week can help reduce the amount of washing needed per week.
  • Sydney water recommends choosing a front-loading washing machine with at least a 4.5-star WELS rating and to always ensure you have a full load before turning on the machine.

The Kitchen:

15 litres should be set aside per day on dishwashing and 5 litres for food preparation and cooking. This is highly attainable by:

  • Filling the sink with water to wash dishes as an alternative to letting the tap run while you scrub
  • Using a small tub of hot water to pour over the clean dishes to rinse off any suds
  • A single full load with a water-efficient dishwasher
  • Dishwasher use about 13 litres on average, use a 5-star WELS rating dishwasher for ultimate water efficiency
  • Plugging the sink before washing any vegetables and fruit
  • Using antibacterial wipes to wipe down surfaces
  • Using a 4-star WELS rating tap

Following these guidelines leaves a contingency of 40L for any emergency use or days like Claire mentions as a ‘hair washing day’ where you might use more water than usual. However, as you may have noticed, there is no allowance in the 160L for garden and plant use, and this is where recycling water is essential.

Grey(water) is the new black:

According to Sydney Water, wastewater from washing machines, showers, baths and basins is called greywater and can be recycled for outdoor use. It is safe and easy to use and can be a source of irrigation all year round.

At my house, our washing machine produces eight 10L buckets of water from a full load… that’s a huge amount of water that we have been using to rescue our struggling plants and trees.

Vanessa Bible, a lecturer in Peace Studies for the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences told us that she uses organic products for shampoo, body washes and washing up liquid and recommends them to anyone who is recycling their greywater. “I use soap-nuts – they’re used extensively in India where they come from the fruit of the soapberry tree, and best of all they are greywater safe and actually improve plant growth!” Vanessa said.

Soap bars are a great alternative to liquid hygiene products because they are a higher concentrate and use less water (and let’s not forget liquid soap all come in plastic bottles).

But if you are worried about what greywater could do to your garden, Choice magazine commissioned a study into the chemicals in greywater from washing machines from popular laundry detergents to determine their suitability for gardens.

The results showed that detergents that cleaned the clothes the best were too high in salinity and pH to be suitable enough for garden use over time compared to organic-based detergents.

If you choose to use popular supermarket brands, the best way to be able to use greywater from your washing machine is to use the rinse cycle water only and not the wash water.

Greywater is great for plants, but must be used within 24 hour and should be avoided on herbs and vegetables you wish to eat raw.

How to see the glass half full

What happens when we reach day zero? A question for discussion, rather than avoidance.

Water is part of our every day – it is vital to our human existence. But what happens when it is gone? How will we shower, how will we support local businesses, and what will happen to the colleges and schools and hotels? It can be scary to venture down the rabbit hole of the unknown. But there is hope. If the drought has taught us anything, it is that endurance and sustainable living is the way forward.

“There are so many ways to be more sustainable that it can be overwhelming to know where to start.” Suzannah told us.“This drought is a great example of how inventive and resourceful people can be when they are forced to focus on their water consumption. If you apply that same ingenuity to other areas of your life, the opportunities are endless.” She adds: “If you google “how can I be more sustainable” there are literally thousands of resources out there. Start small by choosing an area such as waste, water, transport or electricity and focus on trying to make changes in that area of your life.”

Sustainable living is an endurance test. If you focus on becoming aware of your habits, it can be easier to find confidence in living a sustainable life and positively contributing to the well-being of your community.

All over UNE, people are sharing water-saving tips. Suzannah mentioned how students and employees are actively discussing ways to use greywater and research projects to minimise water use. “The Wright College Sustainability Committee even held a movie night where an environmental documentary was screened, shower timers and green bins were provided to students. It is great to see this level of enthusiasm.” Suzannah told us. At the beginning of November Wright College published on their Facebook that their water consumption fell from 144 litres per person a day to now 127 litres per person a day in just under a month! This is not only an example of how group awareness can create collective action but also a place to find relief within all the uncertainty – because we are all experiencing these tough times together.

In a time of dusty paddocks; there are new blades of grass wanting to sprout, and there are trees still flourishing with leaves. Community is everything, and by making the effort to visit a local business, asking a farmer how they are going or taking the time to notice a new leaf or flower that managed to bloom, you will find there is always hope in a new day. Together, we can push day zero further into the future.

Suzannah adds: “It is important for those feeling the impacts of the drought on their mental health that they reach out and ask for support.”

For UNE employees and students there is help on campus:

  • You can contact Miriam Lott, UNE’s Health & Wellbeing Officer, on 6773 4540 if you need support within the workplace.
  • There is also an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) with Centacare in Armidale – staff has access to 6 free sessions each year to access counselling support. It is confidential – for more information visit Safety Hub under Health & Wellbeing.

From more information on the water restrictions and water-saving appliances you can visit these websites:

If you or someone you know is struggling with the effects of the changing climate and drought, you can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.