THERE'S a river of water in this country that flows to the sea unused and wasted year by year. You cannot navigate on its waters, nor can you see it -- yet it does exist. It is as big, in fact, as the mighty Mississippi itself. The source of this river lies in millions of leaking pipes, in faucets left dripping around the nation, in toilets flushed simply to remove a lipstick tissue, in cars washed with a hose instead of from a bucket, in continuously running taps (when men are shaving, for example), and in a dozen other thoughtless ways.
It's hard to believe that a wasted drip here, an unnecessary flush there, and perhaps a garden sprinkler left on all night because someone forgot to turn it off can amount to tremendous waste. But Martin E. Friedman, executive director of Horizon Group Inc. in Lakewood, N.J., sees no exaggeration in the parallel with the Mississippi. ``The figures showing up [on water waste] are phenomenal,'' the head of the nonprofit, educational corporation points out.
Agriculture and industry combined use more than seven times as much water as the general public, but apart from leaking pipes in public utility water systems (some 20 percent of all pumped water never reaches the consumer), a disproportionate amount of waste takes place in the home or in personal water use at the office or factory. Improved water use habits by the individual alone could have a dramatic effect for good on the nation's water supply system.
Fortunately, simple, inexpensive technology now exists for Americans to save water in the home or office -- vast quantities of it -- without sacrificing life style or convenience in any noticeable way, the Horizon Group points out. The latest showerheads and toilet dams save without impacting on the creature comforts that no one willingly wants to forgo. In the process people will also save money.
A recent study in New Jersey showed that if just a quarter of all homes (not including motels, offices, etc.) in the state were retrofitted with this latest technology, costing some $25 per home, it would save the state 30 billion gallons of water a year. That's more than 82 million gallons a day.
This year in particular saving water has become critical over large areas of the United States. For just about the first time anyone can remember, not a single baseball game was postponed because of rain during the month of April. But what, arguably, was good for baseball wasn't for the country as a whole.
A dry fall, followed by a low-snow winter and a spring minus April showers, has left reservoirs 20 to 30 percent below normal in many of the more heavily populated regions of the US. While the middle section of the country between the Rockies and the Appalachians is in relatively good shape, everywhere else is on the dry side.
Almost the entire Eastern Seaboard is the driest it has been in 20 years, while the Department of the Interior's stream-flow report shows lower than average water levels in Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. So careful water use and conservation is all-important. Obvious practical steps include washing the dishes by hand, using a bucket instead of a hose to wash the car, and mulching the garden. Most important, though, more efficient water use is now possible without sacrifice.
Mr. Friedman explains that when the installation of water-saving devices such as flow restrictors reduces creature comforts, consumer resistance, even outright rebellion, follows. But ``we find consistently that when better products are installed which require no consumer sacrifice, there are fewer complaints and a longer-lasting conservation program results,'' he says. ``New water-saving technologies get around the problem of resident discomfort while reducing water consumption significantly.''
Two examples are a simple plastic disk installed in the top of a Sloan flush valve which cuts water use in tankless toilets (commonplace in office blocks and apartment buildings) by half and a new pulsating shower head that does not lower water temperature as it reduces the flow.
The savings from these and other water-saving devices is twofold, Mr. Friedman points out, because ``the cost of disposing water [sewer charges] is equal to and often twice that of the water itself.'' The reduced use of hot water lowers energy costs as well.
Mr. Friedman cites a case study involving a motel that installed water-saving devices on all faucets and toilets in 1983. Despite an 11 percent increase in occupancy over 1982, the motel used 648,000 gallons less water. The water bill was lowered by $609.12 for the year, the sewage bill by $518.40, and the cost of heating water by $686.72 for a total savings of $1,814.24. The payback period on the $1,038 initial investment came to 6.8 months. Installations of this sort in the average home bring savings that range from $100 to $400 a year for a $25 investment (in the home the savings in energy to heat water is greater than the savings in water itself).
The water-saving technology that does not impact noticeably on life style includes the following:
Toilet dams and Water Warden disk. At 4 to 5 gallons a flush, toilets use approximately 30 percent of a household's water budget. Easily installed dams in most toilets will save 1 to 2 gallons a flush or 18,000 gallons a year in the average home; the plastic disk, called a Water Warden, will result in still greater savings in tankless toilets. The dams retail at around $9; the Water Warden at $3.50.
Energy-saving shower heads. Many low-flow shower heads introduced onto the market a few years ago aerate the flow to produce a finer spray. This saves water but not much energy because the air cools the hot water and invariably the user turns up the hot-water faucet. The latest technology introduces a pulsating spray that reduces flow but provides a vigorous shower without cutting water temperature. Further savings are effected by a cutoff valve that reduces the flow still further when the user is soaping up. Pulsating restrictors are also available for faucets over sinks and lavatories. These save water when someone is rinsing hands or dishes.
In recent years the Horizon Group has begun testing and evaluating water-saving equipment as it comes onto the market. All effect some savings, but some items are vastly more efficient than others. Moreover, the most expensive item is not necessarily the most effective.
Horizon, which has no ties to any manufacturer, will advise consumers on the most cost-effective technology available for the home or office. Send a stamped addressed envelope to Horizon Group Inc., PO Box 1422, Lakewood, N.J. 08701.
Public response to conservation measures invariably ranges from total compliance by some to no compliance at all by others. In the desperate drought situation that hit much of the Southern Hemisphere in recent years, Australia and South Africa found ways to get remarkable cooperation from the general public.
A nominal price was charged for a set amount of water a month for each household. The moment that volume was exceeded the price per gallon shot skyward. The very few who chose to pay rather than conserve were soon dealt with in another way: A flow restrictor was placed on the feeder line entering the offending property. After that it might take 10 seconds just to fill a glass of water. At one time a major metropolitan population had less than 20 days' supply of water in its reservoirs, so a desperate situation demanded enforced compliance.