Act now to help weather droughts

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By Rich Patterson


September 1967 was a tough time for North Idaho ranchers. Months of heat and drought bottomed out wells, streams and springs. Forest fire danger was extreme.

One late afternoon, three of us returned to the ranch house after a long sweaty day fixing fences. We craved a cleansing shower, but the homeís water came from a spring a half mile away, and only a trickle was coming down the pipe. Most of it was needed for the cattle.

We pooled 2 inches of water in the bath tub and took turns bathing in the same water. When the third person was finished, I held a bucket under a tap beneath the tub and drained the dirty water into it. Minutes later, that well-used water was soaking a few parched tomato plants in the garden.

Even during times of normal rainfall, the Idaho ranch family never had abundant water. They knew how to wring the last bit of use from every drop their spring produced.

The summer of 2013 may put Iowa into its second summer of drought. It could be a year similar to 1989 when area wells dried up, the Cedar River shrank to a trickle, Indian Creek ceased flowing, and the City was forced to implement water conservation measures that included banning irrigation.

No one is suggesting that citizens need to share bath water, but homeowners can use many simple measures to stretch the water supply and enable the city to provide enough water for household cleaning, drinking and cooking, flushing toilets and for industrial and government uses.

Using water efficiency offers homeowners two advantages. Reduce consumption and the bill drops. And if enough people reduce consumption, mandatory restrictions may not be needed.

Normally, water is scarcest in mid to late summer during drought years. By then, itís hard to plan and implement ways to reduce consumption. Late winter is a great time to implement a family or business water efficiency plan. Ways to use water more efficiently include:

l Shovel late- winter snow on the garden, where it can melt and moisten the soil.

l Plan a flower or vegetable garden that will thrive under drought conditions without irrigation Save grass clippings and leaves and mulch heavily around plants to reduce evaporation from the soil.

l Plant drought-resistant varieties of vegetables and flowers.

l Wash dishes by hand in a plastic basin. Sprinkle that water on thirsty plants rather than pouring it down the drain.

l Give up lawn sprinkling. The brown grass will regreen when rain returns.

l Install a low-flow showerhead and use just enough water to soap up and rinse off.

l Install a dual-flush toilet. These let a user select a 1.5-gallon flush for feces and a lesser amount to flush urine.

l Set up a rain barrel. Even occasional light showers result in hundreds of gallons falling on a homeís roof. Rain barrels harvest and store roof water until it is used to irrigate gardens. (Information on rain barrels is on the Indian Creek Nature Centerís website at

l Replace impervious pavement with a hard surface that allows water to drain through it. Although normally considered a way to reduce runoff and flooding, permeable paving allows water to enter the soil and find its way downward into the water table where it can be tapped during droughts.

Hopefully, normal rain patterns will return to Iowa this spring, but if not, the City of Cedar Rapids has a water emergency plan in place. Information is at

But, even if we donít have a drought and water-use restrictions, thereís a good reason to make a home more water efficient: It reduces cost.

Rich Patterson is executive director of the Indian Creek Nature Center. Comments:

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