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Our Love Affair With Our Lawns Is Hurling the U.S. Toward Water Crisis

We spend $40 billion annually on our lawns and spend $10 billion more on pesticides and fertilizers keeping them green. But worse, they're draining diminishing water resources.

As energy efficiency continues to grab headlines, water efficiency needs to join ranks.

Around the world, the demand for clean water is outstripping supply, and here in America, where we're used to having easy access -- it's simply a matter of turning on the faucet -- it's easy to feel immune. But with 36 states anticipating local, regional or statewide water shortages by 2013, the question is no longer if we're going to face a problem but when.

This is already apparent in America's two largest agricultural states, California and Texas. Central Texas suffered from extreme drought last summer, leading to $3.6 billion in crop and livestock losses. And California, which produces more than half of the nation's fruits, vegetables and nuts, is suffering its third consecutive year of drought -- a drought so severe both the governor and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have declared a state of emergency.

But California and Texas are hardly alone. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Georgia, Florida, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Montana and even Hawaii -- which is often synonymous with lush, tropical rain, face worsening drought.

And if that's not bad enough, the Great Lakes are shrinking. While the majority of the nation's fresh water goes to agricultural and industrial use, outdoor residential water use is a big problem we have been slow to address, particularly in California, the country's most populous state and where the state's largest reservoirs are drying up, intensifying the tension between dwindling supply and rising demand.

"Whenever we had water issues in the past, we used to think, 'let's just build more pipelines.' But now we're concerned with what's happening on the other side of the pipe," said William Rose, water conservation program executive at San Diego County Water Authority, which initiated the "20 Gallon Challenge," a regional campaign to promote voluntary water conservation.

Launched last year, and relaunched in September due to ongoing drought, the campaign's goal was to save 20 gallons per person, per day, which represents a 10 percent reduction in overall water use.

But despite fairly aggressive media ads, "and good evidence people got the message," Rose said, the campaign only achieved a 5 percent reduction in water use -- roughly two flushes of the toilet per household. "We have a long-term issue here. We really need to rethink water."

San Diego, with a population of 3.1 million, ships 54 percent of its water from the Colorado River, and an additional 30 percent comes from upstate reservoirs Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

Snow from the Sierra Nevada Mountains feeds into the reservoirs, but due to climate change, there has been 39 percent less snowfall, according to the Department of Water Resources, seriously impacting what happens downstream.

According to Water Smart, a program launched by Southern California's Metropolitan Water District, residential water consumption is the largest contributor to California's urban water use -- more than 2.2 trillion gallons of water per year, or half the annual flow of the Colorado River.

With resources drying up, cities like San Diego and certainly Los Angeles -- essentially a coastal desert, with a population of 21 million expected to reach 33 million by 2020 -- are feeling the squeeze.

As a first step, the 20 Gallon Challenge set up a voucher program and installed 500,000 new low-flush toilets, which use 1.6 gallons per flush compared to the 3.5 to 7 gallons of toilets of yesteryear.

Nationwide, an increasing number of cities have been offering similar retrofit or rebate programs to replace toilets, as well as washing machines and other water-using appliances, because it leads to substantial savings in both water and money.

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