How the California Drought Has Tightened Up my Prepping

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California drought survival tipsIn all my years of preparing to work in Emergency Management, it never occurred to me that one of my biggest personal challenges would be a California drought.

I was in Sacramento for the Yuba County floods of 1997, when flood waters caused 80,000 people to evacuate. In 2010, I was working in Orange County when the floods came, warranting a Presidential Disaster Declaration. Drought was something that happened overseas somewhere. We usually had much more water than we knew what to do with.

And yet, here we are in a drought. Families in central California have wells that have gone dry. Big plastic water tanks sit in front yards, periodically refilled by water trucks. Firefighters are honestly asking, will we have enough water to fight fire? Our Governor has made abundantly clear that the drought is a priority for all Californians.

Taking it personally

Backyard pond
Pond is a great backup water supply

I have a challenging environment: a ¼ acre lot with a 2,000 gallon pond and a school of mixed koi and goldfish. The pond is part of my preparedness, so draining it is non-negotiable. The water is easy to filter and treat for safe use if needed.

I also have a bunch of rose bushes and other ornamentals in my front yard that hold sentimental value, so my plan must include their survival. On top of that, I am known to work for the state government, so I can expect no slack from my neighbors.

Inside and Outside

“Experts” say we use much more water outside than inside, on our lawns and landscaping. In my case, I didn’t spend a lot of water on my front and back lawn but the pond needed about 15 gallons a day just to offset the evaporation loss. Based on what I’ve read, the average per-person use was about 50 gallons a day; my goal was to use under 40 gallons a day, or 1,200 gallons a month. What this goal required was a complete survey of how I used water in the house, from tap to toilet.

Inside the house, there are four major water uses: shower, toilet, dishwasher, and washing machine. Also, sinks are used for hand washing, hygiene and dish rinsing, and this water can be re-used. All of these uses have control points, and secondary uses. In other words, I have control over the amount of water used for each of these uses, and with the exception of toilet flush, I can re-use the water for another task.

Making it Count

12"x12" concrete tile
Tiles help collect shower water

Water coming out of the tap is potable water. In reality, only a few uses require potable water. Showers, hand washing, and clothes washing require potable water, so my most serious attention is focused there; water used for these purposes can be collected and re-used as gray water.

I choose soaps and shampoo that are known to be biodegradable. I start with the shower. I have to shower for work, but I can collect the cold water that flows until the hot water reaches the shower and I can get in; about three gallons per shower for the pond is collected here.

I placed concrete paving stones in the shower pan to displace water (makes it easier on the pump) and provide an elevated platform for me to stand out of the collected water. A small centrifugal water pump moves the used shower water into a 10-gallon capacity plastic tank for re-use. Is it easy? Not hardly, but it makes me conscious of every gallon I use.

Small water pump
Pump collects shower water for re-use.

Gray Water

My recovered shower water is designated for toilet flushes. Each sink (kitchen and bathrooms) has a basin to collect water used for hand washing and dish rinsing; this water either supplements toilet flushes, or helps water the landscaping. In the garage, I have a 55-gallon drum that collects water discharged from the clothes washer. A pump draws water out of the drum to irrigate the lawn and plants. In the kitchen, a 15-gallon container collects the gray water discharge from the dishwasher, which is also used to irrigate ornamental plants. I would use caution about using untreated gray water on edible plants, but the roses and bushes love it.

The Pond

In the drought, rain is a rare blessing. When we do get rain, I have a method to divert roof runoff into the pond. Even in a moderate rain, I can usually recover several hundred gallons to refill the pond.

Evaporation from the pond was a serious issue, so I covered half of it with a vinyl pool cover. While it reduces the aesthetic appeal of the pond, I’m hoping it will be a temporary measure during the drought, and when the rains return I can pull it out. The fish don’t seem to mind! It reduces evaporation loss to about 5 gallons a day, which is easily replaceable.

The Bottom Line: I’m Better Prepared

Any reduction in the consumption of a valuable resource like potable water is a positive, especially in context of preparing for disasters. Not only do I have a water conservation routine that has been refined with experience, I have those “infrastructure” items like containers, pumps, and hose that make it work and can be modified quickly if needed. My next step is to plumb a water line from the pond to the house, to make use of the pond water easier.

For an extensive list of water conservation ideas that range from mundane to radical, click here.

More resources for water purification

California drought survival tips

7 thoughts on “How the California Drought Has Tightened Up my Prepping”

  1. Changing infrastructure to take advantage of gray water is no small deal, and I admire your (necessary) efforts. Hoping California will lead the way in innovation to capture more of our gray water. Wondering what you are using in your dishwasher, soap-wise, to clean? The standard stuff is pretty caustic, and I’d worry about putting that on plants in any meaningful concentration. (Phosphates have been illegal in dishwashing detergent since the 70s in my state, but you can STILL find it on the shelf pretty much everywhere).

    1. Mel, can’t remember what the brand is called but I had to hunt down the biodegradable dishwasher soap at Whole Foods, it’s also available on but I like the sales tax to go local. The ornamental plants love it. It ends up being about 20% of the graywater that goes to irrigation. Thanks for the comment! Jim

  2. Is my house so tiny, the distance from my water heater to my shower so short, that I can use my 5-gallon bucket for my shower warm-up for two days? (That also includes whatever warmup water I collect in the bathroom sink.) More than two days, and it’s just too heavy to haul around, even though most of the time I might be able to squeeze a third day into my bucket. The slow drip in the shower (a pint or so a day) gets collected, too.

    My dishwasher is me, and I have one of those little valves in the kitchen faucet to shut off the flow when I’m soaping things up. (I also have one in my shower, along with the low-flow shower head, and am seriously contemplating one for the bathroom sink.)

    Here in Anaheim, we can water (irrigate) 2 days per week. Most of my watering, though, is hand-watering, because I’m still re-landscaping with natives, and my primary concern is getting those plants established.

    Yellow mellows, brown goes down. I live alone, and only do about 6 loads of laundry per month, on average.

    1. I can’t lift a 5 gallon bucket of water very far either, so when it is 1/4 to 1/2 full, I pull it out of the shower and put it by the toilet to use as flush water or take it out to use on my plants. I don’t live where there are drought conditions (I am just conservation-minded and have a well), but if I did, I would disconnect the traps under the kitchen sink and catch the grey water in large buckets. Again, I could only lift 1/4 or 1/2 a 5 gallon bucket, so I would use it for flushing or plants a couple of times per day. When I could lift heavier objects, I sometimes scooped grey water bath water into the washing machine to use for the wash cycle. It was soapy anyway! My grandmother who lived in drought-plagued Oklahoma piped (perhaps illegal now) her bath water (once per week) to her heirloom roses outside her bathroom window.

      Good luck, Californians! I pray your drought will end soon!

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