Many drought etiquette debates revolve around the use of this device. (Dan Brekke/KQED)
Many drought etiquette debates revolve around the use of this device. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Don’t waste water.

It seems so simple. Stop hosing down your sidewalk. Forgo washing the car out on the street. Be prudent in all your outdoor watering. Quit letting the water run while you brush your teeth or shave or do anything else. Take Navy showers. Put a brick in the tank of your toilet or install a low-flow model. And don’t flush unnecessarily — if it’s yellow, let it mellow.

Gov. Jerry Brown took the unprecedented step today of ordering mandatory water reductions for the first time in California’s history.

But is saving water really so uncomplicated?

Take the “mellow yellow” rule. It’s swell in theory, but after a day or so of following the no-flush regime, you’re reminded that the yellow stuff has a sometimes penetrating odor (never mind what you encounter after an asparagus dinner). Beyond the clever rhyme, when do cohabitants decide that yellow is no longer mellow? And do they adopt ground rules? Something like “a flush a day keeps the stink away”?

Let’s plumb the depths of some other pressing drought etiquette issues:

What if you’re urinating in a public restroom? A decent respect for the opinions and sensitivities of man- and womankind ordinarily requires one to flush. But in a doctor’s office recently, I encountered a toilet whose contents were clearly mellowing. Normally, I’d chalk that up to a previous visitor’s boorishness. But now? It could well be a golden gesture of concern for our dwindling water supply. Conundrum: Should I flush after making my contribution?

Which behavior is less repulsive/more likely to win approval when you have company over: Keeping the toilet flushed and pristine so as to not subject visitors to your jaundice-colored water? Or letting them deal with the unsightly exigencies the drought has imposed? Do you go for toilet bowl the beautiful or amber waves of  … well, you know?

For outdoorsy men and women — but from my experience mostly the men — there’s another water-saving option that might seem more attractive during the drought: yard urination. We’re talking about a discreet approach to bladder-voiding in an unseen corner of one’s own premises. Your intimates (and neighbors, and police, if they find out) may express disapproval of this form of fresh-air relief. Where do you stand?

Of course, not every issue in the book of drought etiquette centers on bodily functions or toilet operation. Often, we’re confronted with water-wasting in the world around us and we have to decide how ready we are to get in our family’s, friends’ and neighbors’ faces about it.

For instance, how do you respond to your partner or roommate when you notice they’re not taking a short, economical shower. Do you open the door to the bathroom and remind them that we’re in the midst of one of the worst droughts in state history?

How about the neighbors whose yard irrigation sends water running into the gutter? Do you bring over some gluten-free muffins to share and, oh, by the way, remind them that our reservoirs are drying up? Or do you call the authorities? When you see the guy next door running hundreds of gallons of water to wash his Corvette, do you print out a coupon for the local water-recycling car wash and put it on the windshield?

As these questions swirl around us, keep in mind the worst of the drought is really just beginning. We’ll have lots of time to find solutions to all these problems and others that haven’t yet bubbled to the surface. In the meantime, remember: We’re all in this together.

Note: An earlier version of this post was published in March of 2014.

  • jtgd

    One thing I do is firmly press the lever a short distance, enough to let water flow but not flip the flapper valve up, and let water flow slowly until the yellow is gone. It uses a very small amount of water, much less than a full flush.

    • Jon Dare

      I totally agree with the gentle press to allow water to dilute the “mellow”

  • Yogota Wunda

    If everyone had a chance in life to live with a limited supply of water. Motorhome, boat, even camping. Live as if you have only X amount. Taught me a lot.

  • Lapis Safeiros

    Very nice. I’d rather have more water to drink anyhow. :)


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke (Twitter: @danbrekke) has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at

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