Water Efficiency Makes Sense no Matter Where We Live

Yesterday The Johnson Foundation had the pleasure of hosting Mary Ann Dickinson, President and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, for a presentation to a packed house of nearly 100. The audience was a mix of regional professionals working in water-related endeavors, elected officials, and interested citizens. From the engaged discourse that followed the formal presentation, it seemed that everyone left a little more knowledgeable than they were when they arrived.I first came to know Dickinson when she presented at a national River Rally a few years ago. It was one of those ‘wow’ experiences where I was writing furiously trying to capture all that she had to say. Yesterday was no different. Here’s a quick synopsis of her remarks:

  1. Shortages are here on a permanent basis, even in Wisconsin. Based on self-reported results, 40 states are experiencing some level of water shortages. She showed a ‘drought monitor’ map illustrating that even northern Wisconsin – a state known for its abundant water – was experiencing drought. People who live and recreate there have been suffering from low levels in inland lakes, which can really take the fun out of summer.
  2. Subsidies for water infrastructure are dwindling everywhere. Most of our water infrastructure was built with federal subsidies. However, those dollars starting evaporating a long time ago and in most places the fees for water services haven’t risen to make up for the decreased funding. The federal government estimates that there is a $550 billion dollar shortfall in the amount of funding available to repair and upgrade this infrastructure, with the heaviest burden being on Great Lakes states, and the California/Nevada/Arizona region. Failing infrastructure means, among other things, leaky pipes and inefficiencies. 
  3. New growth isn’t always efficient. You’d think that we’d get smarter over time, and by now all the new and retrofitted buildings in this country would use high efficiency plumbing fixtures. But you’d be wrong. And as if that weren’t bad enough, the growth is happening disproportionately where the water is not. For example, estimated population growth from 2000 to 2020 is 52% for California, but 10% for Wisconsin.
  4. Unmanaged irrigation is becoming a growing burden. 58% of residential water use is for landscape irrigation. This blows my mind. And that’s an average. In some places like Phoenix it’s as high as 80%. As someone who has a hard time understanding why someone waters their lawn (which makes one have to mow it more often) this is hard for me to handle. (Dickinson said “It’s kind of like buying Evian and pouring it on your lawn.”) But even if we can’t turn back from the expectation that lawn watering is a constitutional right, Dickinson tells us that much can be gained by making the practices more efficient.
  5. Water and energy are connected problems. But you probably knew that – water movement and treatment is a huge energy hog, and energy production uses a lot of water. Furthermore, they tend to create peak burdens at the same time (middle of summer). Dickinson questioned national experts, including Robert Glennon, author of Unquenchable, who state that 3% of our nation’s energy use is for water treatment and conveyance. In California, the one state where this has been thoroughly studied, 19% of the state’s electrical demand and 32% of the natural gas used is for water. Dickinson feels strongly that 3% is a gross underestimate, and upcoming studies will give us better numbers. (Here’s a link to some studies on this topic.)
  6. The consumer is still clueless. Most people have no idea how much water they use (average = 170 gallons per person, per day in the U.S., much of which goes for lawn watering), no idea where their water comes from (“the tap”), and water bills (which generally are billed in “units” which are the equivalent of one hundred cubic feet, which is the same as 748 gallons) obfuscate water use rather than illustrate it. People who know where their water comes from are much more likely to conserve. How about you – do you know how much water you use, where it comes from, and where it goes?
  7. Water rates need re-examination. This is something we’re hearing more and more of. We need rates that capture enough money to allow for maintenance and upgrades (not just operations), and which send signals that incentivize conservation. A few dozen areas around the country now use ‘budget-based rates’ with inclining block structures. These rates protect those who can least afford to pay, while sending price signals to those whose use is well beyond what is needed for basic comfort and health. More on this in an upcoming blog.
  8. Water efficiency is a cost-effective supply solution. Her anecdote about New York City paying to install high efficiency toilets rather than expand their wastewater treatment capacity caught the attention of the audience. Waukesha, a city not far from here, is embroiled in a battle to obtain Lake Michigan water to meet their growing water supply need. Maybe the New York example could save Waukesha some money?
  9. Federal action is finally starting to emerge. Since January 2009, Congress has introduced 26 bills that include water efficiency of some type, and federal buildings have been ordered to reduce their water use by 20%. These are hopeful signs.
  10. Wisconsin is adopting a statewide water conservation rule. The Great Lakes Compact requires that states adopt water conservation plans for the Great Lakes watershed. Wisconsin is taking it a step farther by adopting a rule that will apply to the entire state, though the rules are tighter inside the Great Lakes watershed. This is another hopeful sign.

Dickinson opened her presentation with words that continue to resonate with me: “Water efficiency and conservation makes sense no matter where we live.” Here in the Great Lakes, where municipalities frequently have excess supply and are anxious for new users, it’s rare to hear those words. But if for no other reason than to reduce our energy consumption and our greenhouse gas emissions, being smart about water is something that we all need to do.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: