Atlanta, Georgia, the home of our humble practice, has become ground zero for water resource challenges in North America. We’re a growing major metropolitan area of more than five million people living at the top of a watershed… where there’s the least amount of water. So, as you might expect, we’ve learned a lot about water.
There are a tremendous number of websites, blogs and social media noise dedicated to the “how” water conservation though very few sources provide a common sense explanation of “why”. This is one of the longest pages on our website – we wouldn’t publish this if we didn’t think it’s worth your time. Here’s our attempt at the “why” in ten key points you can share:
1. Water Resources in Your Area
Each US citizen lives in a defined watershed. A watershed is a bounded hydrologic system: all the water in a watershed drains to the same place. Water flows from one watershed to another by means of surface and ground water. The following map shows all the watersheds in the US states and territories.
Identifying the watershed in which you live is critical to gaining some sense of ownership and responsibility for our water resources. Even though watersheds are regional and often cross state lines, the people that live within a watershed are all sharing the same water resources. There may be millions of people in your watershed.
If you’re having trouble identifying your watershed, just ask the staff of your local water utility. You can find this map and much more information on the US Geological Survey (USGS) website: http://www.usgs.gov/water/
2. Water Consumption in North America
The following chart shows PER PERSON indoor water consumption in the United States each day. Isn’t it amazing to think that 14% of our water is lost to leaks!
As you can see from the chart, 66% percent of the water we consume goes to just three uses: toilets, clothes washers and showers. With some simple changes to our technology and behavior, we can significantly reduce the amount of water we consume!
3. Population Stress on Water Resources
Our increasing population and concentration in urban areas are the two key stresses on our water resources. Obviously, more people sharing a fixed resource means the share per person decreases.
As the chart above shows, North Georgia’s demand for water is expected to grow beyond its water supply in the immediate future. Our elected officials must have solutions in place before that happens. As we’ll see in the following points, those solutions include a combination of education, conservation and construction.
4. The Link Between Water and Energy
Did you know that we use tremendous amounts of water to make electricity? Energy industry folks use the term “water intensity” to describe how much water it takes to generate power by burning coal, burning natural gas and generating nuclear power. These sources generate heat that’s used to make steam that drives turbines that turn generators to create electricity.
Of the three sources mentioned, natural gas has the highest water intensity – it uses more gallons of water per megawatt of electricity produced than the other sources. For these sources, it typically takes between five and six hundred gallons to make one megawatt of electricity. So, leaving the lights on in an unoccupied room also wastes water.
To put this in perspective, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs Water First Program recently estimated consumption of 72 gallons of water per Georgian per day for the production of electricity. That’s in addition to the typical per person water use shown above in point two. At 9.3 million Georgians, that works out to 669,600,000 gallons of water used per day.
We also use power to pump water through our centralized water distribution systems. Recent estimates suggest moving water accounts for 19% of California’s consumption of electricity. So, we’re using water to make the electricity it takes to move the water through our water systems.
Finally, “energy companies” are actively advertising the “discovery” of abundant natural gas trapped in shale deposits. Emerging techniques allow extraction of that gas by drilling a well into the shale, increasing the pressure in the well until the shale fractures and releases trapped natural gas which is then extracted from the well. Here’s an EIA diagram of US shale deposits:
Since many Americans use and consume ground water pumped from wells, there are significant and legitimate concerns about the process of hydraulic fracturing, also called “fracking”. There are conflicting reports about whether fracking will contribute, release or stir-up pollutants in the limited ground water resources over which we’re already fighting.
5. The Value of Water in North America
In his insightful and educational book “Unquenchable”, author Robert Glennon suggests, “Most people would be surprised to learn that the water bill they pay does not involve a charge for the water itself.” He goes on to explain that most water bills are actually bills for water extraction, pumping, infrastructure through with the water flows and administrative costs.
US residents have an expectation that water is free… we pay very little for water relative to most countries and we can walk into any park or building to use a water fountain at no charge. Only Canadians pay less for water than US residents. As you might expect, it’s difficult to encourage stewardship of a resource that most people take for granted.
Increasing the cost of water is one of the fastest ways for elected officials to get voted out of office yet Glennon and many other have concluded encouraging water conservation through price signals cannot be avoided if we continue our current behavior.
6. It’s Cheaper to Conserve than to Produce
Many local and state governments have created rebate programs to encourage people to buy fixtures and adopt behaviors that conserve water. This makes sense when you compare the cost of conservation with the cost of production.
Conservation programs can cost millions of dollars. This sounds like a lot of money until you consider the cost of building and maintaining new infrastructure: a new water treatment plant and associated pipes can cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
One of the associated costs of building new production facilities that citizens often forget is the debt service for municipal bonds. When we finance public projects by issuing bonds, like the mortgage on a house, we pay much more than the sale price because of the interest payments. This makes conservation look even more attractive.
The power of conservation is in cumulative results. Remember the chart from the second point? Let’s continue using Georgians as an example: If just half of the 9.3 million Georgians used more efficient fixtures and got rid of leaks (about a 35% reduction), the state would save about 111,600,000 gallons of water per day – according to Atlanta’s 2009 Annual Report (page six), that’s more than the City treats for delivery to its 1.2 million water customers each day. If we turned off the lights and paid more attention to our use of electricity, we could save even more water!
7. Why Don’t We Just Behave?
Our behavior has a huge impact on the amount of water we consume. Whether it’s “endless” hot showers, that dripping faucet we haven’t repaired or the lush green lawn maintained in drought conditions, our behavior is a statement of our values.
Drought is a normal, recurring part of our water cycle and should be included in our water resource planning. Unfortunately, many people value water only in the most severe drought conditions and then return to previous behaviors at the first sign of rain. The US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration has developed a Drought Information Center to predict and monitor drought conditions.
Now is the time to change our expectations. Instead of behaving like water is an unlimited resource interrupted by the occasional drought, we must behave as though drought conditions are normal and water is a valuable . The irony is that behaving as though water is free drives up the cost of this precious resource.
8. The Importance of Measuring
The water use of the chart shown in our second point can be broken into two components: fixtures + appliances (long term decisions) and behavior (short term decisions). Buying efficient fixtures + appliances is an example of a long term decision because they consistently deliver the same performance. Turning the water off while you’re brushing your teeth or only running the washing machine with a full load are examples of short term decisions. We can conserve a significant amount of water and lower our utility bills by balancing our decisions – making smart choices about fixtures + appliances and using them properly.
To make intelligent decisions, we need some frame of reference. A water budget, just a like a financial budget, is a great way to get started. You can take the monthly usage from your water bill (not fees, taxes and other charges) and figure out how much water you’re using in an average day. You know your routine so you can figure out how much water you use for showers, cooking, etc.
For example, if you use a shower head that flows 2gpm (gallons per minute) and you typically shower for ten minutes, you’re using twenty gallons of water per shower. Flow rates and water use are often noted on the fixture or in the owner’s manual of appliances. A common bath tub can hold more than one hundred gallons of water. Taking a moment to figure your water use per task can help you decide between a bath or shower and whether you’d like to try a 1.5gpm shower head to get your shower consumption down to fifteen gallons while still enjoying your shower.
Wise choices and better behavior can yield a 35% reduction in water use. For a family of four, that works out to a savings of almost 3,000 gallons per month – a significant savings on your water bill each month! In the City of Atlanta, that should work out to a monthly savings of about $55 per month or $660 per year. What other bills would you pay with an additional $660 in your budget?
Most low flow fixtures are relatively inexpensive so they pay for themselves quickly. Once you’re evaluating decisions in relative terms, it’s easier to make decisions about potentially expensive investments like landscaping, hot water delivery and rainwater catchment systems.
9. Water Resource Management by Law
Georgia’s Senate Bill 370, passed in the 2009-2010 legislative session, is an example of state action to protect water resources. It includes limitations for outdoor watering, plumbing fixture flow rates, water pressure and other integrated concerns. It also references EPA’s WaterSense program described later on this web page.
Local and state legislation of water is becoming more common as stresses on our water resources increase. Unfortunately, many government actions are in response to law suits filed by other government agencies and private parties. It’s important for citizens to be proactive and get involved in legislating water resource issues before the opportunity for leadership is lost to litigation and court orders.
As we see in the our first point, many watersheds cross state lines. As a result, citizens often see disputes as states fighting among themselves when the issue is really regional. Where disputes erupt across state lines, the portion of the watershed with the greatest population may prevail because the areas of higher population have more Congressional representatives. Resolving these disputes without litigation becomes even more complex when there are Endangered Species Act (ESA) concerns and other technical issues.
10. Water Conservation Resources
Most green building programs and codes include regulation of water collection, use and disposal. You can find comments about green building programs and codes on our Green web page. Much of the information, like the LEED for Homes program, are available online though you should consider working with a professional to avoid mistakes and maximize opportunities.
It’s common for voluntary green building programs and sustainable building codes to include references from third parties. Here are two examples to which you can refer for more helpful information:
The US Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense program is binary. Unlike many voluntary sustainable building programs that certify different levels of achievement, the fixtures and design solutions required by WaterSense either qualify or they don’t. Please visit the WaterSense web content to find qualified fixtures and look for the WaterSense sticker on products you purchase.
The International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO) has published a “Green Plumbing & Mechanical Code Supplement” designed to help us reduce energy and water consumption. For example, it includes a helpful table that tells you how much water is contained in a foot of various diameter water pipes. You can use this information to figure out how much water is in the pipes between your water heater and faucet. With that information, you’ll know how long it will take for the hot water to arrive after you’ve turned on the faucet… and how much water will go down the drain. Rather than buying specialized codes and trying to apply them yourself, just ask your architect if he|she is familiar with them!
Thanks for taking the time to read this far! While zoning ordinances and building codes govern the work we do, water resource issues are quickly emerging as a governing factor in projects all over the world.
As we implement water conservation techniques to become more efficient, it’s important to remember that we’re not trying to cut our water use to zero – we’re trying to cut the wasted water to zero. Learning new behaviors and routines complimented with better fixtures + appliances will dramatically reduce the amount of water we waste just because we’re not paying attention or we take the value of water for granted.
As a culture, we’re going to learn a tremendous amount about these issues in the next decade. We’ll learn to do a better job sharing best practices from various parts of the world: Australia’s drought(s) are so significant they’ve begun grading water for various uses to maximize efficiency. We’ll have to look at decentralized water systems: giant water systems in major metro areas are incredibly expensive and wasteful. We’ll continue to improve how we design: as building codes evolve to include water efficiency requirements, we’ll respond by designing our houses differently.
We’ll also change our values: we’ll come to prefer water efficiency because it makes sense – why would you pay to install, maintain and water a monoculture landscape with lots of green turf and all the plants segregated by type when you could get the same use out of polyculture landscaping that virtually takes care of itself?
Finally, many of us will find more efficient ways to use our water resources beyond municipal requirements. For centuries, we’ve built massive infrastructure projects to collect and divert storm water into bodies of surface water (lakes and rivers) when we could have used it and treated it before we released it. An industry has sprung up around rain water catchment because the water, when collected properly, is pure enough to use for flushing toilets and watering our lawns – toilets account for 27% of our indoor water use and watering monoculture landscaping can easily exceed the amount of water we’re using indoors.
There’s so much more to discuss and share! Ryan is frequently invited to speak about water conservation to provide significantly more detail and case studies that help us take an introspective look at how we live and what we should consider changing. Working with a professional is a great way to save time and cut through the noise and sales pitches in today’s market. As we saw in the eighth point, water conservation isn’t just good for our community, it’s good for us too.