Guest Column - April 2015
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Water Wise
Reduce Water Usage & Bills With Efficiency Measures

By Klaus Reichardt

We have all read about, and many of us have actually witnessed, some startling changes in our water bills over the past few years. They are going up, up, up, with no apparent end in sight.

One reason for this is very simply that most water utilities in the United States have undercharged for water for decades. They have provided clean, treated and filtered water delivered to millions of locations using considerable energy (gas, electricity, etc.) at a cost that does not cover their own overhead.

Well, all that is changing and changing fast. Water is like any other commodity—as supplies get tighter, costs go up. Moreover, the United States has witnessed several serious and ongoing droughts in the past few years—many of which are occurring in areas that rarely experience droughts. As a result, this is no longer a regional issue, such as only in the dry Southwest, but a national issue.

As the trends of short supplies and cost increases continue, one of the things we are learning is that over the long haul, water conservation just does not work. We are typically asked to conserve water when there is a drought: cut back on watering vegetation, no car washing, etc. But, as soon as the drought is over or conditions improve, we go back to our old water-using habits. This means water conservation is short-term. What we need to help lower water costs and consumption long-term is something else entirely—using water more efficiently.

"Water efficiency has been proven to actually slow down the increases in consumer [water rates] in the United States," said Mary Ann Dickinson, president and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the efficient and sustainable use of water in the U.S. and Canada. A study conducted in the city of Westminster, Colo., found that "thanks to investments in water efficiency programs since 1980, Westminster residents and businesses have saved 80 percent on tap fees and 91 percent on rates compared to what they would have been charged without these programs in place."

Defining Water Efficiency

We have all read about, and many of us have actually witnessed, some startling changes in our water bills over the past few years. They are going up, up, up, with no apparent end in sight.

Now that we know water efficiency might help, we need to clarify exactly what it is. As we know, it is not tied to a specific drought or current water supply situation. Water efficiency means "using improved technologies and practices that deliver equal or better service with less water," according to the Water Efficiency Manual, prepared by the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources. Examples provided in the manual include such strategies as the use of low-flow faucets, toilets and urinals, as well as no-water or waterless urinals.

In other words, water efficiency is a broad approach, implementing ways to satisfy the demand for water by using technologies and systems that use it more wisely at all times, helping to reduce waste and, along with it, costs.

Steps Not to Take

The Water Efficiency Manual mentions some steps park and recreation managers can take to become more water efficient. We will explore those and other ideas in more detail. However, we should first discuss a couple of technologies that may not prove as effective at reducing water consumption over the long term as once believed.

The first is sensor-controlled restroom fixtures. These faucets were developed so that patrons would not need to touch anything in a public restroom. For that task they work fine. However, some manufacturers of these systems also market them as ways to reduce water consumption. One study noted that this is a false assumption and that sensor-controlled restroom fixtures may actually use more water.

The second item regards the development of valves that turn, for instance, traditional urinals into water-free urinals. While the concept is excellent—with the goal of saving as much as 35,000 gallons of water annually per urinal—the reality is that these systems have bumped up against plumbing codes in some states, are prone to phantom flushes (when the unit flushes on its own due to shadows, light changes, etc.), and as with all plumbing fixtures, are prone to repair issues.