Water Conservation

Many who work with water supply issues say if we’re worried about an adequate water supply now or in the future, we should look first to conservation. It’s no different from fixing a leak in your home plumbing. Why would you think about digging another well to supply water to your home if part of your current supply is lost to a leak?

As states and municipalities have discovered, it’s not possible to create more water. One alternative way to feed the needs of a growing population is to import water from elsewhere. In the West, that may mean buying water rights through a broker or directly from a farmer or other individual who has unused rights. Water-thirsty places like Las Vegas have dreams of bringing more water through a giant pipeline running across several states. Whether such grandiose ideas may someday be realized remains to be seen.

But there are ways to squeeze more out of the current supply without going to such lengths. If local water authorities can manage demand for water with incentives and innovative technologies and management practices, they can in effect enhance the supply of potable water.

This section will look at both water conservation (using less water for daily needs) and water efficiency (making better use of the available water--for instance, by capturing stormwater runoff). Jenny Hoffner of American Rivers, which puts a high priority on water efficiency as a means of maintaining flow rates to preserve habitats and recreational opportunities, describes it as “technologies and conservation measures that help us use existing water supplies in smarter, more innovative ways; doing the same work, but with less water.”

Communities around the country are exploring a variety of ways of saving water, from small-scale changes such as high-efficiency toilets and rainwater capture, to larger ones like “smart meters,” aquifer management techniques, and innovative irrigation methods. We will look at which measures have the most impact and which are the most cost-effective.

Per Capita Household Use

The average U.S. household uses 80 to 100 gallons of water a day for bathing, washing, flushing the toilet, and other basic needs. The biggest household water hogs are toilets, bathtubs, and showers. (Figures are from the 2005 U.S. Geological Survey water use survey.) Americans’ use of water more than doubled from 1950 to 2005, in large part because of water waste and neglected leaks. We can do something about both.

Making the changes requires some spending up front, but they will pay off. The EPA’s WaterSense website, which promotes conservation, says, “If all U.S. households installed water-efficient appliances, the country would save more than 3 trillion gallons of water and more than $18 billion per year.” A report by American Rivers says installing water-efficient fixtures could result in a 35 percent savings for households nationally; the Pacific Institute came up with similar figures for Calif.

Sounds good. But what does it mean in practice? Would the changes entail point-of-sale home retrofit requirements? These good ideas are never are simple as they seem. Every community must make its own choice, and those that have been through droughts will look at their water use very differently.

Here’s a run-through of water conservation and efficiency measures, and different communities’ experience with them. (The rest of this section will use “conservation” to refer to either conservation or efficiency measures.)

Smart Meters

Pike Research predicts rapid growth in smart water meters--meters that deliver hourly readings--from 8 percent of the water meters read remotely through communications technology in 2010 to 26 percent in 2016, in its 2010 report Smart Water Meters. And a 2010 survey by Oracle, a business software and hardware systems company that also implements smart meter systems, found that 68 percent of water utility managers believe it is critical that water utilities adopt smart meter technologies. Smart meters make it easier to detect water-wasting leaks, save utilities the cost of human meter readers, and have been found to promote conservation, says Pike.

Some communities, including Dubuque, Iowa, and Gresham, Ore., have used funds from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act through the Safe Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund to replace existing residential meters with smart water meters. Dubuque is working on two projects: one to replace residential meters with smart meters, and the other to create a portal that allows people to check their water usage online.

Currently, the city’s 30-year-old water meters must be read by a service worker who goes door to door, then goes back to the facility to turn in the data so the customer can be billed, says Dubuque’s water department manager Bob Green. All the meters will be replaced by fall 2011, and the elimination of meter readers will save the city $145,000 annually, he says.

The second project, creation of a portal designed to help people go online and check their water usage, is being done as a pilot program with IBM for more than 300 city residents. “It allows an individual to see on a daily basis what their consumption demands are,” says Green. It offers a way to detect leaks and is a good communications tool for billing staff. When leaks are found, the city will pay half the cost of repairing them. Customers can also see their carbon footprint online.

The plan is eventually to connect water meter readings to gas and electric usage, so customers may decide to save money by running their dishwashers at off-peak hours, for instance. Or they could just decide they want to help conserve water: When Oracle surveyed 1,200 water consumers nationally, 76 percent expressed concern about conserving water in their communities, and said they were more motivated by the desire to conserve than to cut their water bill.

Austin’s Rainwater Harvesting Program

Rain water harvesting, with rain barrels, catchment basins, or other means, is a creative way to increase the supply of potable water by capturing rainwater and using it for irrigation or other non-potable needs. As American Rivers’ Hoffner says, it doesn’t make sense to use Evian-quality water to water lawns.

Austin was one of the first cities with a rainwater harvesting program. In 1999, it started offering rebates of up to $500 to encourage large-scale collection. The city continued with rain barrel rebates for two years, then sold the barrels at a discount directly to the public. The program was discontinued as more equipment companies moved to Austin to sell the barrels, and because the overall water savings weren’t great enough to justify the cost to the City versus other methods.

In fact, “water savings from rainwater harvesting is marginal compared with other water conservation programs,” says Austin Water’s Abigail Webster, citing research by the Texas Water Development Board. Peak day savings are estimated at 50.7 gallons a day for systems 500 gallons and larger, and just 5.1 gallons a day for smaller systems.

But the program was not without benefits. “It’s more of an education tool, a way people can do something that’s hands on,” says Webster. “You have it in your yard, your neighbors see it, you can see how much water is saved.” Rainwater harvesting creates savings in treated potable water that won’t be used to water lawns. And after the worst drought in 50 years hit south and central Texas in 2009, localities are keenly aware that every water conservation measure counts.

In some communities, local regulations don’t allow homeowners to capture rainwater on their property and use it for clothes washing and toilet flushing.

To help remedy the problem, the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association and the American Society of Plumbing Engineers have written Rainwater Catchment Design and Installation Standards, so private citizens can safely use the water in their rainwater harvesting systems for non-potable purposes.

A Developer’s Creative Water Supply System

Pulte Homes was planning a large retirement community in Manchester, N.H., with 504 houses, a clubhouse and other amenities, and a lot of landscaping. Water use on full build-out of River Pointe, as the community is called, was projected at 500,000 gallons a day. Pulte’s head of land development approached Robert Mugavin, co-owner of Aqua-Mist Irrigation Company, and asked how many wells he would have to install to serve the community.

Mugavin’s response: Why not use the two large ponds already on the property, which can store 18 million gallons? That way, the water wouldn’t leach back into the soil.

That’s what Pulte did. When it rains, the rain falls on the roofs, goes through the downspouts, into the drainage system, and in to the ponds. “Every time we get one inch of rain, we get 2.8 million gallons of water,” Mugavin says. Each pond has a backup well in case of a long period with no rain. The wells automatically kick in if the ponds get below a certain level.

Aqua-Mist monitors the system offsite over the Internet. If there’s a break in the water main--as has occasionally happened during construction--the system shuts down automatically and alerts the people at Aqua-Mist.

“[Pulte] spent a little more money to put in the proper pump stations,” says Mugavin, “but it’s very green-oriented, and they’re not using any potable water.” Because the homeowners’ water supply comes from ponds on the development property, residents don’t pay a municipal water bill. In general, a developer will get a return on investment in three to five years because there’s no water bill.

Developers in the West and Southwest are more accustomed to thinking in terms of conservation because water is in much shorter supply, and local governments often require more efficient irrigation systems. But it can be done in all parts of the country.

Atlanta’s Conservation Program

Atlanta has had water conservation programs for several years, but they took on renewed urgency after the city almost ran out of water in the drought of 2007. The water department started a leak detection and repair program that cut daily water loss from 20 percent in 2003 to 15 percent five years later, saving up to 7 million gallons a day, according to the American Rivers report Water Efficiency.

City and state regulations address various aspects of water use, from a recent city ordinance requiring commercial car washes to recycle 50 percent of the water they use, to statewide, year-round water use restrictions that allow residents to water their lawns only at night.

One of Atlanta’s most far-reaching programs offers rebates for replacing older toilets with more efficient ones. For the past three years, residents in single-family homes have been eligible to receive a $100 rebate from the city when they buy a 1.6-gallon toilet certified with the EPA WaterSense label. (Under the program, a manufacturer applies to a licensed certifying body to have its product labeled with a WaterSense certificate to show it meets EPA criteria for saving water without sacrificing quality or performance.) Since the program started, the city has paid rebates for 3,800 toilets and saved 21.9 million gallons a year, says Melinda Langston, director of water conservation in the city’s Department of “Watershed” Efficiency.

What’s more unusual is Atlanta’s current program to offer toilet rebates in multifamily dwellings. A total of 108,000 units were built in the city before EPA changed national water efficiency standards to require 1.6 gallon toilets in new buildings. Atlanta’s multifamily program started at the end of 2010, and Langston projects it will save 3 million gallons of water a day. Because Atlanta has one of the highest water rates in the country, property owners will make back the extra up-front cost on water bill savings in less than a year.

A new statewide standard for new toilets, starting in July 2012, will be even lower, at 1.28 gallons. There’s nothing like a drought to make communities take a hard look at their water needs.

DeKalb County, which contains a small part of Atlanta and many of its suburbs, has had a retrofit requirement for unincorporated areas since 2008. That means anyone who establishes a new account with the water department must replace old appliances and fixtures with water-efficient ones.

Other communities around the country have retrofit requirements. Sometimes the requirements are at point of sale, meaning they’re a condition of sale. “That puts a drag on the market,” says Donna Reynolds, executive director of the Santa Fe Association of REALTORS ®, where the city has considered such a law. “Who would consider putting another [requirement], in this market?” REALTORS ® have worked with local governments on the issue. Albuquerque, for instance, has backed off its consideration of a point-of-sale requirement.

How Much Water Savings from Efficient Fixtures?

As always, where you stand on the issue depends on your role in the process. Certainly, impeding a home sale seems foolish in this market. In DeKalb County, the retrofit requirement put the onus on the buyer rather than the seller, and REALTORS ® were concerned that home buyers would not be able to get water service until they retrofitted the property with new appliances.

From a more global perspective, the water savings--at relatively low cost--if all homes were to be retrofitted with more efficient appliances is undeniable. The Pacific Institute studies water use in California. But it can be seen as a microcosm of the rest of the country, taking into account that a greater share of water there is used for agriculture. Early in 2010, Pacific Institute president Peter Gleick testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Water and Power that “improving the efficiency of our water use is the cheapest, easiest, fastest, and least destructive way to meet California’s current and future water supply needs.”

A September 2010 study by the Institute, California’s Million Acre-Feet: Saving Water, Energy, and Money, identified one million acre-feet (see glossary) of water that could be saved through conservation and efficiency in the state, 30 percent of it in the urban sector and 70 percent in agriculture. (A million acre-feet is nearly 12 times San Francisco’s annual water use.)

The upfront cost would be less than $1.9 billion, said the Institute, compared with $3.4 billion to build a new dam under consideration, for much less water savings. The urban savings would come from using more water-efficient appliances in homes and commercial buildings, and replacing lawns with low-water-use plants.

Aquifer Management: Edwards Aquifer

The Edwards Aquifer Authority would not exist if it weren’t for a lawsuit the Sierra Club filed against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1991 saying the agency wasn’t adequately protecting the endangered species that depend on the aquifer. A federal judge ruled that the state legislature had to enact rules to limit withdrawals from the aquifer, and the Authority was created to “manage, enhance, and protect” the aquifer system, according to its mission statement.

The lawsuit and the resulting 1993 law brought “quite a drastic change in how we use our water,” says the Authority’s Roland Ruiz. Before, “the region operated under the rule of capture: You can use as much [water] as you can capture on your property if you put it to beneficial use.” The law set a limit of 572,000 acre-feet (see glossary) to be withdrawn from the aquifer annually. A permitting system was created, and the Aquifer Authority issued permits based on historic use. All permits have been given out within the law’s limit. “Now,” says Ruiz, “if somebody wants to drill a well or pump for municipal, industrial, or irrigation purposes, they have to go to the permit holders and solicit use of all or part of their water rights.” The Aquifer Authority keeps a data base of all permit holders.

“A greater monetary value was assigned to water, so people are presumably going to be more careful in conserving it,” says Ruiz. The added cost and trouble of digging a well is intended to create a different mindset.

Since 2007, the Aquifer Authority has implemented a “critical period management plan” that requires users of the aquifer to scale back their use when aquifer levels drop below certain levels. In the four stages of drought, defined by the aquifer’s water levels, all municipal, industrial, and irrigation users must cut their withdrawals by amounts from 20 to 40 percent. There has already been a Stage 1 drought in 2008 and Stage 2 in 2009. Users are fined $39 for each acre foot they pump over the limit. In 2009, 56 over-pumping violations yielded more than $79,000 in fines.

The Edwards region is unique in Texas for the way it manages its groundwater. “In some respects, other parts of the state are grappling with these issues we dealt with 20 years ago,” says Ruiz. For the longer term, the Aquifer Authority has done a recharge and recirculation study to look at the possibility of artificially increasing the overall storage of water in the aquifer, for use during extended droughts. Further studies are needed, Ruiz says.

San Antonio has also been able to stretch its water supply by reusing wastewater. Treated water from wastewater treatment plants is used to water golf courses or for nondrinking needs of industrial users, says Anne Hayden of the San Antonio Water System. “We’ve been able to bring new businesses like Toyota and Microsoft that mostly use recycled water,” she says.

Depending on the level of the aquifer, consumers are encouraged or required to conserve water. Year-round drought restrictions allow landscape watering only between 10 pm and 8 am, unless treated wastewater or recycled water is used. Water waste, such as failing to control a repairable leak, is prohibited and may be fined.

In Stage 3, residents may water their lawns with a sprinkler system only every other week, on a designated day, at night. All private swimming pools must have at least 25 percent of their surface area covered when not in use. And hotels are allowed to change linens only every three nights, except for health and “safety” reasons.

The city has another way of managing the water supply from Edwards Aquifer: In 2004, the San Antonio Water System opened the Twin Oaks Aquifer Stage and Recovery facility. Water is pumped from the Edwards Aquifer through the year to the large-scale underground facility, for use during the dry summers. Water can be stored there for the future if not needed in the current year. Twin Oaks can store 100,000 acre-feet or more. And because it’s underground, the water won’t evaporate.

Aquifer Management: Buffalo Aquifer

The idea of aquifer management is new to Minnesota. It’s written into state law, but there hasn’t yet been a need to apply it. “Now development has gotten to the point where we are beginning to see water supply problems,” says Bob Merritt, area hydrologist with the state Department of Natural Resources.

The first management effort is with the Buffalo Aquifer on the western border of the state near Fargo, N.D. The area served by the Buffalo Aquifer has had excess moisture since 1992, but Merritt expects a future drought similar to the severe one of the 1930s and 1940s. “Climatalogical conditions have a way of repeating.” He wants to make sure the city of Moorhead and Clay County are prepared.

Moorhead uses the Red River as its main source of water and reserves the Buffalo Aquifer for times of severe drought or contamination in the river. But the Moorhead Public Service Commission wants to ensure there would be a good long-term water supply during a drought.

The main elements of the aquifer management plan are to establish priorities for water use, allocate water reserves in the aquifer to different users, and set up triggers for implementing the plan. The state lists priorities in a law written after the drought of 1976. “Domestic water supply is at the top of the list,” says Merritt. “Commercial and agricultural activities are further down. It’s a matter of determining what do we have in terms of availability during a drought period, how much do we have in terms of recharge.” The aquifer is recharged by the Buffalo River.

“We need to have an orderly, understandable mechanism by which we protect that aquifer,” Merritt says. The aim is to establish clear cutoff points for when an irrigator, for instance, is told he can’t get any more water because the supply is being protected for the city or local farmers. The best method would be cooperative management among the users that allows them to decide how much water would be available. But, says Merritt, “if they can’t do it, then it’s up to us to create a plan.”

He expects opposition to the state plan from those on the lower end of the priority scale, such as the Anheuser-Busch and American Crystal plants. Agricultural processing is a lower priority in state law. But for now, the plan is stalled for lack of state funding. The Department of Natural Resources will be asking for money again this year to get the plan started.


The idea of planting lawns that require little water in drought-prone areas seems like a no-brainer, but try telling that to Eastern transplants who move to the Southwest and want to re-create the landscape they grew up with. Still, xeriscaping is worth pursuing: The Water Research Foundation estimates that landscape watering accounts for 40 to 70 percent of residential water use.

There’s more to xeriscaping than using native plants. If plants are grouped by their need for water, drenching won’t be necessary. The landscape should be arranged in a way that encourages drainage, so less water needs to be added. Mulch also lessens the need for water.

Some communities pay incentives to residents who adopt xeriscaping. The city of Austin will pay homeowners $20 to $30 per 100 square feet of garden that’s converted to use plants from an approved list. Residents of Peoria, Ariz., can earn up to $715 by converting grass on their property to xeriscape. On the other hand, some homeowners associations, even in drought-prone areas, require residents to have healthy turf lawns.

So we end with conservation where we began, by saying it’s complicated. Solutions that seem clear to conservationists may impinge on property rights. An efficiency measure that saves over the long term often costs extra up front--and city and state governments don’t have extra money now, even for a wise investment. Everyone agrees that crisis management is not the best approach to water. We just haven’t yet agreed on a better solution.

For More Information

Water Efficiency, the Journal for Water Resource Management

National Environmental Services Center, W. Va. University

EPA WaterSense

American Rivers Water Efficiency report

Pacific Institute

Western Resource Advocates report on conservation measures in 15 Arizona counties

Smart Meters
Pike Research report on smart water meters

Oracle Utilities report on smart meters

Dubuque Water Meter Replacement Project

Dubuque’s Smarter Water Pilot Study

Austin rainwater harvesting program

How-to guide for harvesting rain from rain barrels

Texas Water Development Board report on water conservation programs

Atlanta’s water efficiency program

Georgia Association of REALTORS® white paper on retrofit requirement

Aquifer Management
Edwards Aquifer

San Antonio Water System

Buffalo Aquifer, Minnesota

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