Real estate professionals have a key role as stewards of our most indispensable natural resource.

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A homeowner compared the sputtering sounds his lawn sprinkler made to a straw sucking the bottom of a glass. That fateful day in 2019, the Associated Press reported, the homeowner learned he had a private well—and it was going dry. The home didn’t lie in a drought zone, but rather in southern Michigan, where heavy soil prevents rainfall from replenishing the groundwater that farms and homeowners tap. Paradoxically, at the same time, homeowners in the state’s Upper Peninsula were encountering high water tables, bringing the risk of damage to foundations.

While the Southwest is getting national attention, shortages and other water issues are prevalent throughout the United States. Population shifts, increasing demand, and aging infrastructure—and the wild card of climate change—are all straining the water supply in a nation where the average family uses 300 gallons of water daily. Regardless of your locale, the world’s most indispensable natural resource has the potential to alter your industry and your life. That’s why some real estate professionals are taking an active role in water management, education, and conservation in their homes and their community.

Michigan: Where Green Meets Blue

The Great Lakes Basin contains 20 percent of the world’s surface fresh water supply, and water is the attraction for buyers, says Kimberly Pontius, RCE, GREEN, CEO for Aspire North REALTORS®, an association with just over 1,000 members, based in Traverse City, Mich. More than a decade ago, his association began greening the MLS, coining the motto “Where Green Meets Blue.”

“We were trying to make our members understand that whatever we do on the land has direct impact on the water,” he says.

Beyond common amenities like stainless steel appliances, quartz countertops, and hardwood floors, “agents in our area have to be cognizant of restrictions when selling real estate,” says Pontius. For instance, buyers unfamiliar with local northern Michigan may be surprised that only 1 acre of a 5-acre parcel of land is buildable; the rest could be protected because it is a partial wetland or because restrictions prevent building within 50 or 100 feet of the water’s edge, for good reason. “We just recorded the highest levels ever on the Great Lakes and have some remarkable shoreline damage,” says Pontius.

Buyers drawn to the region discover that only 30 percent of housing is on the municipal sewer system; the remainder is on septic systems. Agents play a role in educating buyers on the proper care of septic systems, and they can help sellers anticipate septic tank queries. Some legacy systems in Traverse City date back to the 1800s and early 1900s, and are constructed of wood. “Failing septic systems are a big deal here,” Pontius says. “If a buyer asks for documents showing the septic system is approved or certified, closing stops. If the system fails, the cost to replace is $10,000 to $20,000.”

Novice Northern Michigan buyers might also be frustrated by high water tables that percolate up when a backhoe breaks ground to build a basement. Unlike southern Michigan, Pontius explains, “Our soils are sandy and loamy. When [owners] do a percolation test, the water almost dissipates too quickly down to the soil.” In some cases, he says, the soil won’t support the standard drain field needed for a septic system, and a more expensive engineered system may be required.

Sandy soil isn’t the only issue Northern Michiganders are grappling with. Pollutants are also a concern, Pontius says. The Upper Peninsula, which sits north of the rest of the state, separated by the Straits of Mackinac, is contending with agricultural runoff as well as two sinister contaminants: microplastics and PFAS chemicals.

Microplastics are solid plastic particles 5 millimeters or less in size used to exfoliate or cleanse the body, for example in facial scrubs and toothpaste. While Congress in the past decade outlawed both the manufacture and sale of products with microplastics, such products still find their way into the country, Pontius says, and local water agencies are challenged to filter them out. “Microplastics are showing up in fish and the waters,” he says. “It’s causing intake pipes to clog, poisoning wildlife, and getting into the food chain.”

PFAS (short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are long-lasting industrial chemicals that break down slowly and are hazardous to humans and are linked to decreased fertility, cancers, high blood pressure in pregnancy, and developmental delays in children. There are more than 2,854 PFAS-contaminated sites in the U.S., according to one advocacy organization, Environmental Working Group, including at least one in every state as well as two territories.

“Air Force bases spray fire retardants on the runways, and retardants are high in PFAS,” Pontius says. “Many rural towns were part of the automotive supply chain and used chemicals that they dumped into ditches.” As a result, in some areas, PFAS have infiltrated ground water. “When you sink a well or buy a home with an existing well and PFAS are detected, this water is not fit to consume,” he says. To correct the problem, PFAS have to be siphoned off, hauled away, and stored.

Pontius encourages agents in his areas to share these tips for sound and healthy water management with homeowners and buyers:

  1. Don’t fertilize your lawn; it contributes to algae bloom.
  2. Never run through the toilet anything you haven’t run through yourself.
  3. Wipes are not flushable and clog municipal and septic systems.
  4. Use cheap toilet paper; three-ply toilet paper does not break down in a septic system.
  5. Don’t flush pills.
  6. Don’t use products with microplastics, which are technically outlawed.
  7. Replace or clean faucet aerators yearly.
  8. Change water filters on supply lines and refrigerators every six to 12 months, depending on usage.
  9. For sellers, consider a presale inspection that includes a water test (testing for lead requires a special lab and can add up to a week to the process) and share the results as a part of the property condition disclosure.

Arizona: Change Starts at Home

A strong job market and the relative absence of natural disasters fuels the Phoenix housing market, where builders scramble to keep up with demand and prospective buyers enter lotteries for homes, says Melisa Camp, ABR, GREEN, an agent with HomeSmart in Phoenix. Although some Arizona lakes are too low for recreational fishing and the state is dependent on water deliveries from the Colorado River, buyers are so intent on getting a home that water concerns are rarely raised. In her 13 years, not one buyer has sought water quality tests.

Yet, if the drought conditions that have affected the Southwestern U.S. for more than two decades persist, Arizona is particularly vulnerable. The state draws an estimated 36 percent of its water from the Colorado, and conditions could trigger a 20% cut in Colorado River deliveries. The state’s governor recently signed into law a bill that would allow private landowners to retain the rights to water on their property even if they are not using it, thereby incentivizing conservation rather than foster a “use it or lose it” mentality. “It’s a small win,” says Camp. “It’s not going to solve our problems, but it will tip things in the right direction.”

Rather than wait for solutions, Camp says, “the best thing we can do is to take matters into our own hands. Look at our own homes, our buildings, rental properties, and apartment buildings.” Camp, whose home office is solar-powered, uses a water calculator to monitor water usage, an option agents can recommend to clients. Simpler retrofits include using drip irrigation and pool covers, harvesting rainwater, replacing grass with turf, and using faucets, showerheads, and sprinklers that meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense criteria.

NAR’s GREEN designation course covers, among other things, the central plumbing core of a home, says Camp, a member of NAR’s GREEN advisory board and a former board member for the U.S. Green Building Council in Arizona. The course motivated Camp to consider the placement of her water heater in her L-shaped home and water flow rates. Before she installed a tankless water heater and a recirculation pump under the master sink, it took 2 minutes and 36 seconds for hot water to travel to the master shower. “It now takes 6 seconds to get hot water,” reducing waste, Camp says.

The same logic applies to brokerage offices and other commercial spaces. “If you have an office, why do you want to pay more for utilities?” Camp asks. “Get efficient toilets and sinks, and you could save money.”

California: Modeling Water Stewardship

Bob Hart, RCE, GREEN, asked himself that question—why not make our office more efficient?—before switching the Santa Barbara Association of REALTORS®’ building to low-flow. Then, he looked out the window at the sprinklers watering the lawn—and sidewalks—thrice weekly and thought, “We can do better.”

Hart worked in real estate for more than 20 years before shifting gears to serve as association executive for SBAOR. Working with association leaders, he had a demonstration garden installed with native plants and remedied a basement that sometimes flooded because water wasn’t being diverted properly. The garden includes a five-foot deep hole that’s been layered with large rocks, then smaller rocks, creating a creek bed. Downspouts were removed from the building, and rain was diverted into the basin. “We can percolate everything that comes off the roof back into the groundwater.”

Under Hart’s stewardship, the association reduced water usage by one-fifth, and the garden project earned the association a Water Hero Award from the City of Santa Barbara. “Our members send clients down to see how” to create a native garden, he says.

Water, he says, is too often taken for granted. “If you had to carry your water to your house,” he asks, “how much would you use?”

Hart commends his city’s efforts to capture rainfall for long-term storage and to recharge groundwater, instead of letting it run into the ocean, but Santa Barbara is the exception. “In many communities, the golf courses are watered with purified effluent—potable water—from the sewer treatment plants,” Hart laments. “We should get to the point where every new home has two pipes—a white pipe for domestic water and a purple pipe for landscape. By using reclaimed water and keeping the fresh water for domestic use, we can build more housing.

“It’s unconscionable that we would build more without having water,” he says, “but it’s also unconscionable that we don’t build for the needs we have and for those of future generations.”

California: A Water Activist’s Optimism

Roughly 150 miles south of Santa Barbara lies the San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District, quietly and tenaciously recharging and storing ground water against a backdrop of drought and high temperatures.

Melody McDonald, an associate with Century 21 Lois Lauer Realty in Redlands, Calif., and the current SBVWCD board president, is optimistic: “It is an exciting time to be in water.”

Thirty years ago, a coworker urged McDonald to apply for an opening on the SBVWCD, resulting in her becoming the first woman to hold a position on the board. She was recently honored for her work as a water pioneer. The water use composition of San Bernardino County, the largest county in the U.S., has changed over three decades from agriculture to urban, and the focus of the board has shifted from abating agricultural runoff, water rights fights, and rebuffing a hostile takeover attempt to “working toward a common good and securing water for all users,” she says.

A new culture—led by the district—allows storing excess stormwater, and SBVWCD searches for opportunities to increase water recharge by collaborating with agencies, builders, and developers to ensure provisions for water capture, she says. “I look at real estate development as an opportunity to improve the community and water conservation and recharge water simultaneously,” she says.

A former member of California Women for Agriculture, McDonald contends there is enough water on the planet for both agriculture and housing. “It’s all about management and the transfer of water. How do you get it to where you need it?”

Smart water management starts in the mountains. McDonald praises the SBVWCD field supervisor, who monitors the tendrils of snow melt, and staff members who remove silt to ensure water flow and scarify the earth to ensure the water goes into the ground rather than being stored in ponds to evaporate. “We work together to get the water, put it in the ground, store it and have a reliable and sustainable source of water for the future, nit just for water users but for the environment, too. We manage the habitat and species through a comprehensive plan.”

SBVWCD promotes Qualified Water Efficient Landscape training to help reduce landscape water demands. Agents, she contends, have key opportunities to educate home buyers. For starters, agents should request that sellers provide 3 to 6 months of water bills to assess consumption—and should urge clients to convert lawns. “Grass gives you nothing back,” says McDonald, who admits to tracking down the source of flow, or “urban slobber,” running down a street.

Despite an ongoing drought, SBVWCD groundwater storage for the 2020–21 water year was up and 66% above what was stored in previous dry years, according to the organization’s annual report. “In a world where you want to see efficiency in government, this is where you see it. We have a success story we are proud of,” says McDonald.

Water Words

Aquifer: a body of porous rock or sediment saturated with groundwater, which enters an aquifer as precipitation seeps through the soil.

Purified effluent: recycled sewage treated to potable and near-potable levels.

PFAS: short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Microplastics and plastic microbeads: The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 outlaws the manufacture, sale, and distribution of products with microplastics by 2019, but check the label for verification of their presence or absence.

Recharge: the process by which water, such as rainfall and snow melt, naturally moves down from surface water to groundwater and enters an aquifer; the process can occur artificially when rainwater and reclaimed water are routed to the subsurface.

Water table: the boundary between the soil surface and where groundwater saturates spaces between sediments and cracks in rock.

Deeper Dive

The National Association of REALTORS®’ semi-annual On Common Ground magazine encourages dialogue among REALTORS®, elected officials, and other interested citizens on a range of smart-growth topics. The summer issue, focused on sustainability and climate risk, includes an in-depth look at water management in the Southwest and stormwater management in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

NAR’s inaugural ESG+R Report, published at the end of 2021, is the first of an annual year-in-review of the association’s sustainability activities.