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 Resources: Water - General
October 21, 2012
Drought highlights poor water management

Experts want stronger federal role

by William C. Schillaci

The worst drought in over 50 years has thrown a harsh light on many of the nation’s water mismanagement issues and drawn attention to those who have studied the problems and repeatedly offered reasonable solutions that, they say, have attracted very little federal support. 

This summer over 50 percent of the country and 62 percent of all counties experienced drought, part of a trend that experts have warned about for years because of the impact of climate change.  Shortage of potable water is rare in the United States, and the water efficiency of new equipment and appliances has improved.  But there is still more water used in American homes than in any other nation except Canada, and the impact of annually drier conditions and high water use may be catching up with us.  For example, shifting populations, particularly movement of people into areas where water supplies are most stressed, may create unprecedented depletions of the water supply.  

The challenges have developed over many years.  Utility delivery systems are old, with 10 percent of the nation’s water distribution system over 80 years old and 30 percent between 40 and 80 years old.  Many systems are not adequately maintained and riddled with leaks.  An astonishing 20 percent of treated water, about 2 trillion gallons a year, is lost through leakage.  The EPA estimates that about $335 billion over the next 20 years is needed to repair the nation’s water infrastructure. 

The problem extends into buildings.  It is believed by those in the building industry that water pipes in commercial buildings are improperly sized to match the needs of indoor equipment.   Water metering is becoming more common.  But there is a lack of data about how much water is being used by discrete pieces of equipment in buildings.  Absent an understanding of baseline conditions, it is very difficult to develop solutions. 

Energy needed

The relationship of water to energy demand has also been drawing attention and was recently addressed in a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power.  The more water used, the more energy needed to withdraw it, treat it, and move it.  Improved water efficiency means less energy demand.  But the federal government has tended to direct far more funding toward energy conservation than water conservation.  For example, Mary Ann Dickinson, president and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, told the subcommittee that in the past 10 years, only $3.5 million has been spent by the EPA in water efficiency research, “a fraction” of what has been spent by the Department of Energy on energy efficiency research.

“With respect to consumer incentives, billions of dollars have been spent over the past decade on energy efficiency consumer rebates and tax incentives,” stated Dickinson.  “In the area of water efficiency, these programs have largely been undertaken by the water system ratepayers, with very little state funding.  Virtually no federal money has been allocated for dedicated water efficiency programs.”

The California Energy Commission found that 19 percent of the state’s electric energy load comes from the pumping and treatment of drinking water and waste water, and 32 percent of its gas load is related to heating water by consumers.  One witness at the hearing noted that few other states have developed this type of information, which is a critical first step in improving water efficiency and saving energy.  The witness, Henry Green, president of the National Institute of Building Sciences, also notes a 2005 report in which the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the generation of electricity is responsible for almost half the water withdrawals in the country.  This is another way of saying that saving water is directly tied to energy conservation. 

Missing data

Green continually made the point that the data needed to better manage the water supply are lacking, particularly for buildings.  For example, water usage data for distinct building types could help produce benchmarks in water use intensity or gallons of water used per square foot.  “Water use intensity values can be used within codes and standards to develop performance-based standards by water utilities to identify large and inefficient users, by water auditors to develop water management strategies, and by federal and local governments to craft water use policies,” testified Green.  “This benchmark data also would provide a means to compare the water use of one building against another to determine a relative level of water efficiency.”  But such data do not exist, Green added. 

Furthermore, said Green, there is a lack of information on the end uses of water in commercial buildings and very little research has been conducted on the topic. Thus, while the aggregate usage data that can be obtained by traditional metering of various building types are important and will result in significant water savings, the proper sizing of plumbing systems and the implementation of other water efficiency strategies require a greater understanding of the use patterns associated with discrete fixtures, appliances, and equipment.

Positive steps

Progress toward better water management may not be matching a changing climate and increased water demand stride for stride, but it is occurring in some areas.  For example, Dickinson told the subcommittee that plumbing product and appliance standards, in effect since the Energy Policy Act of 1992 and refined in subsequent legislation, have reduced indoor water consumption in a range of 43 percent to 86 percent per fixture, depending on the product.  EPA’s WaterSense program, launched in 2006, has labeled over 4,500 products, the sales of which have resulted in saving 287 billion gallons of water and $4.7 billion in consumer water and energy bills.  By the end of 2011, reductions of 38.4 billion kWh of electricity were achieved, along with reductions of 13 million metric tons of GHG emissions.

               The need for improved building and plumbing codes is also being recognized and addressed to a certain extent.  Russ Chaney, CEO of the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), noted that in 2010, the IAPMO published its Green Plumbing and Mechanical Code Supplement, the first green construction code in the United States. The Green Supplement is separate from the Uniform Plumbing and Mechanical Codes and establishes requirements for green building, water efficiency, and water reuse applicable to plumbing, mechanical, and solar energy systems. The Green Supplement serves as a resource for many progressive jurisdictions across the country that are implementing green building and water-efficiency programs.  By adhering to the water efficiency provisions found within the supplement, 35 percent water savings over baseline code and [federal Energy Policy Act] requirements can be attained in both residential and commercial buildings.

Comprehensive water strategy

               But witnesses at the hearing agreed that a better approach to national water management was needed and that it would work best if it began with the federal government.  Here are some suggested actions:

  • Dickinson recommended that national incentives be enacted for water efficiency programs.  She said that a national policy should be instituted to allow funding for energy efficiency to be used for both cold water and hot water conservation programs because of the clear embedded energy benefits that this investment would provide.


  • Chaney points to the pressing need for the federal government to begin development of a comprehensive and coordinated water strategy to meet the needs of our growing nation.  The strategy should include requirements for the incorporation of IT-based systems, or “smart water systems,” that will monitor for leaks and thus ensure efficiency and more consistent compliance with safe drinking water standards.
  • Green points out that at the federal level, the work of promoting high-performance buildings, which includes improved water efficiency, is distributed among 11 agencies.  “A cross-agency working group on building-related issues that could develop holistic strategies for achieving national goals would be incredibly valuable,” said Green. 


  • Green also emphasized that using potable water for all uses may not be sustainable and that reuse of slightly contaminated water reduces the amount of potable water used by a facility and also lowers discharges to sewer systems.  But there are no federal regulations governing permissible utilization of nonpotable water.  Some states have set standards but, absent federal regulation, those standards are highly variable, and other states have no regulations at all.  Therefore, a single set of federal regulations developed by the EPA is an essential early step to more widespread use of nonpotable water in buildings and the significant savings in potable water that would result. 
  • Chaney stated that the fed should also develop incentives for state and local governments to adopt and properly enforce green plumbing codes.  In addition, he urges federal support for emerging and less invasive water metering technologies.  The fed should also provide incentives for state and local governments to require water utilities to conduct independent leakage audits and report the percentage of water leaking from their distribution systems along with a plan for repair and update of systems that demonstrate excessive leakage.  “Keep in mind that this is water that has been treated to strict and expensive drinking water standards and contains all of the embedded energy embodied in such treatment and delivery,” said Chaney.  “Frankly, we find it unacceptable that we ask our nation’s manufacturers to continually trim tenths of a gallon off the consumption levels of their products–at considerable cost to both them and to the end consumer–when so much water is being lost between the point of treatment and the point of use. This is an area where improvement is necessary.”


Job creation

               The witnesses also noted that a concerted effort to improve water systems would generate many jobs.  For example, the United States Conference of Mayors estimates that every job created to rebuild water systems results in more than 3.6 jobs elsewhere, and every dollar invested in water infrastructure adds $6.35 to the national economy. 

               “Let’s take advantage of these opportunities to address two urgent national needs:  job creation and ensuring a secure water future for the United States of America,” said Chaney.

               Click here for the written testimony by the witnesses at the subcommittee hearing.