By Cynthia Koehler, Executive Director, Waternow Alliance
Hundreds of thousands of people across the globe took to the streets in September 2019 to bring attention to the climate crisis and demand action to mitigate it. Strikers focused on key issues like transitioning to renewable energy, halting fossil fuel production and helping underserved communities that bear the brunt of climate impacts. These are all challenges that must be addressed head-on. But the strike, as well as other current efforts to underscore and find solutions for the damage that climate change inflicts, didn’t pay much attention to the resource that sustains life on planet earth: water.
Climate change is threatening our water security, and the amount of energy we use to treat and move water from far-away sources to the tap is worsening climate change. While climate disruption is a global problem, local strategies to conserve water and energy can work to address both water and climate.
Some impacts of climate change, such as prolonged and record-setting droughts, are obvious. In other areas, where water shortages are less of a problem, communities are grappling with increased pollution runoff in the water supply, flooding, or sea level rise. These impacts can reduce water quality and damage the infrastructure that transports and delivers water for people, crops, and entire ecosystems.
When thinking about conserving water, we should also be focusing on how more efficient water use correlates with energy savings. Studies show that when households participate in water savings programs, they also conserve energy and reduce strain on the power grid during peak demand periods while saving consumers money on their utility bills.
Water utilities can also dramatically increase their energy efficiency and reduce overall energy usage by adopting locally based solutions. For many municipal governments, drinking water and wastewater treatment plants are typically the largest energy consumers, often accounting for 30 to 40 percent of total energy consumed. Overall, drinking water and wastewater systems account for approximately two percent of energy use in the United States, adding over 45 million tons of greenhouse gases annually.
Here in the U.S., more than 85% of spending for water infrastructure occurs at the community level. Best practices like water conservation, efficiency, reuse, and recycling can be instituted locally. And these strategies have an amazing double benefit: they end up dramatically reducing energy use, and along with it, fossil fuel reliance and climate disruption.
Across the country, communities are instituting programs and projects that do just this. For example, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), which serves the Las Vegas metro area, has developed an innovative instant rebate program in partnership with Rachio, a smart irrigation control company. SNWA customers are able to receive 50% off their purchase of a smart sprinkler control device directly on the Rachio website. This streamlined program design expedites the rebate process, eliminates post purchase paperwork, and saves precious water resources by making it easier to put water-efficient landscaping tools to work in this desert community.
In central Utah, the city of Spanish Fork instituted a program to provide free, professionally installed smart irrigation controllers which reduced the community’s peak water demand (down 0.5%) as well as overall demand (down 17%). In the program’s first year, the City was able to avoid purchasing additional water rights and water system capacity. The program is exceedingly popular with the community, and the City plans to expand beyond the currently planned 3,000 controllers with funding from a federal WaterSMART grant awarded in 2019.
In Tucson, Arizona water and wastewater rates are lower because the City has implemented strong water conservation actions and policies. Today, Tucson customers pay water and wastewater rates that are at least 11.7% lower than they would have been if Tucson residents had not decreased per capita water use and lowered overall demand. Essentially, by conserving water, customers have avoided the costs of acquiring, delivering and treating additional water supplies that would have been necessary to provide a reliable water supply to a growing population.
This reduction in customer water use has extended Tucson’s water supply decades into the future. It has also helped the City avoid purchasing additional water supplies, defer investments in large infrastructure and system expansion projects, and decrease the size of new water and wastewater facilities.
As communities save water, ratepayers often ask tough questions about paying the same amount on their bills, and sometimes more, for less water. This is a fair question for all kinds of water and energy efficiency programs, and the short answer is that all water supply, whether conservation or new developed sources, have a cost. Efficiency, in most cases, is a community’s least expensive and most affordable water source.
Westminster, Colorado decided to do some research and come up with some answers to this question using data from their own system. The City’s utility staff examined the impact of conservation on rates, and the findings were startling: reduced water use in Westminster since 1980 has resulted in significant savings in both water resource and infrastructure costs, saving residents and businesses 80% in tap fees and 91% in rates compared to what they would have been without conservation.
Westminster’s exploration of water demands and rates since 1980 provided a useful response to citizens’ questions and also revealed previously unexplored and under-appreciated benefits of long-term water conservation in reducing rate increases.
Supporting smart water policies makes sense for so many reasons, and climate impact is one that deserves more attention. At WaterNow Alliance, our members include local decision-makers committed to sustainable, affordable, and climate resilient water strategies. Mayors, City Councils and utility managers are working together to develop a sustainable water future for their communities.
An innovative program to clean up toxic “legacy” pollutants in Southern California leveraged both local infrastructure and state and federal funding partnerships for cleanup of a three-mile long and one-mile wide toxic plume in the Chino Groundwater Basin. This common-sense strategy, led by WaterNow Alliance member and Board President Steve Elie of the Inland Empire Utility Agency, made a critical difference for the community while demonstrating more sustainable water solutions for all of California.
Goodyear, Arizona is transforming a wastewater problem into a collaborative solution that will benefit both residents and the environment when completed. Goodyear draws 100% of its municipal drinking water from groundwater aquifers that are naturally high in salinity. To provide their customers with clean, safe drinking water, the City owns and operates a reverse osmosis treatment system that is the largest in the state.
In addition to clean drinking water, the treatment facility produces one million gallons per day of salty wastewater. Goodyear City Council member and WNA member Wally Campbell was instrumental in forming a collaborative partnership with the US Bureau of Reclamation to construct a model wetland to treat the brine concentrate, which successfully demonstrated that plants that normally thrive in salty conditions were able to absorb salts and metals. This creative strategy will provide additional benefits to Goodyear, its residents, and the regional park where the full-scale wetland will be completed.
Boulder Colorado’s Greenways System is another example of strategic partnerships working to provide multiple benefits to the community. The Greenways System is a series of corridors along Boulder Creek and its 14 tributaries, which provide habitat protection, water quality enhancement, storm drainage and floodplain management, recreation, and bicycle and pedestrian transportation routes. Development of the Greenways program is the result of interdepartmental planning initiated by the recognition of Boulder’s City Council in the mid-1980s that stream corridors are a vital link in the larger environmental system.
These examples are just the tip of the (rapidly melting) iceberg that represent integrative solutions to address climate impacts related to water supply and quality. The threats to safe, healthy, and affordable water must be part of the climate conversation going forward, along with the solutions that have demonstrated success and are within reach.