Water Use Efficiency as a Response to Climate Uncertainty
Rocky Mountain Institute
There is great uncertainty about the impact of the expected climatic change on western water supplies. On the other hand, it is highly likely that the cost of energy for pumping and heating water will increase, that environmental constraints will increase, and that periodic droughts will continue. It is a fact that we now are wasting energy, other resources, and money wherever water is used inefficiently. In other words, implementing water efficiency is a wise thing to do anyway, whatever the future may bring.
While researchers should continue their efforts to predict the impacts of climatic change on water supply, water planning—with a special emphasis on efficiency—should begin now. This will prove to be particularly valuable if climate turns out to limit water supplies, but, as mentioned above, it is worth doing anyway.
Water freed through residential efficiency can and should be recognized as an inexpensive and reliable new source of supply. It is relatively inexpensive because the saved water has already been delivered to the community, treated to drinking water quality, and often heated. It is reliable because any wise water efficiency program will be designed to provide the public not with brown lawns and dribbly showers but with the same or better water-related services at a lower cost. Satisfied consumers will gladly continue to use water-saving technologies that save them money.
Efficiency will be an integral part of any wise plan. Yet, efficiency is not an end in itself, but a tool. As such, it may compound problems or help solve them, depending largely on how the saved water is used. In the short term, it can also buy time for achieving better community planning, but it is no substitute for that planning. A comprehensive, long-range plan can reduce costs and future conflicts over competing uses of water and can con-
tribute to a higher quality of life. However, such plans are merely words if the community does not participate in their design and support their implementation.
How can one achieve this involvement? The community should ask several fundamental questions:
What lifestyle and quality of life are desired by those in the community?
What land use, environmental quality, and settlement patterns would citizens like to see?
What water-related services are required for that desired future?
What is the cheapest way to provide those services that is consistent—economically, environmentally, and socially—with the desired community lifestyles?
To answer this last question, the answers to four more specific questions are required:
What are the whole-system, avoidable costs of developing a new source of water supply (including the costs of construction, operation, water treatment, heating, and environmental mitigation)?
What efficient technologies are available to provide the water-related services required by the community without diminishing the quality of service?
How much will it cost to provide for those needs through efficiency?
What are the most effective techniques available for implementing these efficiency measures?
The first steps toward building the required public consensus are to help the public recognize who will benefit—and in what ways—from using existing water supplies more efficiently and to get the comprehensive planning process under way.
Numerous studies have shown that efficiency programs can meet a community's water needs better and more cheaply than traditional supply programs. As the questions posed above are answered, this will tend to become clear to the community. Those who will benefit from a well-designed water efficiency program are to be found in all parts of the community. Consumers will enjoy lower water and energy bills and lower taxes as less money is needed to pay for water supply and treatment facilities. Utilities will avoid unnecessary expansions in supply and treatment facilities. Recreationists and the environment will benefit if at least a portion of the saved water reverts to streams, lakes, and wet-
lands. A wise program will reward the efficiency efforts of farmers and ranchers with reduced costs of production and possibly a market for their saved water. Future generations will be thankful for wise water decisions made today.
Thus, the whole community will be brought together to cooperate in building a long-term comprehensive water use plan. Such a plan, with efficiency at its center, will help cope with the water needs of today as well as with the future and its uncertain climate.