It doesn’t matter which came first — chickens, eggs, farmers, or consumers. When water scarcity is involved, all parties are interdependent. Limiting agricultural or industrial water use in favor of residential use does a community no good if the local economy cannot support existing jobs, or attract new ones, for its residents. In regions chronically impacted by limited groundwater and surface water options or prolonged drought, sustaining the status quo is no longer sufficient. Something has to change, and that change needs to start with recalibrating consumer and industry attitudes about water.
The Heart Of The Matter
A big part of the problem is that, until now, many of us have been conditioned to expect our taps to deliver a virtually endless supply of clean water at relatively low costs. The simple fact is that most people do not know, much less appreciate, the true value of water.
The residents of Cape Town, South Africa, recently proved how far human beings under extreme duress can go to change their water consumption habits — all the way down to 13.2 gallons per person per day, as compared to Santa Cruz, CA’s state-low consumption rate of 44 gallons per person per day during the 2015 water shortage.
Whatever the volume, human water consumption is only one facet of the solution. Controlling the modern-day Hydra that water scarcity has become will require a much broader perspective — technically and attitudinally.
A Multifaceted Problem Needs A Multipronged Approach
Just as different influences contribute to water scarcity, new and different approaches by water utilities, their customers, and other groundwater/surface water users are needed to mitigate the impacts of water shortages. Water utility management and public relations personnel will need to play just as large a role in this process as engineering and operations personnel currently do.
- Legislating Change —Water industry experiences over the past few years have made it evident that historically less flexible and less efficient practices cannot continue unchanged for the foreseeable future. The situation presents regulatory challenges (e.g., SB 555) as well as physical and economic challenges (e.g., non-revenue water, zoning, municipal water-use restrictions). Water utilities need to have an active role in discussions of all those approaches.
- Cultivating Better Agricultural Practices — While utilities might not sell treated water to agribusiness customers, agricultural use of groundwater and surface water supplies can impact regional source water availability. Outreach relationships with livestock operations and crop growers and their local industry organizations can help to communicate agricultural water conservation practices recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. California’s Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) also offers suggestions on irrigation and crop selection for that water-challenged state.
- Incorporating Business Users As Part Of The Solution — The Salesforce Tower in San Francisco is an excellent example of corporate commitment to water recycling — addressing everything from rainwater capture to gray- and blackwater recycling — but not all industry is as easily convinced. Water utilities working in concert with local municipalities and zoning boards to negotiate limits for water-intensive industrial process companies can take a more business-friendly approach with conservation practices suggested by the U.S. EPA and the Alliance for Water Efficiency.
- Reducing Systemic Waste — Beyond personal waste, which is difficult to monitor and manage, there are systemic opportunities to reduce treated drinking water losses. These include upgrading distribution and metering systems to reduce the frequency and the impacts of leaks and other non-revenue water (NRW) losses.
First (and foremost) are water waste and leak issues that are under the control of water treatment and distribution utilities. Next is developing new or existing technologies to support the needs of industrial and agricultural users with processes and practices that do a better job of water conservation and reuse. Third is keeping up awareness campaigns on wasteful personal consumption habits.
- Applying Technical Solutions To Structural Shortcomings — While it might take longer to untangle emotional conflicts between human needs and industrial requirements, multiple physical solutions already exist.
Obviously, the most comprehensive approach is a complete advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) network solution that lets utilities track all aspects of water use throughout the system, all the way down to individual customer activity. Where that is not practical — due to cost or manpower limitations — there are also simpler solutions that provide growth paths from existing manual meter reading systems up to complete AMI infrastructure.
Even utilities and industries that do not yet use AMI technology can get a better handle on water losses by monitoring flow meters installed at key locations along water distribution mains.
- Expanding Conservation Education — Calls for voluntary and/or mandatory restrictions — supported by clear communication of educational approaches, penalties, and social pressures — have already worked for multiple social behaviors (e.g., paper and plastics recycling, seatbelt use, drinking and driving, etc.). Perhaps it is time to ramp up the same social pressure for water use.
Water utility success in encouraging conservation has been mixed, tending to rise and fall with public perception of an immediate threat. Cape Town’s amazing success when faced with the prospect of taps running dry as the city approached “Day Zero” proves that out. Whether that extends to voluntary conservation steps, revisiting mandatory water restrictions, or favoring residential use over commercial/agricultural use, reeducating the public is an ongoing necessity.
AWWA offers a water conservation communications guide and a wide-ranging public communications toolkit with links to informative articles and checklists of steps for water utilities to take. The Value of Water Campaign and the Alliance for Water Efficiency offer comparable educational resources for water utilities, while the EPA provides guidelines on pricing water services as part of a sustainable water infrastructure.