Recognizing Water Efficiency’s Value

Mary Ann Dickinson
Alliance for Water Efficiency

Thirty years ago most of us would have laughed at the fact that we might run out of water in the United States, or that water shortages would affect more than 40 out of 50 states. However, it is indeed happening. In California, 2013 was the driest year in the state’s recorded history – and the third consecutive year of what Gov. Jerry Brown is calling a “mega drought.” Reservoirs serving major population centers are dwindling to 10 percent or less of their capacity. Aqueduct deliveries of water have been reduced to nearly zero. Seventeen California cities have less than 120 days left of water supply. And this is the rainy season. Beginning soon, it will not rain at all for months.

This is not as unusual as it sounds. Water shortages are occurring nationwide for a variety of reasons. Our population is growing and needing more water, and we are not able to build new supply facilities; we are applying an increasing amount of potable water to our landscapes which is largely wasteful; and even current water supplies are becoming less available due to climate change and widespread drought conditions. Texas, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and even Midwest states like Wisconsin and Nebraska are feeling the pinch. Yet, often water efficiency options are not thought of as mainstream solutions warranting investment. Instead, water efficiency is viewed as an outpost and option of last resort, rather than one of first resort. This is largely because water utilities are afraid of the financial impact of reduced water sales.

Unfortunately, this dismissive attitude is even evident at the federal government level. Consider a comparison between energy efficiency and water efficiency: EPA’s EnergyStar© program has been in existence since 1992, transforming consumer energy use by means of a voluntary program to identify and recognize superior performing products in the marketplace. EnergyStar© is a Congressionally-authorized, well-funded program budgeted at over $40 million a year. In stark contrast, EPA’s WaterSense© label, created in 2006 to help consumers make smart water choices, is not Congressionally authorized and receives less than $2 million a year to develop and run a significantly important national program. Furthermore, water efficiency rebates provided by water utilities are taxable under the IRS code, unlike energy efficiency rebates, which have been tax exempt for years. Finally, there are no federal programs for funding consumer water efficiency like those that exist for energy efficiency.

With per capita use nearly double that of other western countries, the U.S. is the highest water-using nation on earth. As states reach near crisis proportions, it is time for a massive federal commitment to water efficiency, including:

  • Authorizing the WaterSense© program in Congress, and providing it the funding it needs to be truly transformative;

  • Passing federal legislation to incentivize consumer plumbing and appliance retrofits and not tax consumers on those retrofits that help make our nation’s water supplies more sustainable;

  • Incentivizing business and industry to make their process water use as efficient as possible, and require them to reduce their water footprint;

  • Providing support to water utilities to help them through the minefield of revenue loss from reduced water sales; and

  • Mandating that water conservation and efficiency should be the option of first resort, not a last resort during the panic of a drought.

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