This week’s blog was written by Marilyn Hall, Water Conservation Coordinator for Athens-Clarke County.
Water Conservation is Real Pain.
During drought-imposed outdoor watering restrictions, customers often complain to me that their plants are dying. They are feeling the real pain of conservation measures. The role of water conservation is to manage water use in the short term during a drought and there can be a corresponding loss of productivity or quality of life, a.k.a. “pain”. Many people endure the pain and make an extra effort to shower less often or only flush when necessary. Such behavior changes are an important part of reducing water use during a drought or water shortage.
There can also be temporary institutional changes in priorities and policies. For example, my daughter’s school conserved water during the 2007-2008 drought by switching to disposable forks, plates, and trays. They balanced the need for waste reduction with the need for water conservation. Since it was a drought emergency, it made sense to switch to disposables to save water. This example of conservation was not very painful.
Water Conservation is the Gateway to Efficiency.
More and more of the “temporary” and least painful conservation measures that are implemented during water shortages are becoming permanent. When an industry changes its processes in response to a drought mandate, those changes tend to be permanent. If overall production is the same and uses less water, why change back? The industry is saving money on its water bill and becoming more efficient.
Short term, emergency conservation measures lead to long term efficiency. Remember my daughter’s school? It turns out that they saved money when they switched to disposables, so they never went back to the reusable plates, forks, and trays. (This does not bode well for our landfill space, but that is a topic for another blog.) Conservation is a gateway to efficiency. This is evident at the industries who change their processes, my daughter’s school, and the home where turfgrass is replaced with a watersmart landscape.
Efficiency is Making our Drought Plan a Real Pain.
Conservation leads to long term resource investment in efficient technology. This pleases my inner-technogeek, but scares me as I work to revise our drought plan. As it is now, our drought plan depends on our ability to reduce water demand during a drought. A decade ago we could call on our community to reduce their water use by 20% or so with outdoor watering restrictions. Now, their gardening and landscaping activities don’t use nearly as much water. We estimate that a total outdoor watering ban would reduce our demand by less than 10%. That is an extremely painful way to reduce water use by just a small amount. What do we do when the state or other entity tells us to reduce water use by more? Right now our residential daily water demand is about 40 gallons per day per person. How low can we go?
Technological improvements will continue to lower each person’s demand for water. At some point, it will become nearly impossible to reduce demand with temporary conservation measures and behavior changes. Utilities are already looking at reusing water, improving system efficiency, desalination, and a multitude of other strategies for improving efficiency and finding additional sources. Although utilities are doing all they can, I believe everyone should take responsibility for the long term sustainability of our water supplies.
The future of drought preparedness is not in painful, mandatory % reductions: It is in drought resiliency all the time. A more broad approach needs to be taken. Water-saving codes and ordinances mandating efficiency in landscaping, fixtures, hvac, etc. are already on the books in many places. Those codes are the easy part. Our built environment needs to change to be more water smart. There are many, many studies showing how the built environment affects water supplies. For example, higher housing density can reduce water use and green infrastructure can protect water supplies. The long term sustainability of our water supply hinges on the relationship between how we live and our water consumption.
We cannot put this off.
Changes related to land use or water infrastructure take decades to implement and needs to be incorporated into infrastructure planning. Land development standards, comprehensive plans, codes and zoning ordinances, water offset programs, collaborative regional plans, and public engagement all play important roles in creating sustainable development, resulting in more sustainable water use and resilience to the impacts of drought.
Implementing water-sustaining plans and infrastructure can reduce the real pain of short term conservation measures. Soon it will be time for Athens-Clarke County to update its Comprehensive Plan. This extensive planning effort provides the perfect opportunity to work on creating a sustainable future for water resources. If we don’t get started soon, the real pain of water conservation measures may be more than we can handle.