Every time a region of the United States enters a short- or long-term drought, out come the histrionics. “The sky is falling.” But crying “wolf” is not a remedy. Careful planning by considering existing and future technological advances is one obvious solution.
When long-term forecasts of future water needs are made, planners need to consider one important fact: water conservation technologies are progressing rapidly. Great strides are being made and will continue to be made by innovators.
Individual Americans will not need volumes of water to survive comfortably, and urbanites won’t require as much water as they are using to maintain or improve their current lifestyle. Indoors, Americans currently use between 50 and 100 gallons per capita per day (gcd). But future generation will not need nearly that much. They will be able to easily survive on less than 25 gcd.
Toilet and Latrine: One of the major users of water is the toilet. Today, no flush urinals are being installed in commercial establishments and government agencies. Also being installed are dual-flush toilets, giving the user a choice of flushes. And there is always the old standby: “If it’s brown, flush it down; if it’s yellow, let it mellow.”
Another way to save water is to plumb the shower and bathroom sink to the toilet, and flush the grey water. And Bill and Melinda Gates are currently sponsoring a competition to reinvent the toilet. The loo must operate with running water, line power, or a septic tank, plus be inexpensive to operate.
Washing: To reduce water use in the shower, we can install ultra-efficient shower heads and take shorter showers. Showering accounts for nearly 17 percent of residential water use—for the average family, that adds up to nearly 40 gallons per day. The standard showhead uses 2.5 gallons of water per minute (gpm). Water-saving showerheads use no more than 2.0 gpm.
The average family could save 2,900 gallons per year by installing more efficient showerheads. Since these water savings reduce demands on water heaters, they will also save energy. In fact, the average family could save more than 370 kilowatt hours of electricity annually, enough to power a house for 13 days.
Additionally, technologists are developing more water efficient washing machines to clean our clothes and dishes.
Smart Meters: In the future, water utilities, governmental agencies, and water customers will increasingly rely on smart water meters to:
- Help customers better understand water use and curb waste;
- Identify leaks; and
- Underpin new rate and regulatory programs that respond flexibly to community water needs.
Smart meter use robust forms of communication controlled from a central point to provide timely information to water managers. They accommodate timely time-series data collection and facilitate delivery of a wide variety of services, such as remote disconnects and checks to ensure that service is currently available.
Smart meters will also provide important information to homeowners and renters. For example, in-house displays of real-time and historic usage will serve as constant reminders about the need for water conservation. Preliminary investigations show that customers with prominent in-house displays are more likely to use less water. Displays tailored to the specific need of the user, such as graphs comparing water use with neighborhood averages or with consumption in previous months, will help consumers further focus on conservation.
Water Treatment: Two other facts need to be considered: (1) we need only treat our drinking and cooking water to high standards, and (2) almost none of the water used indoors is consumptively used. Fact (2) is critical. Anita Brown writing in Time magazine (3 Sep 2011) notes:
“The idea of drinking water that was once in your may seem like a bad joke, but it’s not. Stripped of its impurities and rigorous tested to ensure its safety, reclaimed water is one of the most inexpensive and reliable supplies of water on earth.”
So in the future, American communities will theoretically be able to treat to a high standard and reuse most of the water that we run through our homes. Today’s engineers are working on a variety of new water treatment technologies that will make treating almost any water cost-effective, including ocean and heavily polluted water.
Outdoor Water Use: There is also the issue of outdoor water use. The trend in average lot size is downward and we can always change our landscape to a modified xeriscape. Additionally we can install water harvesting equipment–which is now legal in many states–on our roofs to supplement our water supply. As for our gardens, we can convert to drip systems, or some future system that is even more efficient.
But instead of going “whole hog” into extreme water conservation, we need to do it in a planned and organized fashion so we don’t cause financial havoc to community water systems, create public health problems, and violate water rights. We must also make intelligent decisions on water pricing and retrofitting. But a healthy municipal water future is definitely within our grasp.