According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 36 states anticipate a water shortage by 2013. That's an alarming number, and it's only six years away.
As the U.S. population increases and communities expand, utilities face growing water demand, higher operating costs, and aging infrastructure. Often you must provide water to more distant customers while maintaining reliable service, high water quality, and reasonable costs.
Understanding the need for water efficiency is half the battle; carrying out an effective water-efficiency program is the other. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's WaterSense program is a national public-private partnership designed to enhance the market for water-efficient products and services.
Through a nationally recognized label, WaterSense is helping consumers and water agencies identify products that are at least 20% more water-efficient and perform as well as, or better than, their average counterparts. In addition to performing well, WaterSense-labeled products also save money and encourage innovation in manufacturing.
Water system planning, including water efficiency tactics, is vitally important to a growing number of cities, counties, and water districts. Conventional thought is that water-efficiency efforts result in fewer gallons sold, thus lowering your utility's revenues.
In reality, water-efficiency programs are a sound return on investment for both community- and privately owned water systems. Using water more efficiently saves money, reduces stress on water systems and the environment, and preserves water supplies for future generations (click here to see a graph of water conservations utility).
The financial and operating conditions of water utilities and water districts vary widely across the country. Many water systems don't generate enough revenue to cover operating costs. For these systems, every gallon sold means more money flows out than flows in. So each gallon of water conserved through efficiency improves their bottom line because less money is needed to move less water out. For these systems, efficiency has a positive financial impact. (See story about Las Vegas and the Southern Nevada Water Authority's conservation efforts, page 38)
For systems that are on more firm financial footing, a decrease in water sales due to water-efficiency efforts could mean revenue losses in the short term. But these losses will be offset by a range of avoided costs, including the cost for treatment chemicals, residuals disposal, and energy from processing less water. These costs can offset about 30% of losses incurred from decreases in water sales.
In the long term, water-efficiency measures also offer significant benefits to water systems. The U.S. Bureau of the Census projects the U.S. population will increase to 309 million by 2010, 335 million by 2020, and 392 million by 2040. Most of the population growth is expected to occur in areas that are driest and have the highest per-capita water use.
Given expected population increases, water systems will remain under heavy pressure to provide sufficient water capacity. For just about every water supplier, it is a matter of when—not whether—to add capacity. In this context, water-efficiency measures taken today help communities defer capacity investments and/or reduce the size of the expansion needed.