Proud To Be Water-Efficient

Most people know that California is in its fourth year of one of the most serious droughts the state has ever experienced. This is not just a California problem; many parts of Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, and Oregon are also experiencing a prolonged drought.

However, many people do not know that California and other western states experienced a drought almost 40 years ago that was as bad as this one. The good news is that California is weathering this drought far better than it did 40 years ago—even though the state has almost doubled its population. There are many reasons for this good news.

First, let’s go back to 1976 and 1977 when I was living in the state. Precipitation was extremely low for two consecutive years, which led to a water crisis. An emergency water pipeline across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge was constructed to deliver water to residents just north of San Francisco; each person was allocated 44 gallons of water per day per person, down from the usual 100 gallons. But the impact of the crisis reached far beyond California as agricultural activities in some parts of the Central Valley ceased temporarily. Remember, California is the leading agricultural state in the country—so the drought affected the availability and costs of scores of agricultural products nationally.

However, there were silver linings with this drought. First, the crisis was over relatively quickly. By the end of the decade, California had received more than ample rainfall to end all water restrictions. 

Second—and even more important—there were significant changes in water-management practices throughout the state, including the development of more aggressive contingency plans for future droughts and dry conditions. In addition, new water technologies helped the state reduce water consumption considerably.

Essentially, what California learned and what the state is teaching the rest of the country today is to use water efficiently. “Efficiently” does not refer to water conservation. The measures the state was forced to take in the late 1970s would be considered conservation—dealing with a water crisis—whereas water efficiency refers to long-term steps to reduce water consumption, no matter if the state is water rich or poor.

Taking Action

While political polarization is not new to California, state leaders tend to pull together during a crisis and work for the common good; this is exactly what happened during the 1970s water crisis. Substantial investments were made in water-management systems, particularly water-storage capabilities. 

Long-term water-reduction programs were put into place in commercial and residential facilities, likely some of the first in the country. These have proven so successful that many metropolitan areas of the state are actually using about the same amount of water today as they did 20 years ago, even though their populations have grown considerably. Further, more investments have been made in finding and tapping into aquifers, or groundwater resources, which have become the key source of water for some communities.

Plus, the idea that every region in the state was on its own when it came to water was eliminated. Now, for instance, if parts of Southern California are short on water, other areas in the state that have ample supplies of water reroute it to help those areas in need. Water is no longer a local issue but a state issue. But it was not only government actions that resulted in the state being able to survive drought conditions for four years before calling a water emergency. As mentioned earlier, new technologies have proven effective as well.

New Technologies

In the late 1970s in California and most of the U.S., water was simply not an issue. There were few (if any) water-reducing technologies, at least those for use by the consumer in a commercial or residential location. Many states believed water was a “right,” so they kept the cost of water artificially low. This is still true today, but it is changing quickly. Throughout the country, water and sewer rates have spiked, and hold onto your hats—rates are set to go higher still.

That is why park and recreation managers should be aware of some of the new technologies that have helped California use water more efficiently. Sooner, rather than later, your facility will likely be asked or, due to rate increases, forced to reexamine how water is used, consumed, and saved at your center.

Let’s start with the easy stuff. Believe it or not, a typical faucet uses about three gallons of water per minute. By installing an aerator, this amount can be reduced to about 0.5 gallons and still meet customer satisfaction. Aerators are very inexpensive and can be easily installed.

Of course, the big in-house water users in a center are likely the toilets and urinals.* Look into dual-flush toilets or even better—high-compression toilets. 

A dual-flush toilet uses about 0.9 gallons of water to flush liquid waste and the federally regulated 1.6 gallons for solid waste. However, the net result is the use of 20 percent less water than a standard, federally regulated toilet.

High-compression (aka pressure-assisted) toilets are standard on most airlines. They use a combination of compressed air and a small amount of water to remove waste, about 1 gallon of water per flush. Many “kits” are readily available and essentially turn a traditional toilet into a dual-flush or high-compression toilet.

Similar changes are being made with urinals. Starting in 2016, a newly installed urinal in California must consume no more than 0.5 gallons of water per flush. Because of this significant reduction, many facilities have already decided to bypass water-using urinals and are moving to dry or waterless urinal systems. 

The reason is simple: economics. Even if a urinal uses only 0.5 gallons of water per flush, it still must have a flush valve, it still needs plumbing to the flush valve, and it will likely have a sensor-controlled flush system installed. For some reason, the flush valves on urinals are “vandalism-friendly,” for those into such sports. No flush valve means this sport is eliminated.

All these items, including fixing flush valves, cost money. A waterless urinal requires none of these attributes, so invariably the cost savings—along with ease of installation—is significant.

Start With An Investigation

Before taking any initial steps, administrators are advised to conduct a “water audit.” The goal is to collect data and then determine where water is being used in a facility, where it can be reduced, and where it is being wasted. For instance, if a center is more than a decade old, a water leak somewhere is probably causing hundreds, if not thousands, of gallons of water to be wasted each year. A water audit can help find these leaks.

Just finding and addressing these leaks can save huge amounts of water and reduce bills significantly—but don’t stop there. It’s now time for your center to proudly make water efficiency a key part of the operation.

Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning and building industries.

*This is true unless your center has extensive landscaping.