Doug Bennett is the conservation manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. As part of the Hanley Wood Sustainability Council for 2014, he will lead the Vision 2020 initiative in Water Efficiency.

You work on how to maximize efficiency in one of the country’s driest areas. What are some of the bigger lessons that you’ve learned that may have more widespread application?

When I go speak to other cities or other urban areas, one of the things I try to emphasize is the value of collaborating between neighboring agencies. In some cases, you’ll have a metro area where there can be three, four, or five different cities, and rather than having each of them adopt their own policy so that a person on one side of a street is complying with one set of rules and a person on the opposite side has a different set of rules, they should try to collaborate. Make sure that the metropolitan area is receiving the same message about what is expected and what opportunities are available. Even if you have to give up a little on the stringency of a plan or the aggressiveness of a program to find a common ground, you will come out ahead because there is less confusion. If people are busy trying to rationalize whether they’re doing more than the people on the other side of the street, they’re not going to participate.

On that idea of bringing people together, what do you think is the role that a builder or architect could play in that, influencing water policy and water efficiency?

I think what’s important to builders is to be involved at the front end. We, as water agencies, have a responsibility to engage with the professions we’re affecting for three reasons. One, they need to know what’s going on; two, they might be able to craft a more viable policy as they might see potential challenges that we can’t; and three, they can become advocates to help us implement the programs more quickly.

Water is an important issue. Don’t wait until a drought happens or a policy drops on you. Not every agency does a lot of outreach and sometimes a law may pass before you even know it was brewing.

One reason we like that association is that when we implement something and get a call from a small homebuilder who says, “Well, I didn’t know about this,” we can say we’ve met with the home builders assocation. We can’t meet with every licensed person. In a lot of jurisdictions, though, a firm can ask for a guest speaker from the utility to come and explain what policies are being considered, whether drought is a threat, and how they can get involved.

In terms of policy, do you think there are opportunities for building professionals to take a more proactive role to push policies even further than they are?

There’s a lot of potential. Many times we back off because we’re afraid that we won’t get support or that we may be coming in with something that is too aggressive that the community is not ready for. If those proposals come from the industry itself and the water agencies feel they will be productive, it makes it a lot easier. In some cases, you can also do that to preempt a regulatory action. You can solve the problem proactively.

One of the challenges in the water sector in the past was the idea that efficiency and conservation often imply some sort of sacrifice. How do you go about working around that?

I don’t think people necessarily see efficiency as sacrifice because they have gotten so used to making those decisions in their own lives. They want the best car they can get with the highest gas mileage, and they know it doesn’t necessarily mean a sacrifice in quality. We’ve seen this a lot with appliances such as high-efficiency washing machines. Most agencies no longer need rebates for those because they are now the preferred machine in the marketplace.

Do you think that transition can apply to things like native landscaping or xeriscaping?

I don’t necessarily think people see xeriscaping as superior. But if you come to Las Vegas to build a new shopping center, there can be no grass in the landscaping of the entire project. Under our policy, it will have xeriscaping. Now, we know that the shopping center will have the best stores and most appealing architecture and everyone will be excited about it because it’s new. Over time, people will start to affiliate xeriscaping with new and they will start to change their perceptions of what they find to be desirable.

It will have cachet.

Yes, and peer influence. When we first started the xeriscape movement here, a major comment we heard was “I would like to do that, but I’m concerned what my neighbors will think.” But as some of their neighbors did it, it became more socially acceptable to have a different style of landscaping.

What I hope for is that over time, people will start to affiliate what they see as the most progressive, exciting, and new construction projects with having this drought-tolerant landscaping. By association they’ll think of drought-tolerant landscaping as new and exciting.

Do you think a lot of people are even aware of the criticality of water at this point?

It’s one of those issues that the average person feels is so big and so vast, that they don’t necessarily have a role to play with it, or that if they worry about it, it will be unproductive worrying. People in California may hear that they’re going to have a terrible water supply year, but they can’t connect that to any meaningful impact on their daily lives. They’re assured that water will still come out of the faucet.
It’s important to show people what their impact is. Here, we had to teach people that the residential sector was the single biggest water-use sector. Their perception was that all these resorts, casinos, and golf courses accounted for the majority of our water use. It’s not until you show them the pie chart that shows 14 percent of water goes to resorts and golf courses and 60 percent goes to where they live [that they make the connection].

How can you instill a greater sense of urgency?

It’s a horrible thing, but conservation loves a crisis, and it is the way that American society has come to function in so many ways.

Unfortunately, I think that for people inmy industry, the drought was the best thing that happened to our community because it’s like Mother Nature grabbing us by the lapels and shaking us vigorously. Your eyes get a little wider and you think “Oh my gosh, this is for real.” But at the same time, as a water agency, it’s our job to make sure people have water. So, you end up walking this line between “There’s a crisis” and “Don’t’ worry, everything’s ok.” It’s a tightrope.

Between now and 2020, are there major innovations that you’d like to see or major challenges that you see lying ahead?

There is a lot of plumbing in houses with a lot of long pipe runs and that’s been a challenge for us on hot water, which is both an energy and a water issue. The other issue is people are very tuned into the aesthetic features of a home. They walk in amd see bamboo flooring, and fabulous marble countertops, so it's been challenging been challenged to get builders to put more effort or money into water efficiency measures because that doesn’t sell houses. It’s hard to compete with the glitz. The faucet is more likely to sell the house than high efficiency plumbing and appliances.

In terms of opportunities, there’s a lot of technology out there but water is still relatively inexpensive. Most people pay more for their cellphone than they do for water, so it’s not always cost-effective to implement some of the best technologies out there. But, as water becomes more scarce, it will become more expensive and the technologies will start to succeed in the marketplace.

On the policy front, there’s going to be a lot more collaboration and innovation to produce creative and progressive policies that allow all types of water users to interact with one another. Hopefully that will create more marketplace influence that encourages people to pursue different technologies.

Since 2012, Hanley Wood has conferred with building industry experts to establish a timeline of critical goals and metrics that building professionals must establish and meet by the year 2020 in order to preserve our environment and meet large-scale goals such as those of the 2030 Challenge. Scroll over points in our on-going timeline to learn more about the path ahead in green building. Track our progress all year as the Hanley Wood Sustainability Council shares their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward these sustainable priorities and goals. This year's program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit in conjunction with Greenbuild in New Orleans, and with a special Fall edition of ECOBUILDING REVIEW.