Within 20 years, clean water will be as valuable as oil is today, according to a leading green building expert. In addition, growing consumer desire for water-conserving products and homes will provide major opportunities for designers, builders, and manufacturers.

“Water will become the thing that people will fight about most,” said Tucson, Ariz.-based sustainable building expert Jerry Yudelson during a recent Webinar. “It will be the next urban/rural battleground, with cities trying to convince agriculture to become more water efficient so there is more water available for cities.”

Because fresh water is a limited commodity—only 3% of the world’s water--it will become more valued than energy, which is renewable, he said.

There is a converse relationship between the two resources, Yudelson pointed out: Energy generation requires water for cooling, and water treatment and transportation utilizes energy. With the earth’s population expected to increase by 2 billion people in the next 30 years, the planet will not be able to sustain current energy and water use trends.

“Past 2020, there will not be enough water for future energy needs and not enough energy for future water needs,” warned Yudelson, author of the new book Dry Run: Preventing the Next Urban Water Crisis. “Something’s got to give.”

To meet rising demand, water costs will increase dramatically, Yudelson predicted, pointing to local jurisdictions where allocation-based tiered rates are already in effect. For example, high-volume customers of the Irvine Ranch Water District in California pay eight times as much for water compared to those in the lowest-volume category. Per capita water use there has decreased by 30%, Yudelson said, “showing that a higher price does lead to water conservation.”

In order to be ready to meet market demand for water-conserving homes, building pros need to stay abreast of new technologies and products and to craft new marketing approaches to tap into water-conscious consumers. Some of the products and technologies to watch are:
--solar hot water systems
--recirculation systems that provide instant hot water
-- greywater reclamation systems such as the one from Sloan Aqus
--net-zero-water houses
--residential on-site water treatment systems

Yudelson said American builders can learn a lot from their overseas counterparts who are already dealing with water shortages, such as those in Australia, which recently faced its worse drought in 117 years.

Water restrictions are in effect in all Australian urban areas and lawn watering is limited to two days a week. “Most people have stopped trying to grow them,” Yudelson said. In addition, plumbing products are required to carry efficiency labels, and every major city has desalination plants.

“They’ve got 20 million people and diminishing water resources and they have a lot to show us,” he said.

Another example of innovative water strategies can be found in Victoria, B.C., at the LEED-Platinum Dockside Green mixed-use waterfront development, where green roofs are irrigated with reused water, toilets are flushed with greywater, and bioswales treat blackwater before it enters Victoria Harbor.

Nevertheless, Yudelson said there are many forces that will keep American homeowners from quickly adopting water conservation measures, including:
--In most parts of the country, water is cheaper than energy.
--High-water-use lifestyles and landscaping are still preferred.  “People still like that patch of green in their yard even if they have to water it all the time in the summer to keep it green.”
--Building codes are difficult to change.
--Americans lack a systems way of thinking. “It’s simply a fact that we’ve never really had to think about water as part of our urban ecosystem.”

Jennifer Goodman is Senior Editor Online for EcoHome.