For those people involved in sustainability, water—or specifically the lack of water to meet future demands—is a growing concern. This is perhaps most apparent to residents in the Western U.S., where a drought has caused a rather dramatic decline in water flowing in the Colorado River, which provides water for thousands of people and millions of acres of farmland. However, what many people don’t know if that this drought has lasted for 14 years.

Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that these conditions are “unrivaled in 1,250 years…The once broad and blue river has in many places dwindled to a murky brown trickle. Reservoirs have shrunk to less than half their capacities, the canyon walls around them ringed with white mineral deposits where water once lapped.”

According to the newspaper, communities depending on the river are turning to a variety of recycling programs, including recycling sewage effluent, to help address this mounting concern. Tax rebates to remove lawns and water-thirsty vegetation have become the norm in states like New Mexico and Arizona, and many states are also offering rebates to consumers and businesses to replace older water-using appliances with more efficient alternatives. For commercial facilities, this includes restroom fixtures that are either low-flow or, in many cases, no-flow systems, such as waterless urinals, which can save as much as 40,000 gallons of water per urinal.

However, what the residents and businesses in these states must now realize is that they are not being asked to conserve water temporarily; instead, they are being asked to use it more efficiently now and into the future. There is a big difference between the two propositions and greatly affects the way we design our buildings.

Conserving Water vs. Using it More Efficiently
In the late 1970s, California endured one of the most serious droughts in the state’s history. Irrigating outdoor vegetation was essentially eliminated, and in some counties, such as Marin County just north of San Francisco, some residents were restricted to using as little as 40 gallons of water per day per home. In contrast, today the average American family uses about 300 gallons per day. Businesses were placed under similar extreme rationing programs.

At the time, Californians were encouraged to conserve water in every way possible. However, conservation implied that the drought the state was enduring was a temporary concern. And, sure enough, when significant rainfall events ended the drought, the conservation measures were lifted.

However, the situation has changed across the country since then. More formerly water-rich areas are experiencing shortages and, at the same time, populations and water needs for industry and farms have increased dramatically. Temporary conservation measures will no longer fit the bill. What is needed are ways to use water much more efficiently.

The Water Audit
The first step in using water more efficiently is to conduct a water audit. The process can vary depending on a number of issues, especially in relation to how the facility is used. A hospital, for example, may use water in more and different ways than an office building. However, there are some common denominators and in many cases, a water audit can be conducted in-house as long as it is planned and carried out properly. Consider the following steps:

  • Acquire and analyze the plumbing layout of the facility. Building plans should identify where water is brought into a facility, where the piping runs, and the location of water-using fixtures and systems, as well as drainage systems. The next steps include:
  • Gather billing information indicating how much water is being used in the facility for a period of 24 to 36 months. Using this information, benchmarks can be established estimating how much water is used in the facility on a monthly, quarterly, and annual basis.
  • Depending on the facility, employment records should be analyzed. Are numbers down over the years? If the building has had fewer users in recent years compared to the past, for example, this will impact water use and may be a reason less water is being used.
  • Conduct a walk-through of the building with the plumbing plans.The goal here is to locate the pipes, fixtures, and other water-delivering or water-removing systems in your facility.
  • In some facilities, along with identifying where water is being used, ask why it is being used. In some cases, especially in manufacturing locations, water is being used where it is no longer necessary.
  • In landscaping, identify how vegetation is irrigated and see if a drip-irrigation system, which uses considerably less water, could be installed.
  • Check water billing information, looking for spikes where water use has suddenly increased significantly. Often, this is due to leaks or ruptures in irrigation pipes.
  • Pay close attention to restrooms. In most facilities, next to landscape irrigation, restrooms are where the greatest volume of water is used.
  • Investigate the building’s mechanicals. An engineer or similar expert may be necessary to check HVAC systems, cooling towers, and boilers, which can consume as high as 25 percent of all the water used in a facility.
  • Once a water audit is completed, all findings must be documented so that they can be referenced at a later date. Steps to become more water efficient—everything from repairing leaks to installing water-using systems and fixtures that use less water or no water—are now documented.

What’s Next: Water Demand Management
We can also expect more communities around the U.S. to introduce water demand management programs. In these cases, water utility and government bodies often step in to ensure that all community members are using water more efficiently.

One of the key parts of a water demand management program is setting water and sewer rates so that they more accurately reflect their true costs. These costs include treating the water, storing it, and delivering it, but also reflect the energy it takes to deliver and remove water from facilities—energy that is often generated from nonrenewable sources.

Other components of a water demand management program may include:

  • Effective water metering systems. All consumers should be accurately aware of how much water they are using and if and where multiple systems are installed.
  • Communication. All water users must understand that using water more efficiently is a long-term strategy that will not necessarily be changed simply if there are increased wet weather events.
  • Regulatory measures. Many Americans may unwelcome new regulations. However, when it comes to water, some government body regulations may be necessary and, once instituted, there may be less resistance than anticipated. For instance, the state of Arizona required that only waterless urinals be installed in government buildings several years ago. Today, these systems are generally well-accepted with little or no user complaints.

Realizing the Benefits
Just as we have all learned to use energy and fuel for cars more efficiently, similar steps must now be taken when it comes to water. However, unlike energy use and automobiles, many of the technologies that will help use water more wisely and efficiently are already here. Are you ready to lead the transition?