Like most people, water conservation wasn’t on Mary Ann Dickinson’s radar 30 years ago. With her sights set on environmental protection, her career entailed issuing permits and governmental affairs. But after a state law in the late 1980s added water conservation to her list of responsibilities at a Connecticut water utility, it only took Dickinson a matter of months to discover something that still drives her today: Almost everyone—including the green community—takes water for granted.
“I quickly figured out that it was a largely ignored topic area,” Dickinson remembers. “Everyone was consumed with energy. Nobody thought about water. Water was presumed to be abundant enough, and unless you were in India or Africa, water was not something that you cared about. As a result, it became sort of a motivated issue for me.”
And now, 24 years later, Dickinson is what some might call one of the modern mothers of water conservation. As founder, president, and CEO of Chicago-based Alliance for Water Efficiency, Dickinson has been instrumental in advocating the need for water conservation in North America, as well as other parts of the world.
In addition to creating the only national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting water efficiency, Dickinson was also part of a group of advocates that pushed for water to have a seat at the USGBC. The Council now has a water-efficiency technical advisory group—a group chaired by one of the Alliance for Water Efficiency’s board members.
Dickinson also advocated for a water label to be added to consumer products, which eventually led to the development of the WaterSense program. She was even part of a group dedicated to bringing tighter U.S. standards for toilets in the early 1990s. Those standards still exist today.
Even with those major accomplishments under her belt, Dickinson will be the first to tell you water is still more of an afterthought—if not a nuisance—to most people, including the green building community. “One of the things that has already frustrated me about water efficiency is that somehow we are the stepchild in the green building process, even though a community can’t grow without adequate water supplies,” she says. “Planners and builders just always assume that it is the water utility’s job to get the water for them. It’s not their problem.”
As you might have guessed, that’s not how Dickinson sees it. “I want green building professionals to realize that water is an important piece of that whole picture they design,” she says. “They need to be thinking about more sustainable ways to design their developments so that they are not always relying on somebody piping in the water and piping away the waste. That’s the traditional model that we’ve used for 100 years, but that’s a very consumptive model.”
She says one of the problems is that there are many myths about water use. “I think there is a significant misunderstanding about what saves water, what doesn’t, what is cost effective, what isn’t, and what people should do that truly would save water,” Dickinson says.
For instance, many building professionals and utilities assume that if they are creating a development for an additional 100,000 people, they need to come up with that much extra water to accommodate the new residents. “It’s not a straight line extrapolation,” Dickinson says. “Depending on how you design a development and how efficiently you design the water use, you can actually use far less water than what was originally envisioned. In fact, per-capita water use around this country is decreasing.”
Another myth is that consumer behavior is one of the reasons water use is declining. Although education efforts are starting to reach the consumer, Dickinson says the real reason for the decrease is because of standards efforts. Today’s dishwashers and washing machines, for example, use 60% less water than they did 10 to 15 years ago—something the average consumer doesn’t even realize.
Homeowners also think that they use the most water inside of their homes, but statistics show that 50% to 60% of their water is actually being applied outside—on their lawn. And furthermore, says Dickinson, homeowners generally don’t realize that they are irrigating with treated, drinking-quality water.
“We are spending billions of dollars nationally in terms of water treatment just to throw it out on the lawn,” Dickinson says. “We need to have a better assessment of how much water we are going to be putting out there and what level of quality that water should be.”
It’s also important to understand that it takes energy to treat and pump that water. In fact, Dickinson believes an understanding of the relationship between water and energy is the only way to be truly sustainable. “Just because something is energy efficient, it doesn’t mean it is automatically water efficient. You have to run the numbers and figure it out,” she says.
Take green roofs as an example. If a builder based in Phoenix is irrigating a newly installed green roof with potable water, he is likely using more energy to pump that water than if he would have never put in the green roof at all. The same is true for many tankless water heaters, according to Dickinson. “Tankless water heaters clearly save energy,” she says. “But statistics all show that when presented with an unlimited hot water source, people often take longer showers.”
The encouraging news it that water is starting to find its way on the green priority list. Energy Star now includes water consumption as part of its efficiency equations for appliances, and the government added water standards to its dishwasher requirements in 2010 and to clothes washer requirements in 2011.
Competition among product manufacturers is also helping push water efficiency to the forefront. “For a while, some [water-efficient] products had performance issues, but now they are just spectacularly good,” Dickinson says. “That kind of competitiveness and new innovation is happening in water efficiency as it has been happening in energy. These are big changes that we didn’t see 10 years ago.”
And if Dickinson has her way, the next 10 years will see even bigger changes. Although she admits that it is “tiresome” to constantly find water efficiency at the bottom of most builders’ check lists, Dickinson and her organization have no intention of slowing their efforts. “We want to encourage developers to think about how they would build a house that’s super water efficient and cost effective,” she says. “There is a lot that can be done that is very low tech, very affordable, and very beautiful.”