It is astounding just how much work is needed in the area of water efficiency. As Vision 2020 research chair Mary Ann Dickinson would surely tell you, water has been ignored for far too long. And, unfortunately, her frustration is well founded. In fiscal 2012, for example, Congress appropriated $811 million for energy efficiency programs in DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) and $50 million for Energy Star. Although that is a win for the environment, it is disproportionate to the zero (yes, zero) funding allocated for water efficiency programs and the $2 million appropriated for the EPA’s WaterSense Labeling program. When you couple that with the fact that 62 percent of U.S. counties are dealing with drought conditions, it seems pretty obvious the gap between water efficiency efforts and energy efficiency efforts needs to be closed.

What’s even more important, however, is recognizing that this need goes beyond equal allocation of dollars. The fact is that energy and water share a strong connection—a connection that can both positively and negatively affect our sustainability efforts. A study conducted by River Network in 2009 estimates that as much as 13 percent of the nation’s electric energy load is related to water and wastewater deliveries and consumer hot water use. At the same time, energy generation requires water for power plant cooling. In fact, alternative energy sources like ethanol and solar power require surprisingly large amounts of water.

The good news is that these two resources can also work together. The EPA estimates that by the end of 2011, the use of WaterSense-labeled products led to reductions of 38.4 billion kWh of electricity and 13 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. (They also saved 287 billion gallons of water.)

Moving forward, we can no longer ignore the connection between energy and water if we want to be effective at saving either resource. As Dickinson argued at a Senate hearing this summer, these two issues need to be treated as one in terms of policy, research, and incentive programs in order to get the most savings possible.

Another area that needs further exploration and regulation is the use of alternative water sources. For example, graywater reuse—the use of non-potable water from showers, handwash sinks, and laundry for purposes such as irrigation—is currently legal in only about 20 states. More research, such as the three-year study completed by Colorado State University, is needed to assure both policymakers and homeowners that there are no health risks associated with reusing graywater. The same holds true for rainwater harvesting, which is also illegal in some areas. Until those risks are assessed, it will be impossible for states to develop sound regulations and guidelines that not only save water but ensure homeowners are doing it safely.

The question, of course, is how any of this affects the development community. Right now, it really doesn’t, but that is exactly the problem. According to Drew Beckwith, water policy manager at Colorado-based Western Resource Advocates, the next phase of water conservation will require a shift in the role of developers and water providers. Put simply, both will need to start planning communities with water in mind. EPA’s WaterSense program has a new home specification that saves 20 percent more water than the average new home. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, as another example, has implemented an ordinance that saves water by eliminating turf in new construction projects, and at the same time, is turning water efficiency into a marketing niche for builders.

Visionary developers like Harold Smethills are also taking a more active role. In the midst of designing the proposed Sterling Ranch community, Smethills pushed two rainwater-harvesting bills through the Colorado Legislature—an action that made his vision for a water-efficient community possible and gave his state an official test site for rainwater harvesting. Up until that point, rainwater harvesting was not even legal in Colorado.

This type of planning trickles down to the design of the home itself, and that includes the landscaping, where we use about half of our drinking-quality water. The EPA has built some momentum within the building community by the adoption of its WaterSense Label New Homes specification. It has also added an outdoor irrigation product category, but there is currently only one product—the weather-based controller—that can qualify for the WaterSense label. There are at least four other smart irrigation technologies that should also be considered for the label, but as of right now, are not eligible. These include rain sensors, soil moisture sensors, pressure-regulating sensors, and high-performance nozzles. The hold-up, it seems, is related to testing standards—an issue that Irrigation Association’s Smart Water Application Technologies (SWAT) initiative is working to resolve.

Inside the home, builders also need to start rethinking plumbing. Dickinson and several others have endorsed the Structured Plumbing principles developed by Gary Klein of Affiliated International Management. The principles take a systemic approach to hot water distribution, which Klein believes can “wring out the waste behind the walls” and, more specifically, ensure that every fixture fitting gets hot water within two to four seconds after people turn on the tap, an equivalent of 1 to 3 cups of water. That is compared to the typical scenario of 4 minutes and 4 gallons of water that is wasted each time the hot water tap is turned on.

As we look even further down the road—beyond 2020—there are several other areas of water efficiency that deserve our attention. In addition to use-based efficiency efforts, a report from the Cascadia Green Building Council shows there is reason to consider on-site wastewater treatment as well. Kate Spataro, one of the authors of the report, believes that being aware of what happens to water after we use it will help us gain a better understanding of what it truly means to use water wisely. True water efficiency means tracking where it comes from and where it goes.

This points to one of this area’s missing links—a standardized method for measuring water input and output. The Water Footprint Network of the Netherlands has attempted to address this issue by creating the Global Water Footprint Standard, a cradle-to-grave indicator of freshwater resources appropriation. Similar to a carbon footprint, this type of metric could help give the industry a true picture of the water consumption associated with a building, and, more importantly, reveal areas for improvement and opportunities for additional savings.

In the end, the greatest obstacle for water efficiency will be building what Jonah Schein of WaterSense has called “a national ethic of water efficiency.” The truth is that most of us know that water is a finite resource, but we don’t treat it that way—and we certainly don’t build that way.

How, then, do we make water valuable? Some have suggested that we need to remove water subsidies and implement new pricing structures based on how much water each homeowner uses. Or perhaps, as researcher and author Reed Watson has suggested, we need to create water markets and financial incentives that facilitate both conservation and market innovation. It could even start with something as simple as rating state-level policies, as the Alliance for Water Efficiency is trying to do with its State Scorecard. This could help spur competition among states and jumpstart the sharing of best practices.

The statistics are sobering. At least 36 states are anticipating local, regional, or statewide water shortages by 2013. Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S. in maximum water capacity, has a 50 percent chance of going dry by 2021 if future water usage is not curtailed. What’s even more sobering is that unless we start to take water efficiency more seriously, poor water management will not only limit supply, it will limit growth as well. Just ask any builder paying tap fees in the Colorado Front Range.