Most agree that the value of water has been a huge stumbling block for water-efficiency efforts. Homeowners and even builders in most parts of the country don’t value water simply because it doesn’t carry a high price tag and, therefore, seems disposable—a very dangerous attitude to have about a natural resource that is, in fact, depleting.
According to Drew Beckwith, water policy manager at Colorado-based Western Resource Advocates, if we don’t start treating water as a depleting resource, the value of water could inflate to price levels most of us can’t even fathom right now. In the Colorado Front Range, for example, Beckwith says tap fees—the cost to connect a newly built home to the municipal water supply—can run builders $40,000 to $50,000 per home. If you’re building a $125,000 home, that’s an extra 25 percent.
“Fundamentally, it’s going to boil down to finances,” Beckwith says. “The cost of tap fees and how they are increasing ... will play an increasing roll in how builders think about this water issue. We need to do a better job of managing what we already have. I think that applies everywhere across the United States.”
Beckwith believes a good place to start is proper demand management. Achieving that, however, will require land-use planners and the water community to refocus their efforts toward the same goal—water conservation. And although this idea has received a lot of lip service across both communities, Beckwith says aside from a few exceptions, no one has been willing to make any real changes.
On the planning side, it’s a matter of including water in the master plan of a community. “There needs to be an express recognition that water is an important part of planning for the future of a community,” Beckwith says.
On the water side, he says there needs to be a fundamental change in the role of water providers. The challenge is that many providers don’t think they have any land-use control. “This is not their core business,” Beckwith explains. “They provide clean water—that’s their job. So for them to have to deal with this future planning of what a community looks like is a big change. But it is one that has to happen.”
The encouraging news is that a few water providers have taken the lead in implementing land-use related changes and are boosting water conservation efforts. California’s East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), for example, has created water-efficiency requirements for new construction projects. If a home doesn’t meet the specs, EBMUD doesn’t turn on the water.
The Southern Nevada Authority, a wholesale water distributor in the Las Vegas area, has implemented an ordinance that saves water by eliminating turf in new construction projects. Even though the water distributor didn’t have any land-use planning control, it drafted a model ordinance, worked with the seven individual municipalities in its service area, and provided financial support to get it passed. “It wasn’t up to them, but they took the lead, and they got it done,” Beckwith notes.
What’s even more encouraging is that home builders can also be a catalyst for change. In fact, Beckwith says some of the best progress he’s seen in Colorado has been directed from the development community. Sterling Ranch, a proposed development just south of Denver, pushed a rainwater-harvesting bill through the Colorado Legislature because it wanted to use rainwater for irrigation in some of its properties. “Water rights on the open market are extremely expensive, and anything that [the builder] could do to decrease the cost of his water was something he wanted to pursue,” Beckwith says.
Sterling Ranch will be part of a pilot project that will help provide governing bodies with rainwater-harvesting data, which will hopefully help create guidelines that, in the best-case scenario, could make rainwater harvesting legal in the state of Colorado.
Although different in scope, Beckwith says the EBMUD, Southern Nevada Authority, and Sterling Ranch initiatives are all great examples of managing urban demand—a critical step in meeting future water conservation goals. “This is how to ensure that new growth can be as water efficient as possible so we don’t find ourselves in a position where we have super high demands in the future, or it’s very costly to retrofit homes,” he says. “Let’s do it right from the start.”
For more information on water-smart urban demand management, check out the “New House New Paradigm” report from Western Resources Advocates