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Water Wake-up Call: It Starts with Infrastructure

Those of us that lived through them can remember the two energy crises of the 1970s, which hit the United States quite hard. Both were the result of oil embargoes against the US and other countries around the globe. The first and more severe of the two occurred in 1973, the second in 1979. Both resulted in long lines at the gas pump, economic stagnation (if not decline), inflation, and the slow realization that the world of oil — and how we use it — was changing forever.

Before these crises occurred, Americans in particular were rarely concerned about oil. Most viewed it as cheap and plentiful. The largest automobiles in the history of the country were built during the late 1950s and 1960s. Many actually believed that once the embargoes were over, those rosy days would return. As we all now know, they did not. Those difficult times served as a wake-up call that we were living in a new world where oil had to be used as efficiently as possible. For instance, today most cars are much smaller and more fuel efficient, and some even run on alternative fuels.

Today we have a similar crisis on our hands, but this time the resource in question is water. The US is now experiencing its worst drought since the 1950s. And this is not just happening in a few states in a specific section of the country. This drought involves nearly 60 percent of the country; some are even comparing it to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Fortunately, what we are experiencing today is not as bad as the Dust Bowl. However, it is a wake-up call nonetheless. And just as with the oil crises of the 1970s, Americans are starting to realize that the way we have used water in the past–treating it as a cheap and plentiful commodity–is coming to an end.

It Starts with Infrastructure

Probably the most significant way America can start using water more efficiently is by upgrading the infrastructure that delivers it to us. In the words of Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, “Our nation’s water system is a mess, from cities to rural communities, for farmers and factories.”

As an example, Fishman says a great deal of our water–meaning literally millions if not billions of gallons every year–is simply wasted. This is because our water delivery infrastructure has deteriorated to such an extent that 16 percent, or the equivalent of one in six gallons of water, is lost as a result of leaky pipes that allow water to seep back into the ground. “[Due to these leaks], our water utilities lose enough water every six days to supply the entire nation for one day,” Fishman adds. “You can take a shorter shower, but it won’t make up for that.”

Further, city/state building codes tend to be slow to change and have not kept up with advances in water technology. For instance, while toilets are now required to use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush, there are many options available that use even less. And while urinals are required to use only about a gallon per flush, there are models that use no water at all. Our building codes must change faster in the 21st century to reflect these new options, technologies, and realities.

But the need to use water more efficiently does not apply only to governments and utility companies. Each and every one of us has a significant role to play in using water more sustainably. Can our lawns be watered less frequently? Can we transition to landscaping that uses less water? Have we installed aerators in our faucets and shower-heads? Look for ways in which you can conserve water and get familiar with your water bill, paying attention to both how much you are using and how much you are paying. As most of us now know, water bills are going nowhere but up; to help minimize or reverse that trend, we all must start using water more efficiently now.

A frequent speaker and author on water conservation issues, Klaus Reichardt is founder and CEO of Waterless Co. Inc, Vista, CA, makers of waterless urinals and other restroom products. He founded the company in 1991 with the goal to establish a new market segment in the plumbing fixture industry with water conservation in mind. He may be reached at Klaus@waterless.com.

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