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Water Policies: Encouraging Conservation

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In Boise, Idaho, with annual precipitation of 12 inches (300 mm), irrigated lawns provide a stark contrast to the arid surroundings.

In a state facing widespread water woes, Cambria, California, is unique. The coastal town of 6,200 people, located halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, gets all of its water from the groundwater basins of two relatively small creeks that are recharged annually by rainfall. Even with water conservation measures, there simply isn’t enough water to provide adequately for fire protection and other town needs.

Responding to this acute water shortage, in 2001 Cambria instituted a moratorium on water permits, blocking almost all new construction. For the few homes that are built each year, with water service that is grandfathered in or transferred from a house being razed, the developers have to offset the projected water use from those houses by as much as ten-to-one. Based on the lot size and the number of bedrooms of the planned house, a certain number of points must be earned by retrofitting existing buildings in Cambria with water conservation measures. These measures range from replacing toilets, faucets, and clothes washers to adding cisterns for rainwater catchment. Developers may choose to carry out these offsets themselves or pay a hefty fee to the town. Cambria has more severe problems than the rest of the state, but the situation is bad enough that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a statewide drought emergency in June 2008.

Droughts and water shortages are not unique to California. According to scientists, climate change will likely increase precipitation in some places while reducing it in others, particularly the West, where populations are growing fastest. Las Vegas receives just four inches (100 mm) of rain in a typical year, while the population has doubled just since 1990—with irrigated Kentucky bluegrass lawns sprawling farther and farther into the desert each year. In some areas, the annual rainfall may not drop with climate change, but storm events may become more intense, with a single storm dumping a half-year’s worth of rain, followed by prolonged drought. The combination of changing precipitation patterns and population growth could turn short-term droughts into a long-term water resource crisis.

The Southeast has been facing its share of water shortages, and the reserve capacity of water in the East is generally a lot lower than in the West because the reservoirs are shallower. In the fall of 2007, Atlanta came within a month or so of running out of water—with no real contingency plans in place. The governor of Georgia led residents in prayer for rain. The Southeast, like the West, has to face up to the reality of continuing water shortages.

We can address both short-term and long-term water shortages only by implementing wise policies. The challenges will be huge, but leading municipalities and water authorities coast to coast are using a panoply of incentives, regulations, and other policies to ensure a more sustainable supply of water.

Some experts say that water may be an even more challenging problem than energy in the coming decades, and in EBN we’ve tackled the issue with a three-part look at water use. In “Water: Doing More With Less” (EBN Vol. 17, No. 2), we examined demand-side solutions—water conservation. In “Alternative Water Sources: Supply-Side Solutions for Green Buildings” (EBN Vol. 17, No. 5), we explored unconventional water sources that can be harvested in and around buildings or recovered from wastewater. This article describes policies and programs for changing our water consumption habits.

Product Standards

Arguably, the best way to reduce water consumption is to mandate that only water-efficient fixtures can be sold. The Energy Policy Act (EPAct) of 1992 generated dramatic water savings after taking effect in January 1994 by establishing maximum water use for toilets, urinals, showerheads, and faucets. Manufacturers complained that there wasn’t enough time to modify products to function well with less water, and customers complained about misting showerheads and toilets that needed double-flushing to do the job, but those problems were eventually solved, and today’s plumbing products generally perform well.

In 2007, California adopted legislation that will lower the allowable flush volume for toilets and urinals to the high-efficiency toilet (HET) and high-efficiency urinal (HEU) standards that many water utilities have been promoting (see EBN Vol. 16, No. 1). These new standards—which reduce the flush-volume limit from the EPAct-mandated 1.6 gallons (6.1 l) to 1.28 gallons (4.8 l) for toilets and from 1.0 gallons (3.8 l) to 0.5 gallons (1.9 l) for urinals—will be phased in starting in 2010, with full implementation by 2014. The Plumbing Manufacturers Institute (PMI), the leading plumbing industry organization in the U.S., supported this measure in California and is advancing the idea of a parallel federal standard.

Federal regulations are steadily reducing the water consumption of other products. The federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 established a limit of 1.6 gallons per minute (gpm; 6 lpm) for pre-rinse spray valves, which are used to remove food scraps from dishes in commercial kitchens. EPAct 2005 also established, for the first time, a maximum water factor (gallons per wash cycle per cubic foot of capacity) for commercial dishwashers (setting that maximum at 9.5). No federal regulations limit the water use of residential dishwashers or clothes washers; the primary way to meet the energy requirements, however, is to reduce hot water use, so the energy standards effectively address water as well.


Limitations on outdoor irrigation are becoming more and more common.

Photo: City of Gillette, Wyoming

There are opportunities to mandate limits on water use for other products, including irrigation equipment, where advanced, reduced-evaporation spray nozzles could be required. There is also a need to enforce the existing standards more effectively. According to Thomas Pape, an Illinois-based advisor to the nonprofit Alliance for Water Efficiency, many showerheads on the market have been independently tested and shown to exceed the federal 2.5-gpm (9.5-lpm) limit. Pape told EBN that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which oversees EPAct compliance, “has done nothing to enforce EPAct, despite water-conservation advocates providing DOE with test reports to prove the law is being violated.”

Plumbing Codes

While certain laws, principally EPAct, regulate what can be sold, building codes and plumbing codes regulate how products must be installed. Herein lies an opportunity to fix a loophole that has allowed a major trend in water waste with showers. While the federal limit for showerheads is 2.5 gpm (9.5 lpm), some custom bath builders and a number of manufacturers get around that limit by installing multiple showerheads in a single shower stall or selling towers that incorporate multiple showerheads and body-spray nozzles. Kohler’s WaterHaven custom shower tower, for example, can deliver more than 10 gpm (38 lpm).

“The solution is in the code,” says Pape, who has been lobbying for a modification to the Uniform Plumbing Code (UPC). He has proposed a twofold strategy: first, limit the flow of shower stalls to 2.5 gpm (9.5 lpm) per 2,500 square inches (17.4 ft2, or 1.6 m2) of stall area; and, second, for larger shower stalls require a separate control valve for every showerhead, with those valves separated by at least three feet (1 m). Pape is hoping to get this change incorporated into the 2009 revision to the UPC, published by the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), but he told EBN that he faces an uphill battle. The measure was initially recommended for approval by the UPC Technical Committee in May 2008, but a month later the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute successfully lobbied a few committee members to change their votes, nullifying the original recommendation. The Alliance for Water Efficiency plans to reintroduce the proposed amendment to the IAPMO General Assembly in October.

In the meantime, however, a number of municipalities have enacted local code modifications based on Pape’s proposal that will take effect in 2009. “When the model codes do not address the needs of jurisdictions,” Pape told EBN, “the jurisdictions are compelled to write their own codes, and the plumbing industry is not likely to be pleased with the results.” California recently adopted voluntary green building standards that (though not based on Pape’s proposal) prohibit multiple showerheads in a single stall (see EBN Vol. 17, No. 9).

Codes can also affect water conservation in other ways. They can allow (or prohibit) waterless urinals. They address water-supply piping; currently codes establish only minimum, not maximum, diameters, and larger-diameter pipes increase waste as users wait for hot water. They also have a major impact on the ability to use graywater (usually defined as wastewater from showers, bathtubs, bathroom faucets, and clothes washers). Most graywater codes require expensive and burdensome subsurface delivery of collected graywater, notes Pape, while other options, such as allowing delivery through shallow trenches covered with mulch, would be both less expensive and more effective.

Labeling Programs

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched its Water-Sense program in 2006 to do for water what Energy Star has done for energy (see EBN Vol. 15, No. 7). To date, toilets, lavatory faucets, irrigation controls, landscape irrigation services, and entire new homes can carry WaterSense labels, and additional product categories, including showerheads and urinals, will be added in the future.

The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Rating System includes provisions for water savings, and the LEED 2009 revisions will raise its bar for water savings. The current draft of LEED 2009 includes a prerequisite of reducing projected water use by 20% compared with that of a building with standard plumbing fixtures, plus two points for achieving 30% savings and another two points for achieving 40% savings. The proposed LEED 2009 also awards two points for a 50% reduction in irrigation and another two points for eliminating potable water use for irrigation. Overall, 10 out of the 100 points (10%) in the proposed LEED 2009 relate to water, while only 5 out of a possible 69 points (7%) relate to water in LEED version 2.2; a project may earn additional points for addressing regional priorities, such as water conservation, and others for innovation.

Financial Incentives


Source: City of Austin, Texas

The pocketbook has a powerful influence on decisions—including those related to water use.

Tiered or volumetric pricing

One of the most effective strategies for encouraging water conservation is to implement tiered or volumetric pricing structures—charging a low rate for the first several thousand gallons of monthly water use, then significantly increasing the price for higher-usage increments. Many cities and water utilities have adopted such programs. Residential water rates for Austin, Texas, for example, vary more than eightfold between the lowest and highest rates. Austin’s wastewater fees are also tiered, jumping more than twofold between the lower and higher rates.

While progressive municipalities are implementing this sort of tiered pricing structure, many still use pricing policies with the opposite effect—charging more for lower water use and less for greater use. Eliminating this type of pricing is a high priority.

Some municipalities establish a water budget for each home or business and use that as the base rate to establish different usage categories. The approach is a form of tiered pricing, described above, but the tiers are based on usage levels that can vary from customer to customer. The water budget is set based on such factors as number of bedrooms, irrigable area, and historical water use. A downside of such an approach is that it essentially penalizes customers who have already been practicing water-efficient lifestyles and rewards those who have been more wasteful.


Source: City of Boulder, Colorado

Boulder, Colorado, has five tiers of water use—referred to as Blocks 1 through 5—that are all based on the water budget or base rate (see table). As in Austin, the tiered pricing in Boulder is incremental. By offering a block below the base rate, the city offers a discounted rate to customers who use very little water.

Customers are more responsive if water consumption is reported and billed in gallons rather than cubic feet, as most people relate better to gallons than they do to cubic feet. We are also more likely to save water if we are billed monthly, as opposed to quarterly or annually, so we can see and respond more immediately to variations in water use.

Cash for grass

Some jurisdictions encourage customers to save water by giving away replacement fixtures, or providing rebates on replacement fixtures that reduce water use. The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), which serves Las Vegas and the surrounding region, has probably gone the furthest with direct payments. SNWA’s Water Smart Landscapes program pays customers to replace turf with xeriscaping. The current payment is $1.50 per ft2 ($16.15/m2), with no cap on the area—meaning that some homeowners can earn tens of thousands of dollars through such conversions.

According to Doug Bennett, who manages the water conservation programs at SNWA, each square foot of lawn conversion saves 56 gallons per year (2,300 l/m2/year). Since the program began in 1999, SNWA has spent over $110 million on more than 30,000 conversion projects, paying for the removal of nearly four square miles (1,000 ha) of irrigated turf. The water authority can afford to spend so much money on water conservation because the cost of ensuring supply to support the growth that the Las Vegas region is experiencing is even greater.

Product giveaways


The San Antonio Water System gave away 4,000 high-efficiency toilets in a day-long event. Drive-through customers picked up, on average, a toilet every ten seconds.

Photo: Brian Wilke

Some municipalities save water by giving away water-efficient toilets, showerheads, and other products. San Antonio, Texas, currently provides up to two free high-efficiency toilets (HETs) per household as long as the house was built prior to 1992 and the toilet or toilets being replaced use more than 1.6 gpf (6 lpf).


More common than giveaways are rebates or coupons for the purchase of water-conserving products. In many areas facing water shortages, municipalities and water utilities offer generous programs to provide a range of products. In the mid-1990s, New York City provided cash rebates for 1.3 million toilets, reducing water consumption in the city by 80–90 million gallons (300–340 million l) per day, or about 20%.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a consortium of 26 cities and water districts that provide water to 18 million people, currently offers residential rebates on HETs, clothes washers with a water factor of 5.0 or lower, timers and water-efficient nozzles for irrigation systems, and artificial turf. For commercial customers, 15 different products qualify for rebates, according to Bill McDonnell, a senior resource specialist with the agency; these products include various plumbing fixtures, cooling-tower conductivity controllers, pre-rinse spray valves and other commercial kitchen products, recirculating x-ray film processing systems, artificial turf, and irrigation equipment.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority provides rebates on pool covers (because they reduce evaporation), and San Antonio offers rebates on on-demand hot-water circulators (see EBN Vol. 12, No. 5) and air-cooled ice makers.

Regulations and Permits

Regulations, ordinances, and permitting policies can significantly reduce water use.

Restrictions on development

A law passed in California in 2001 requires water utilities to evaluate any proposed project for water demand. A second law requires developers of large subdivisions (over 500 residences) to demonstrate that there is a 20-year supply of water before water authorities grant approvals. To demonstrate sustainable supply, developers must look at historical water availability in dry years as well as projected demand for their projects. According to Dave Todd, land and water use program manager for the state of California, the measure has slowed development in some cases. “I think that development has gone forward, but there have been a number of cases where projects were halted for a period of time pending the water supply assessment,” he said.

In Columbia, South Carolina, water authorities have limited new water service connections due to the tight water supply. Mayor Bob Coble announced in June 2008 that new water taps would be capped at 1,700 during the subsequent 12-month period.

More commonly, utilities or local governments assess impact fees on new developments based on the cost of providing the new buildings with services, including water and sewer connections. Such fees are usually calculated based on the cost of infrastructure, not the cost of supplying or treating water. According to Tim Fisher, assistant director of water utilities in Denton, Texas, “There’s a more or less complete disconnect between impact fees and water conservation.”

Douglas Frost, principal planner with the Phoenix Water Services Department, notes that while infrastructure costs are more or less fixed, the cost of water can balloon when easily accessible sources are exhausted. To address this problem, developments in the Phoenix area incur water resource acquisition fees on top of impact fees; these acquisition fees run from $1,200 to $1,300 per unit, but Frost believes they could rise as high as $5,000 per unit. However, developers can receive credits against the fees for incorporating conservation measures.

Product bans

Amy Vickers, president of Amy Vickers & Associates, a Massachusetts-based consulting firm specializing in water conservation, suggests that we will not only have to alter our landscaping practices to use more climate-appropriate native plants but also ban certain outdoor water features, such as fountains. “It’s something we’re going to have to start regulating,” she told EBN. Some argue that conventional, water-intensive lawns should be banned in areas receiving less than 10–15 inches (250–380 mm) of rain per year, or that irrigating those lawns with potable water should be prohibited.


This 30-acre (12-ha) artificial lake near Phoenix, Arizona, features what was for a decade the tallest fountain in the world, at up to 562 feet (171 meters), driven by three 600-horsepower (450-kW) pumps. Average yearly rainfall in the area is about eight inches (200 mm).

Photo: David Eisenberg

Pape puts our water use for landscaping into a broader perspective. “Water professionals from all over the world are aghast to learn we still waste our treated drinking water to irrigate our landscapes,” he told EBN.

Some experts also argue for bans on certain commercial kitchen appliances and industrial equipment, such as once-through steamers that use cold running water to cool the condensate, water-cooled ice-makers, and water-cooled vacuum pumps.

Water-demand offsets

One of the more creative strategies to reduce water use is to require water-demand offsets with new development. As a condition of permitting a new house or subdivision, the permitting agency may require that the developer offset the project’s expected water use (or more) as a condition of the permit. About a dozen communities, mostly in California, currently require demand offsets as a condition of permitting. Some of these offsets target agricultural water savings—often the lowest-hanging fruit; others focus on savings in and around urban and suburban buildings.

One of those communities is the East Bay Municipal Utility District (East Bay MUD) in Oakland, California, and the surrounding area. East Bay MUD has required either a one-to-one or a two-to-one offset from the largest residential developments during the last several years; these are negotiated on a project-by-project basis. To permit the recent 1,400-unit Alamo Creek subdivision in Danville, the developer Shapell Homes not only had to implement onsite water conservation measures but also had to pay $6,000 per unit to offset twice the expected water demand, according to Richard Harris, the manager of water conservation programs at East Bay MUD. The funds will be used to pay for urban retrofit projects—such as plumbing fixture replacements, submetering, installation of graywater systems, and creating water budgets—in the East Bay MUD territory. As noted earlier, Cambria, California, has an even more aggressive demand-offset program.

While demand-offset programs are rare, and most are in California, they are not limited to the Golden State. Weymouth, Massachusetts, for example, requires any new water-use applicants to offset water use in existing buildings at a two-to-one ratio.

Retrofit-on-resale ordinances

Another important—yet controversial—tool for conserving water is the retrofit-on-resale ordinance. Under this provision, which has been strongly opposed by real-estate organizations wherever it has been proposed, either the seller or the buyer of a building is required to replace inefficient plumbing fixtures—usually toilets, urinals, showerheads, and faucets—with efficient models at the time of resale. Such ordinances have been in place in a handful of California communities as far back as 1992, when San Luis Obispo implemented its program. At least seven other California cities and water districts—including San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—have retrofit-on-resale ordinances. Most of them require only that replacement fixtures comply with current federal water-efficiency standards, though the North Marin Water District requires that retrofit showerheads and lavatory faucets exceed the federal standards—mandating 2.0 and 1.5 gpm (7.6 and 5.7 l), respectively.

In February 2008, DeKalb County, Georgia, which includes a portion of Atlanta, became one of the first places outside California to adopt such a program—in this case a retrofit-on-reconnect ordinance. The law applies only to unincorporated parts of the county. The ordinance applies to houses and commercial buildings built before 1993. Bowing to pressure from the real-estate community, DeKalb placed the responsibility for replacing fixtures on purchasers, not sellers. Certain exemptions apply, including buildings that will be demolished and historic buildings.

Emergency ordinances

Special ordinances and regulations that restrict certain water uses during drought emergencies are becoming more common as populations grow and droughts increase in frequency and severity. The most common restrictions apply to watering lawns, washing cars, power washing driveways, and filling pools and outdoor water features, such as fountains. Other measures have included prohibiting restaurants from serving drinking water and hotels from replacing towels and linens unless requested. In Cambria, California, as well as most of the above restrictions, leaks in plumbing must be repaired within eight hours of their discovery.

Metering and Submetering


Metering water use is a key to limiting consumption.

Photo: SeaMetrics

Requiring metering for water use—and submetering for multifamily and institutional buildings—is another important regulatory approach to reduce water use. As with energy, it’s hard to conserve what we aren’t measuring. The Alliance for Water Efficiency recommends metering all new connections, retrofitting meters onto existing unmetered connections, and submetering all new multifamily and institutional buildings. Separate meters for irrigation use are also recommended, at least for commercial buildings. Not only do meters provide direct feedback to customers about their water use, but they can identify unusual spikes in water use, which are often due to leaks.

In the early 1980s, New York City was one of the few large municipalities that did not meter the water use of most residential buildings. Water fees were levied based on the street frontage of buildings, so there was no incentive to conserve. Metering began in earnest in 1985 and, although data about the effect on water use is scarce, a 15%–17% drop in consumption was observed in some parts of the city. In 2008, the city embarked on a $68-million program to install wireless transmitters on the city’s 875,000 water meters, which serve 8 million residents. This technology, known as advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) or automatic meter reading (AMR), will result in more accurate billing, allow customers to track their water use online, and even notify customers by email of possible leaks. Both Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., already have such technology in place.

A New Era

More and more experts believe that parts of the U.S., like many other regions of the world, will face water crises in the coming decades. “We no longer live in an era of cheap and plentiful water,” says Pape. These shortages will force us to use far less water than we currently do, and achieving those savings will require a wide range of regulations, codes, pricing mechanisms, and incentives. Some of these programs won’t be popular, but they will be necessary. Existing programs in places like San Antonio, Austin, Las Vegas, San Luis Obispo, and Seattle will serve as models for towns and cities across the country.

For more information:

Alliance for Water Efficiency

EPA WaterSense Program


Comments (1)

1 Considering Innovation in Wat posted by Nathan Brown on 11/14/2008 at 06:34 pm

Although the article aptly describes many approaches that can be critical for reducing water use, it fails to address fundamental differences between performative and prescriptive approaches to encouraging water conservation, the most salient difference being that the former encourages innovation while the latter does not. A performance-based system aims most directly at the overall goal of responsible water use. If a building is designed to use an acceptable amount of municipal water and sewer capacity and if the owner is willing to pay the determined true cost for the service, shouldn’t that house be permissible regardless of what fixtures or appliances are contained within? Such an approach could be the basis for a rational water policy that both satisfies a regional need and provides latitude for individual innovation.

By presenting both approaches on par, the article avoids the question of priority. I argue that municipalities, for instance, should focus on establishing and communicating fair allocation and pricing of resources given the limited supply rather than restricting choices of appliances and fixtures. Doing so would communicate the true cost of the water to consumers who can then independently prioritize water use. The homeowner considering a new decadent water fountain will then be forced to account for its water use through conservation in other areas, paying an appropriately high price for the water, or replacing it with a waterless sculpture, such as one of those plywood pink flamingos with its plastic feet rotating in the breeze. While there’s no accounting for taste, individual responsibility and choice are essential elements of conservation through innovation.

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August 28, 2008