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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


July-August 2014

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Editorial - Smart Water Use

Our colleague Tony Leiserowitz regularly reports on a consistent trend in U.S. public opinion toward recognizing that climate change is primarily human derived and that recent newsworthy weather events occurring across the nation may well be connected to emissions of greenhouse gases.

The National Climate Assessment Report (U.S. Global Change Program, Washington, DC: 2014 Executive Summary, pp. 6 and 9) concludes:

Global climate is changing, and this is apparent across the U.S. in a wide range of observations. The climate change of the past 50 years is due primarily to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels. …

Surface and groundwater supplies in many regions are already stressed by increasing demand for water as well as declining runoff and groundwater recharge. In many regions, climate change increases the likelihood of water shortages and competition for water among agricultural, municipal, and environmental uses. … There is an increasing risk of seasonal water shortages in many parts of the U.S., even where total precipitation is projected to increase.

The article by Inskeep and Attari in this issue becomes all the more relevant in light of these observations. They point out that as much as half of the daily use by each citizen in the United States of some 98 U.S. gallons (370 liters) is unnecessary for health reasons and even for amenity purposes. For the record, the average per-person daily use of water in the driest parts of England, where abstraction restrictions are commonplace, is 150 liters. This is regarded as “horrendous,” with an official call for per person use not to exceed 100 liters per day by 2020.

Inskeep and Attari offer a very detailed assessment of where water can be saved, how new technology can help, and what behavioral adjustments need to be made. At present there is very little knowledge linkage between household use of water and looming supply shortages (and associated pollution of watercourses due to build-up of undesirable plant growth and discoloration). And there is even less psychological connection over the possibility of likely severe water shortages “in the pipeline” as pronounced by the National Climate Assessment.

The difficulty here lies in culture, in misleading prices, and in lack of detailed information over the characteristics of household water use. In the United States, as in England, there is no collective culture of water saving. There is still very little information offered, either by the water suppliers or in the schools, on how to save water smartly, even if this only applies to leakages. So being “water smart” carries no cachet of sustainable care or thoughtfulness for the biodiversity of water adequacy in the supply watershed.

Because the price of supplying water does not take into account possible future shortages and associated ecological stresses, there is no incentive for cutting back other than that of good housekeeping and slightly lower water bills. This means that good quality information of the kind covered in the Inskeep/Attari article gets “lost in translation” so is of little behavioral consequence.

In England the private water company, Anglian Water, has pioneered a smart water meter, which provides the minute-by-minute water use for the whole household (including external usage). Further than this, the meter carries a colored picture of a fish in a tank. If the daily water use is higher than the per-person equivalent of 100 liters per day, the fish turn red, but if the daily per person water use is lower than 100 liters, the fish turn green. This is referred to as “nudge” behavior and seems to work, especially with the children concerned (who can be high water users). The company are considering a “payback scheme” where if per-person water use per day continues at 100 liters (a third off the average) then there will be the equivalent of a “water feed-in tariff.” This could mean taking a sum off the annual water bill, as the company would be able to use the “saved water” for redistribution to higher paying customers in the water supply area and for maintaining ecosystem robustness.

We need imaginative schemes like these to overcome the triple friction of culture, false prices, and ignorance of opportunity. We also need to bring in the schools to champion the value of water as a resource we should only “borrow from nature,” rather than squandering it as an apparently isolated and disconnected commodity. Smart water use is the route to smart energy use and to personal carbon reduction, and eventually to the “holy grail” of the wholly sustainable household.

—Timothy O'Riordan

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