Reduce Water Flow to Increase Cash Flow
Green: Money and Sustainability Working Together Part 3 of 10: Water and Wastewater
tl;dr - Water is cheap for Americans, so we don't think of the consequences of wasting it. Too bad we're wasting billions of dollars as well.
In June of last year, I wrote a blog post called The Forgotten Lesson of the Passenger Pigeon, where I discussed situations when something is so plentiful that we cannot possibly fathom ever running out of it. I used the example of the iconic passenger pigeon. Sadly, it only took white Americans about 400 years to obliterate the most populous bird on the North American continent. I drew a parallel between the plight of the passenger pigeon and our freshwater resources and how we foolishly waste the world's most precious building block of life. I laid out the extreme practices of the average American when it comes to wasting water. Here is a refresher of some of the things that we do that few other people on the planet do: We use 20 to 40 gallons of water for just one shower, 25 gallons per washing machine load, 20 gallons a day from the kitchen sink for food preparation and washing dishes, 15 gallons a day for washing hands, shaving, and brushing teeth, and 24 gallons a day in flushing toilets. The list goes on and on. In the blog post, I talked about just how little fresh water there really is on this planet. And that is where I messed up. Let me explain.
You see, in the United States, we are ridiculously fortunate to have easy access to relatively large quantities of fresh water. This is not the case for other parts of the world, but most Americans don't even bother thinking about this, because surely everyone can just turn on the faucet in their home and get water, right? Well, over 2 billion people worldwide cannot do that. And 4.5 billion people lack sanitation, which means access to toilets, showers, and bathtubs. Water access on demand is an amenity that many people literally dream about and risk their lives to move to places where it exists. Here in the US, we have so much of it at ridiculously low prices that we forget to turn off the water sprinklers for our incredibly stupid grass lawns or countless other ways we waste water on a daily basis, like not repairing leaks in pipes. By the way, leaky pipes only add up to over 10,000 gallons of water wasted per year per household. There are 140 million homes in the US, so basically that means 1.2 trillion gallons of water are lost just in leaky pipes every single year. But, when water costs $0.00295 a gallon, that results in a total cost of $29.50. According to the site formerly known as Angie's List, it costs $500 to repair the average leak. This means that you would have to leave it leaking for 17 years to equal the money spent on repairing it now. Water is too cheap to save. Or is it?
In reality, water is nowhere near as cheap as you think it is. Local governments spend well over $100 billion per year on water and wastewater infrastructure. The bad news about this enormous amount of spending is that this large sum is just keeping things from falling apart. There are thousands of miles of pipes that are antiquated and in need of repair. You might not know this, but water still goes through wooden pipes in many cities in the US, with some of these pipes being hundreds of years old.
Several of our SIMON (Sustainability Interactive Modular Online Network) Platform modules are around reducing water consumption. Our premise is that if municipalities can educate their residents on how to lower their consumption, then it places less stress on the existing infrastructure and also preserves their limited water reserves. Once again, if you can preserve your existing infrastructure, you save money. Let's dive into some interesting details.
You see, another area that isn't often considered in this situation is the carbon footprint of water. Many GHG inventories do not factor in the emissions from wastewater treatment, and that is problematic because it can be quite significant. (Shameless plug: Greenheart Partners GHG inventories absolutely factor that into our calculations and so much more!) Wastewater resides in Scope 3 emissions, which is the murkiest scope because so much of it is educated guessing. What do carbon emissions have to do with water, you might ask? Good question! Here is the answer. Getting any water to a potable state takes energy. Treating wastewater (whether it is to recycle to potable status or return to the environment) takes even more energy. As you can see from the chart below, 69.4 billion kWh of energy is used to treat and distribute drinking water. Currently, one kWh of electricity produces about 0.855 lbs of CO2, which means that 59.3 billion lbs of CO2 are emitted related to water. The average cost of electricity in the US is currently 15.64¢ per kilowatt-hour. That means over $10 billion is being spent on getting water from the ground to your house and safely back into the environment again.
Last week I highlighted $200 billion being spent on trash collection, delivery, and landfills. Now we have $100 billion being spent on water. That's $300 billion so far that could be trimmed down, and I haven't even gotten to electricity yet (hint of what's coming next week). Yes, municipalities have hard choices to make, but sustainability initiatives that are fiscally and financially beneficial are not one of them! Yet, almost every single time, proposals related to sustainability die on the vine in committees or get rejected because of higher funding priorities.
The frustrating thing about local governments is that most city officials will state just how fragile budgets are. To be fair, they aren't necessarily wrong. There are a lot of expectations that residents have, and all of them cost money. Good schools, safe neighbourhoods, streets that don't have potholes in them, and places where businesses thrive are all necessary and important. What I have been illuminating in the previous blog posts and this one is that local governments waste a lot of money by stubbornly refusing to embrace conservation principles. A few simple changes would free up hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars so that towns and cities could invest in other areas.
We live in an amazing country that grants us luxuries like garbage bags disappearing from our curbs and safe water whenever we want it. Our society has used science to maximize these systems so that we pay a ridiculously low price for them. The average US household cost for essential utilities like electricity, natural gas, water, and sewer is $290.79 per month. I know that if that cost was doubled, a lot of people would be demanding some change to how things are done immediately. Is that what it is going to take for people to examine their consumption of fixed resources? What is even more perplexing is that examples of impending scarcity are all around you. People that live in the American Southwest are going to have to make some really tough decisions because water is disappearing fast. Folks are aware of that, but many don't know that residents of Atlanta and Miami are in a similar situation. People are talking about piping water from the Mississippi river across the nation so that people can continue to have lush golf courses in the desert and almond groves that make no sense at all. Conflict around water isn't limited to 3rd world countries, it's going to be between US states, US counties, and US towns and cities. And we can do something about it - just by lowering our insanely high consumption of water we can shave off billions of dollars (your tax dollars, by the way) from municipal budgets - but we won't because water is just too cheap and plentiful. Until it isn't.