Op-Ed: Conserving Water Cuts Greenhouse Gases

Flickr photo from roberthuffstutter used under Creative Commons License
Author: Bevan Griffiths-Sattenspiel

On July 14, the Sonoma County Water Agency notified its customers that storage levels in its tanks are dropping due to spiking water demand, and that additional water pumping to make-up for the increased demand would quickly exceed the reliable capacity of the water system. In a recent opinion piece, Mike Reilly, who served 12 years on Sonoma County's Board of Supervisors, explains that reducing peak demand isn't the only reason to conserve: "There is one other compelling reason for water conservation that has not been discussed. Saving water also means significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

As we explain in The Carbon Footprint of Water, it takes at least 521 billion kilowatt hours each year to pump, treat and heat water in the United States resulting in about 290 million metric tons of CO2 emissions. To help make his case that saving water saves energy, Reilly provides some California-specific numbers:

  • Twenty percent of all energy consumed in California is used moving water from one place to another.

  • Each household annually uses approximately 110,000 gallons of water (about one-third of an acre foot).

  • The energy to supply and dispose of one acre foot of water takes about 775 kilowatt-hours. (A kilowatt hour is equal to using a 1,000-watt appliance for one hour.)

  • About one pound of carbon dioxide is produced for each killowatt-hour.

Reilly describes three relatively simple, cost-effective steps that can be taken to improve water efficiency inside the home and keep tons of greenhouse gases out of the atomosphere:

First, install 1.5 gallon-per-minute showerheads; second, install one gallon or less per flush toilets; and third, install high efficiency tier 3, front-loading washing machines. Installing these water efficient appliances could reduce a single household’s water use by 25,000 gallons per year, plummeting energy use by 1,600 kilowatt-hours, thus reducing 553 pounds of greenhouse gas - a savings of almost 25 percent over current household averages. For every acre-foot of water that is delivered by the Sonoma County Water Agency to cities and districts, approximately 700 pounds of carbon dioxide is released into our atmosphere. This includes the energy needed to pump, treat and transport water to our homes and also for the collection, treatment and disposal of our wastewater.

These savings are huge, but the responsibility to conserve water shouldn't rest solely on the shoulders of water users--the water agency and local policy makers should be providing clear signals through rebates, conservation-oriented rate structures and other incentives that promote water conservation. As cogently Reilly explains:

More can and must be done. Cities and water districts can’t rest on their laurels. Local governments, rather than clamoring for more and more water, should institute smart public programs to help their customers directly install water efficient appliances. They must put their money where there mouths are and provide rebate incentives and/or direct installation options. This is much like the free water smart home audits being performed by several cities which have been wildly successful in educating homeowners about how to find and repair leaks or the clunkers for cash federal program that has gone through the roof.

As our elected officials strategize on how to recover from the current recession and the devastation to local budgets, they should realize that by helping their customers install water efficient appliances, they are protecting their future supply of water, energy and our planet — all of which are priceless. They are also making good on their greenhouse gas reduction commitments made in 2005.

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