Water Usage: Are you Leaking Cash?

Emissions and energy get the spotlight when it comes to sustainability programs but water is actually the most limited resource your company is likely to deal with.  Some of you reading this may find that surprising.  You may react initially by thinking the idea is a little silly.  Take a deeper look and you'll find just how serious the issue is.

Today we're talking about water.  Why water issues are taking center stage for a lot of companies and some tactics companies are using to get on top of their water usage.  Let's get to the bullets:

70,000,000 the number of Americans that get their drinking water from the three major rivers which flow from the Rocky Mountains... mountains where the snowpack which creates those rivers has lost substantial volume.

34.1% of the contiguous US is experiencing moderate to extreme drought conditions (US Drought Monitor).  This is an ongoing condition which is not expected to resolve itself in the near future.

5x the Inflation Rate water prices are up over 1/3 since 2010.  That's roughly five times the consumer price index over the same period.

These statistics (and many more like them) all point to a future with far greater constraints on our water usage both in terms of volume of usage and price.  What adaptions can a wise manager make now to insulate herself now from shocks later?  Here are a few.


Roots of the Problem

Many of the areas where a system or an organization lacks for sustainable processes are a result of a failure of the market to properly value a resource or the indulgence of the market in allowing a certain kind of waste.  Therefore one of the most helpful tools in assessing a process is to assume that anything that used to be free you now have to pay for and anything that used to be cheap now costs 10 or 20 times as much.

Water use is a perfect example of this because water is generally very cheap to buy and cheap to dispose of.  Water holds this special status because it holds an odd place in the economy.  On one hand, the water tends to be supplied by a regulated monopoly and this is good because normal demand pressures don't apply.  Demand is inelastic, meaning that a person thirsty enough will pay any price.  On the other hand, water is so cheap that we have very little incentive to conserve it which tends to create a lot of distortion and waste that even a modest price increase could curtail.

Assessing a Water Footprint

A Water Footprint (or water liability) can be calculated in a similar manner to a carbon footprint (see this post for more on carbon footprint), looking first at your usage then at the usage you cause in others.  This is going to be hard with some of your suppliers and downstream partners so it makes sense to get your own house in order first.  The chemical, concrete, food/agro, and energy sectors in particular are deeply tied to water use.  Their Gallons/$1Revenue figure is huge by comparison to the general economy.  Each deserves its own post so we'll save them for another time.

Costs and Priorities

I've spent a good deal of time writing about the need for businesses to get more interested in the health of the market generally.  In a resource constrained world and during a time of drought especially, water usage is a hugely important place to start that habit.  Consider the plight of water in Las Vegas.  Right now the price for water there is $1.16 per thousand gallons (up to 5000 gallons/month single family home).  This in no way reflects what water should cost and as a consequence people are depleting the resources they have at an alarming rate.  The wise manager would decide to reevaluate her water footprint and prioritize water efficiency in an effort to safeguard a critical communal resource despite the lack of a price signal.  The priority needs to be ensuring the safety of the system.

Seven Places Businesses Waste Water

1. Landscaping

This one is huge and self-explanatory.  You'll be shocked at the share of the pie landscaping eats up.  The best two solutions for landscaping water usage are A. to plant with drought tolerant vegetation which requires less water overall and B. using rooftops and parking canopies (like these very cool ones from Solaire Generation) to collect rainwater for use later in landscaping.

2. Automated Toilets

Anyone who's been using a toilet and felt the cold rush of air accompanying an abrupt, premature flush knows that automatic toilets probably don't save water.  They may well be good for preventing the spread of germs but for saving water there's growing evidence from several studies that says they're wasteful compared to manual valves.

3. Automated Sinks

Turns out that same rule applies to sinks.  This is listed as a separate item here because evidence also exists that that additional water use from automatic sinks comes from people washing their hands who would have just walked out of the washroom without washing at all.  For that reason this is an additional level of usage that's Climate | Money | Policy approved.

4. Leaks

A faucet dripping once ever fifteen seconds wastes 138 gallons of water/year.  Over a large facility this adds up quickly.  Here's reason enough to keep those automated sinks.

5. Paper

Admittedly this is an indirect water use (Not scope-1) but it's such a large item I'm including it on the list.  Although estimates vary substantially depending on the process, it's commonly accepted that to make a single piece of paper requires as much as three gallons of water.  Look around your office for more than a minute and you get a sense of the vast amounts of water required for you to do business the way you do.  Unless you're in paperless office this is a difficult problem to resolve.  The biggest impact you can make here it to be certain that your office recycles it's paper.  That process shrinks your impact substantially.

6. Flushable Urinals

There's a reason big construction projects from the Mets' Citi Field to every government building in Arizona mandate the installation of waterless urinals.  Multiple designs exist but they all save roughly 1.5 gallons/flush.

7. Failing to Reuse Greywater

Greywater is the product of hand washing, laundry, showers, baths and dishwashing.  That sudsy discharge can be be replumbed for use in toilets and some landscaping.  It's always a big waste to use anything once that can be used twice and this is a perfect example.

The specifics of your operation should be looked at in more detail because the water footprint of a company can vary wildly from industry to industry and location to location.  This list is intended as a general ledger that most companies can benefit from.  If you know some specific water wastes your industry creates, please let me know in the comment thread here.