Many observers have commented that “water is the next oil” in terms of its value and importance to global economic development. It would be hard to disagree after listening to EPA Administrator Dr. Stephen Johnson address a breakfast gathering of plumbing wholesalers and manufacturers at the 2008 ASA Convention in Atlanta.
Dr. Johnson said that Americans use about 100 gallons of water per day on average, the equivalent of about 1,600 glasses of water. By 2050 our population is projected to increase to 420 million, so we need to cut back water usage by about a third just to stay even by then. He pointed to severe drop-offs in key water supplies such as Nevada’s Lake Mead and Georgia’s Lake Lanier “as warning signs that our resources are running low.”
The top official of our nation’s Environmental Protection Agency identified infrastructure as “the EPA’s biggest challenge.” Most of our fresh and wastewater infrastructure dates to pre-World War II, and much of that aging pipe is breaking or on the verge. He estimated the total cost of repairs at between $300-500 billion. “The EPA’s total annual budget is on the order of $7.8 billion, and that’s not going to solve the problem,” he stated. What it will take, Dr. Johnson told ASA vendors, members and guests, is a concerted effort by public and private interests alike, a key to which is raising the public’s consciousness about the importance of water conservation.
The EPA’s “WaterSense” program of certifying low-usage plumbing products is an important component in gaining public awareness. Dr. Johnson also pointed out that water and energy efficiency are intertwined, saying that some 4% of all electricity used in the U.S. is tied up in moving, heating or treating water. It rises to a whopping 19% in agriculture-rich California, he noted.
In an audience Q & A session, Dr. Johnson was asked whether the federal government was contemplating anything similar to California’s legislation mandating ultra-low lead levels in plumbing products by 2010. He replied that on the issue of lead content, the EPA’s focus is on water infrastructure systems rather than interior plumbing products. “At this point we’re not looking to go to national legislation,” he stated.
After his presentation, I obtained an exclusive personal interview with Dr. Johnson, which went as follows:
Supply House Times: Judging from your remarks, you seem much inclined to work with the private sector to achieve voluntary standards, and not so much inclined for the federal government to pass a bunch of laws regulating water usage. Is that a fair representation of your philosophy?
Dr. Stephen Johnson:I think a better characterization is that from my perspective, we need to have sound science and technical engineering knowledge as the basis. There also needs to be strong compliance and enforcement programs, because there are unfortunately bad people willing to do bad things.
But my experience has taught me that the vast majority of businesses and people really want to do the right thing. In this competitive marketplace with the challenges of energy and economics that small businesses in particular are facing, there’s a wonderful connection that enables us to work collaboratively in a way that helps businesses and people environmentally, economically and from an energy security standpoint. The EPA has activities in each of those areas in which the greatest progress is through collaboration. That’s why I’ve been investing so much of my time to work with people to make a difference.
WaterSense is based on Energy Star, which has been very successful. It’s fair to say the reason is because consumers can relate Energy Star directly to savings in dollars and cents - the WIIFM factor. That’s not so much the case with WaterSense, because water rates are still a bargain in most parts of the country. Do you see a role for the EPA beyond jawboning the municipalities to start charging more for water?
The reality is that municipalities will have to charge more for water. Some of it will be driven by EPA requirements. For example, there are requirements that facilities exceeding combined sewer overflow need to invest in the infrastructure to make sure wastewater is appropriately treated and then discharged. A number of communities in the U.S. are not meeting that requirement, and we have no other choice given the laws that we operate under to make them do that. Of course, we try to help them in any way we can, but another key component in meeting that requirement are the rate payers.
In various parts of the country, such as the Far West and Atlanta areas, people really do understand the value of water. That’s the first step. When I visited Australia, it was striking to me how I could just stop someone on the street to ask about environmental challenges, and to a person they know they have a real problem with water availability. I trust the U.S. will never get to this point, but we’re seeing warning signs. The built environment, whether it be homes, businesses, hospitals and so on, consists of structures that stay around for multiple decades. Decisions being made today will be with us for decades to come, so we can take steps now that will make a huge difference.
In plumbing products, where are the greatest opportunities for savings?
When we looked at each need for water, whether showering/bathing, drinking, toilet flushing or irrigation, we saw two areas of special focus going through the WaterSense program. One was faucets, the other toilets. Those were high on our list. We think other things can be done both inside and outside the building, and I mentioned irrigation in particular as a large opportunity for improvement.
California and a number of other states are attempting to reduce the 1.6 gallons-per-flush toilet standard to around 1.3 gpf. Do you see the federal government stepping in and establishing a standard like it did with the original 1.6 legislation?
At some point in time that may be a worthy debate, but at this point I don’t see it happening. One of the foundational principles of WaterSense and Energy Star is that it’s not just about efficiency, it has to be about performance as well. As with Energy Star, with WaterSense we will over time have products that meet both standards. Those products will grow and technological advances will improve both efficiency and performance.
With the original 1.6 battle, plumbing manufacturers wanted the federal government to step in because they didn’t want to be forced to provide different products for different states that were going ahead with ultra-low flush requirements. They felt they were forced to do so ahead of time and the early generation of 1.6 toilets didn’t work very well.
That was certainly something we heard loud and clear particularly from consumers as we were developing WaterSense. They need both performance and efficiency.
Under many of our statutes the states are allowed to go beyond federal requirements. Does there come a point in time, particularly for goods and services crossing multiple state lines, where it is difficult if not impossible to meet a patchwork of state regulations? Those are the balances we are trying to reach in considering federal oversight.
But you’re not there yet?
One product arena where performance clashes with efficiency is showerheads. Consumers are buying a lot of fancy showerheads almost as big as manhole covers, or multiple showerheads, and manufacturers simply can’t deliver that showering experience with the restrictions that are proposed. How do you feel about that, and how will you deal with it?
I wish there were a silver bullet that could address both the luxury showerhead and also the need for conservation. At this point in time we know people are working towards that from a technology standpoint, but we don’t have those products available. I believe that in time we will see WaterSense-certified products that also offer the shower experience that people are looking for.
What we have seen nationally is a trend toward more conservation, so while some may want to have that showerhead with a lot of water coming out, we’re also seeing with WaterSense that people are beginning to pay more attention to conservation - partly because it’s hitting them in the pocketbook, along with some environmental awareness. I think we’re heading in the right direction.
Just as with energy efficiency, the U.S. seems to lag behind Europe in using water efficiently. Do you agree the U.S. lags behind, and if so why?
I would not characterize us as lagging behind. For example, we have a tremendous number of success stories using graywater or so-called “purple pipe” in capturing rainwater runoff and using it for irrigation. I see that continuing.
One of the things impacting some parts of Europe and Australia are regional droughts, which require people to take certain conservation steps, whether that be tertiary water treatment, purple pipe or whatever. We visited communities in Australia where homes are being built with purple pipe to help with a number of uses. Some of these technologies were developed in the U.S. With WaterSense as with Energy Star, other countries, including parts of Europe, are copying us. That’s wonderful, because copying is the sincerest form of flattery.
Backflow prevention is an area governed by a crazy quilt of state and local regulations. Is the EPA doing anything to bring commonality to this issue?
We are. This is a very important issue, and we have asked a group of advisors to help us identify research needs for understanding backflow problems and prevention, and also to recommend additional steps we can take or should take to help in that arena. We recognize this as a serious issue and understand why states and local communities have created a patchwork. We’re trying to understand it better and what steps can we take to bring uniformity. Part of that is research, part technology. So that’s where our focus is.
Is it fair to say that federal involvement is at a very early stage?
It’s at an early stage in the sense of looking at all of the pieces and admitting we don’t have a solution. On the other hand, it’s a problem we have been working on with state partners and communities for a number of years to assure backflow does not occur, because obviously EPA’s principle responsibility with regard to water is water quality. We recognize this is a serious issue.