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Kate Zerrenner headshot

Want People to Use Less Water? Arm Them With Information

By Kate Zerrenner
hand watering the lawn with a hose - water conservation

Every March 22 is World Water Day — an observance designated by the United Nations to bring attention to different issues surrounding water and how it impacts our lives. The 2023 theme is Be the Change, an effort to encourage people to be more active in how they use, consume and manage water. 

This feels like both a straightforward task and a daunting one. Most people are unaware of where their water comes from, let alone the volume they use and how. Having that information is the first step toward more effective water management at the individual level, which can help water boards and utilities better manage the larger systems and watersheds.

Can you guess what accounts for most residential water use?

Most people do not have a clear idea of where they are using water — and so do not know where they are wasting water. Inside the home, toilets, showers and faucets are the biggest water hogs. But if you have a yard, your biggest culprit is probably irrigation and lawn care. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about a third of all residential water use in the U.S. is for landscape irrigation — about 9 billion gallons per day.

In the Western U.S., a region prone to both droughts and awash with lush green lawns, the situation is even more dire as the Colorado River runs dry. On background, a meter reader with Austin Water told TriplePundit that maintaining lawns accounted for 50 percent to 75 percent of many homes’ water usage — and many consumers often don't believe it until they're shown the meter reading.

Some utilities are now focusing solely getting customers to better manage their outdoor use, cutting back on indoor incentives. For example, San Antonio Water System, the city’s water utility, now only offers outdoor rebates and incentives. Program staff told TriplePundit that focusing on irrigation and pools would lead to greater water savings in the water-stressed city. The utility has also hired landscape experts to help residents replace turf with more native and drought-resistant plants. 

Smart metering offers more opportunity for water conservation

Another big water waster is leaks. On the utility side, more utilities are getting better at identifying and fixing leaks, but the state of the country’s water infrastructure is going to require significant investment. On the demand side, however, if customers better understand where they’re using the most water — and how to catch leaks when they first happen — they can be more active conservationists.

Much like electric smart meters, water smart meters can help people better understand their usage. The technology is not as widespread as it is in the electricity space due to a number of factors, such as available resources and challenges in measurement that make it harder to pinpoint water usage versus electric usage (i.e., it’s easier to measure electrons than drops). But as climate change continues to put pressure on watersheds, more companies are bringing technologies onto the market.

For example, in 2022, several California water utilities started rolling out water smart meters to customers. While the utilities have a big lift on the supply side, demand needs to be lowered where it can. Much like with electricity — where energy efficiency is the first and best defense — water conservation is the critical component of ensuring water is available when and where it is needed.

Working along the energy-water nexus

And like energy efficiency, water conservation is a climate strategy. Treating, pumping and distributing water uses copious amounts of energy, and generating fossil fuel- and nuclear-powered energy uses a lot of water. So, by reducing water demand, people are also taking action to lower emissions systemwide, while reducing energy use can also help with water conservation. Most people don’t think about the source of electricity when they flip a light switch or the source of water when they turn on their faucets. But the fact remains that both actions are inextricably linked.

World Water Day 2023 calls for people to be more active in their water conservation. It is a good reminder that understanding where your water comes from and how you use it has ripple effects throughout the community and the system. Utilities can help people be the change. But the real change must come from each consumer.

Image credit: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner