With the current drought already impacting over 90 million people in the U.S. and with water scarcity likely to get worse because of population growth and climate change, there is an urgent need to invest in water efficiency. This threat goes well beyond the arid west. Thirty-three states have been hit by drought since 2000, including ones located in the Great Plains, Midwest, Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. And scientists warn that most of the country is on pace to experience water shortages if we don’t manage water better.
Water efficiency not only helps ensure access to clean, affordable water amidst a changing climate, it’s also a cost-effective way to control the root cause of climate change in the first place. That’s because water-saving strategies reduce the amount of energy used to heat, pump and treat water, which in turn reduces emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.
Using less water also helps protect our rivers, bays and aquifers, and it saves consumers money. Water efficient plumbing products can save an average family hundreds of dollars each year. This is especially important today with COVID-19 leaving millions of Americans unable to pay water bills.
Like energy efficiency, water efficiency supports many of the important goals that Congress and the Biden administration are discussing — climate resiliency, sustainability, public health, equity and affordability. Unlike energy efficiency, however, federal funding for water efficiency — such as rebates to buy water efficient plumbing/irrigation and installing leak detection meters — has been a drop in the bucket.
An analysis by our non-profit organization, the Alliance for Water Efficiency, found that federal spending on energy efficiency and renewable energy has outpaced spending on water efficiency and water reuse by approximately 80 to one since 2000. This discrepancy is surprising given that water efficiency not only protects water resources and saves money, it’s also a cost-effective way to save energy. For example, an analysis by UC Davis found that in 2015-2016, water conservation was a more cost-effective way to reduce energy use in California than traditional energy efficiency programs.
The U.S. government has made significant investments to tackle the nation’s energy crisis, while the tab for averting the water crisis falls to local water agencies that can be cash-strapped in the best of times, not to mention now with the pandemic leaving customers unable to pay their bills. The federal government pays less than 5 percent of the cost for drinking water and wastewater, according to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, relying instead on loans to local communities.
The climate is changing, droughts are getting worse and water supplies are increasingly at risk. Water efficiency and conservation are the most immediate, cost-effective and environmentally beneficial ways to meet these challenges. It’s time for Congress to take the water crisis seriously and make significant investments to help communities cope.
Ron Burke is the president and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency (AWE), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the efficient and sustainable use of water in the United States and Canada. Mary Ann Dickinson is the founding president and CEO of AWE.