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Water Conservation Makes Dollars and Sense

With the Delaware Valley in the grips of a drought, the word "water" is in the headlines and on the minds of people who are really starting to miss it.

The realization that you can't make any more has sure hit home.

Instead, we must wait for the rain to arrive and hope enough falls to recharge the ground water supplies, save what's left of the crops, replenish the reservoirs, bolster flows in streams and rivers, and green up those brown lawns.

In the meantime, it is important that we conserve.

Recognizing that awareness is the first step in any conservation effort, here are some facts that should make you think twice before you turn on the spigot

  • Up to 90 percent of water used to sprinkle lawns can be lost to the atmosphere through evaporation.
  • Approximately two-thirds of residential interior water use is for toilet flushing and bathing. The use of water-saving toilets, shower heads, and faucet aerators can cut this usage in half. (Installation of low-consumption toilets alone recently resulted in a 45 percent savings in water use in a Dover, Del. office building.)
  • A garden hose discharges up to six-and-a-half gallons of water per minute under standard household water pressure.
  • Hot water leaks not only are a waste of water, but a waste of the energy (and the money) used to heat that water.
  • A top-loading clothes washer uses between 40 and 55 gallons of water per load. Front-loading models use roughly half that amount. Make sure they're full before turning them on.
  • A dishwasher uses between eight and 12 gallons of water per load. Again, only run full loads.

At the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), water conservation became an integral component of the agency's strategy to manage water supplies in the four-state region long before the idea was fashionable. It was back in the late 1970s and the logic was simple: reducing all types of water use provides significant economic, social, and environmental benefits.

The commission's drought operating plan, adopted in the early 1980s, marked the first successful attempt in this country to govern a river basin's surface water supply, both public and private, under one set of rules. The plan coordinates interstate reservoir operations during times of drought, while balancing cutbacks in out-of-basin diversions and river flow objectives against conservation releases for water supply, recreational, and fishery benefits. During dry times, it's not unusual for reservoir water to make up over three quarters of the flow in the Delaware River. Without that water the river would be a trickle.

But the commission didn't stop there. It launched a water conservation program that works in wet times too, figuring why waste water before a drought. In addition to a myriad of educational initiatives, it has adopted regulations that:

  • require large water companies to meter their water supply at both the source and the customer end-of-the-pipe and require owners of individual wells (withdrawing over 10,000 gallons-a-day) to register those withdrawals with the four states drained by the Delaware River - Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York. Tracking the movement of water is an essential tool for uncovering waste.
  • require large water companies to develop programs to monitor and control leakage with the objective to reduce overall unaccounted-for water by 15 percent or less by the year 2020. Data submitted to the Commission indicate that goal is on track.
  • establish water-conserving standards for toilets, urinals, faucets and showerheads that are installed during new construction and renovations. The commission is predicting a reduction in water use in the basin of up to 70 million gallons a day just through the installation of water-saving, 1.6 gallon-per-flush toilets.
  • require water companies seeking DRBC approval for new or expanded withdrawals in excess of one million gallons per day to submit water conservation plans including the feasibility of implementing a pricing structure that encourages savings. Such pricing often features increasing block rates where the unit price of water increases as the quantity of water used goes up. Some conservation rates include excessive water-use surcharges, especially during the water-guzzling summer months. More and more companies are signing on to the water-saving rate schedules.

Water conservation makes dollars and sense.

It can delay or eliminate the need for developing expensive new water sources. It also can lead to a direct reduction in per-capita generation of wastewater, therefore enabling sewage treatment plants to process waste from more homes and businesses and eliminating the need for constructing costly new treatment plants or expanding existing plants. And think how economically dumb it is to extensively (and expensively) treat water to meet rigorous national and state drinking-water standards and then lose it through leaks.

In time, the rain will return and there will be a greening of the valley. And when the rain comes there is something we need to do: develop systems where runoff isn't channeled to a river or stream through a network of culverts and pipes and lost to the ocean, but is returned to the ground where it can replenish our wells and help irrigate our crops. We need to treat storm water as a resource, not as waste.

The Delaware River Basin serves the most densely populated and industrialized area in the United States. Huge demands are made on its water resources which are at the mercy of weather's whims. There's only so much water to go around, especially in these dry times.

So please, plan accordingly and save some for tomorrow.

(This article was written by Carol R. Collier in 1999. Ms. Collier, who has published widely on environmental and water-related topics, was the Delaware River Basin Commission's executive director from 1998-2014.)