Pacific Institute Insights

SFGate: Flushing Water and Money Down the Drain

By Peter Gleick

This essay was originally printed in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 12, 2006.

Exciting developments in the high-efficiency toilet market may sound like an oxymoron. But installing these water-efficient fixtures throughout California could free up more water than any proposed reservoir or water-supply project – with none of the adverse environmental consequences and at a tiny fraction of the economic or political cost. Recognizing this potential, the Assembly and Senate passed AB2496, a bill that would have paved the way in the coming years for the adoption of new, high-efficiency toilets throughout the state. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, however, vetoed the bill, and in doing so flushed away enough high-quality potable water to meet the needs of millions of Californians.

Inefficient toilets in California waste a tremendous amount of water and money. The Pacific Institute, the institute I co-founded to research and analyze issues on development, environment and security, estimates that replacing existing toilets with high-efficiency models could save California more than 130 billion gallons of water every year. That is more water than we get from Hetch Hetchy reservoir, enough to satisfy the needs of approximately 1.5 million California residents.

The water we are flushing is water that we already capture in reservoirs or draw from rivers, transport across the state and purify to drinking-water standards. Once used, this water must be treated and disposed. These processes are expensive and often energy intensive — 19 percent of California’s electricity is consumed by water systems to pump, clean, heat and treat water — yet we continue to flush unnecessarily precious water down our toilets. Saving water and reducing the generation of wastewater could save consumers hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

California used to be the leader in the area of water conservation and efficiency. More than a decade ago, we pioneered the move toward water-efficient fixtures in our homes and industries. As a result, our population and economy have continued to grow while total water demands have leveled off. Indeed, we use less water today per person in California than we did more than 50 years ago — a fact that most Californians, and indeed most water policymakers, don’t know or appreciate. These improvements in water-use efficiency have eliminated the need for expensive and controversial new supply projects, reduced the damage to our ecosystems, and saved vast sums of money. But we’ve let our lead slip away.

Water use is starting to creep back up because of the failure of our leaders to continue to apply well-understood technologies and policies to reduce wasteful and inefficient uses. The progress we have made will ultimately be overwhelmed by a growing population if efforts are not made to further reduce wasteful practices.

Many state leaders on both sides of the aisle — including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. — still fail to recognize California’s conservation and efficiency potential and regularly call for the construction of new reservoirs or new subsidies for expensive ocean desalination plants. Not only would any new reservoir be costly and environmentally controversial, no proposed reservoir could possibly yield as much water as AB2496 would have freed up. And given desalination’s extremely high operating and electricity costs – to say nothing of its impact on local marine ecosystems – it makes no sense to produce expensive desalinated water just to flush it down inefficient toilets.

In his veto message, the governor stated that we need to study these toilets more. Yet we already know that they are standard in Australia, Japan and other countries. Dozens of models from a wide range of manufacturers have been extensively tested here as well and many of them perform better than toilets already on the market.

A rational water policy requires that we make the best use of the scarce and valuable water we have. That will require that California return to its position of national leadership in the area of water efficiency and conservation, not just in our homes, but in our industries and on our farms. The Pacific Institute has found that California can actually cut its wasteful use of water by 20 percent in the next 25 years with expected population growth, a healthy agricultural sector and a vibrant economy. We won’t get there if the governor vetoes the steps we’re trying to take in that direction.

Peter H. Gleick, Ph.D, is president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, a nonpartisan Oakland-based think tank. He is a MacArthur Fellow.

 

 

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