Saving Water Makes Cents for Valley Businesses

By Heather Cooley and Ian Hart

A version of this essay was originally printed in the San Jose Mercury News on August 13, 2007.

Contrary to popular belief, growth in California’s population, economy and water use is no longer linked. From 1975 to 2001, our population increased by 60 percent and gross state product increased by 250 percent. Yet during that same period, total water use decreased statewide. Improved efficiency technology, forward-thinking lawmakers and changes in our industries have helped make this possible.

Given today’s myriad water concerns, from delta levees to climate change, we are grateful that per capita water use has experienced such a substantial decline. Today, we have an even greater pool of efficiency and technical improvements on which to draw. While individuals are taking advantage of existing technologies – from low-water shower heads to high efficiency appliances – businesses statewide can still do more to cut water use. The kicker is that by improving water efficiency, businesses will not only save water – they will save money.

When businesses cut water use, they save money on their water and wastewater bills. When businesses cut hot-water use, they also save the energy they would have used to heat that water. For businesses dependent on hot water, such as laundries and restaurants, cutting hot-water use may be the easiest way to reduce a business’s energy consumption.

Some cost-effective upgrades are cheaper than a dinner for two. For instance, anyone who has ever worked in food service is familiar with the high-pressure spray valves used to prep pots and dishes for the dishwasher. According to PG&E, switching from an old valve to a modern water-efficient version would cost a restaurant $60 per valve, but could save that business 200 gallons of water each day and enough energy annually to heat four homes for a year.

PG&E has many similar examples, and the cumulative savings can cut thousands of dollars from a business’s energy, water, and wastewater bills. To prime the pump, PG&E offers rebates on some efficient product upgrades. Similarly, the Santa Clara Valley Water District provides rebates for process or equipment upgrades to encourage business customers to take steps to reduce water use. These programs can be powerful tools to encourage businesses to adopt more efficient practices, and they can take the sting out of a business’s upgrade costs.

Getting businesses involved in cutting water use makes sense for all of us who worry about our water future. In Santa Clara County, commercial, industrial and public water uses account for about a third of total water use. This non-residential use is predicted to grow, driving future demand on our groundwater, the Tuolumne River, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and other resources.

Still, we don’t know enough about business sector water use to make accurate predictions on future demand. Many water agencies, including the Santa Clara Valley Water District, do not maintain detailed water use data for different business customers, such as retail and manufacturing customers. As a result, they assume projected economic growth will apply to all businesses equally. This may overestimate future demand, as evidence suggests that the low-water-use service sector is growing faster than the high-water-use manufacturing sector. We need to get these numbers straight in order to adequately plan for the future.

Experience shows that businesses that use water wisely save money. With investment today, including appropriate landscaping and recycled water, we can go further to avoid overtaxing our shared water resources. We can cut water waste while our population grows and our economy thrives. Our utilities and water agencies have the knowledge. They need to smartly plan for the future while taking the lead in implementing and publicizing cost-effective conservation and efficiency techniques.

Heather Cooley is a senior associate and Ian Hart is communications director for the Pacific Institute.