SNOWMASS, COLO. — Pogo, that old swamp-dwelling cartoon character, would be right at home in California's drought of 1988. While everyone else frets over alleged hardships, Pogo would utter his trademark phrase: "We are surrounded by insurmountable opportunities."
Those opportunities include permanent reduction of water use, saving homeowners money and--particularly in Los Angeles' case--solving sewer overload. If realized, these opportunities could enable Southern California to cope with the drought just as Americans dealt with the energy crisis.
The energy crisis in the 1970s showed that using resources more efficiently is cheaper than securing new supplies. Since then, an astonishing array of energy-saving technologies have become commercially available to help save money by saving energy. Likewise, the current state drought could change people's attitudes about water. Fortunately, with water there shouldn't be as great a time lag between the crisis and availability of new water-saving technologies. A substantial water-efficiency industry already exists; its products are readily available. Just as in energy, the combination of new attitudes and new products could be the answer to Southern California's water worries.
This is not another tired pitch for water conservation. To those who remember the drought of 1977-78, "water conservation" probably means brown lawns, unflushed toilets and barely damp showers. Those perceptions are outdated.
First, the word efficiency has replaced conservation. It's more precise. Efficiency means achieving the same or superior levels of service by getting more work out of less water. New water-efficient technologies let users save water without sacrificing comfort, convenience or reliability. These technologies do not impose life-style changes on users. Instead, through superior design and engineering, they use less water to do the same jobs as their wasteful counterparts.
Granted, that wasn't true 10 years ago. Then, showering with a low-flow shower head meant an aerobic workout as you ran around the tub trying to get wet under a faint mist. Today's efficient shower heads feel just as wet and invigorating as conventional ones but use less water. Similarly, the best faucet aerators use up to 70% less water to rinse dishes and wet toothbrushes. Instead of using five or more gallons a flush, low-flow toilets use anywhere from eight-tenths of a gallon to 1 1/2 gallons. These three technologies--efficient shower heads, aerators and toilets--can cut a home's indoor water use by up to 45%.
Better yet, installing shower heads and faucet aerators in a two-bathroom, one-kitchen home can save the average four-person household anywhere from $66 to $175 on yearly energy bills because they use less hot water. The new fixtures can also cut home water use by more than 17%. The energy savings and lower water use will probably more than cover pending water rate increases. So instead of costing consumers money, this drought should enable most families that install water-efficient technologies to save money over the long run.
But bottom-line savings may not be the best part. Consider the sybaritic aspects: It's 7 a.m. and four people vie for shower access. No one wants to be last and face a cold stream. But with a pair of new, low-flow shower heads dispensing hot water more efficiently, chances are everyone can take a warm, unrushed morning shower--a priceless pleasure, even though such fixtures would save from $10 to $100 a year.
The new technologies also produce permanent savings. In previous droughts, flow-restrictors stuck in existing shower heads and faucets could easily be removed once the crisis passed. The same is true for toilet dams, bricks or balloons. But most people wouldn't give up their new shower head even if Southern California became a rain forest, nor would they buy a water-wasting toilet to replace their efficient model once the drought is past.
These new technologies are opportunities knocking on Southern California's door. This drought could create the climate for permanent change in indoor water use, with impressive results. A Rocky Mountain Institute study concluded, for example, that by retrofiting aerators, shower heads and toilets, one Colorado town could save about 10% of its peak usage or 17% of its average daily usage. Efficiency could also save the Denver metropolitan area about 62,000 acre-feet of potable water a year.