EPA Launches New Program to Sustain Water Resources

April 2, 2018

About the author: Benjamin H. Grumbles is assistant administrator for water for the U.S. EPA. He can be reached at 202/564-7000 or by e-mail at [email protected].


“Every drop counts.” That’s the motto for WaterSense, a new partnership program the U.S. EPA recently launched to stimulate more efficient use of water in homes and businesses.

America’s supplies are precious, but not unlimited. We have long enjoyed abundant water supplies from rivers, lakes, streams and underground sources for drinking, bathing, recreation and sustaining ecosystems. Growing demand and competing needs increase, however, as communities expand, businesses grow and changing weather conditions create unpredictable rainfall patterns.

Growing and shifting populations call for not only investment and maintenance of the infrastructure but also innovative approaches to emerging water and wastewater issues. The need for change is underscored by a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office survey, reporting that 36 states anticipate local, regional or statewide water shortages by 2013, even without drought conditions.

In addition, the wastewater and drinking water systems are aging. Some system components have not been replaced in more than a century. The EPA’s 2002 Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Gap Analysis estimates the potential funding shortfall for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure could exceed $500 billion by 2020.

Managing the nation’s water supply is a rising concern for communities across the country. From coast to coast, state and local governments face challenges from water shortages that are affecting the infrastructure.

In response, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson announced the WaterSense program in June. This new, voluntary partnership program promotes water efficiency and primes the market for water-efficient products and services just as the market has embraced energy-efficient products.

“Inefficient water use is like money slipping through your fingers,” Johnson told attendees of the annual meeting of the American Water Works Association in San Antonio, Texas, this past June. “Easily correctable water leaks rob the average homeowner of 8% of their water bill.”

The WaterSense program is part of the EPA’s broader sustainable water infrastructure initiative that emphasizes public and private partnerships. Sharing information on cutting-edge research, innovative technologies and management tools is integral to this effort. The objective is to rethink the way the nation manages water resources and its infrastructure. At the EPA, the challenges of water infrastructure are approached with four main strategies, called the four “pillars” of sustainable infrastructure:

1.Better management uses the approach of stewardship and collaboration to help make better use of water resources.

2.Full cost pricing focuses on developing methods of financing that reflect the true cost of water to meet essential infrastructure needs.

3.Watershed approach allows utilities, communities and states to make infrastructure decisions within a given watershed.

4.Water efficiency emphasizes the need to use water more wisely, which is the focus of the WaterSense program.

WaterSense promotes water efficiency by demonstrating that efficient water use can help communities preserve water supplies, save money, and reduce stress on water systems and the environment. This effort will also help governments, utilities, businesses, communities and individuals save water by promoting high-performance, water-efficient products and practices.

How the program works

WaterSense is building a national brand for water efficiency, a symbol that represents the importance of conserving and protecting water resources. Vendors may label their products as meeting EPA’s criteria for water efficiency and performance by following testing and verification protocols specific to each product category.

Efficient water use doesn’t mean asking consumers to make sacrifices. It is just a smarter way of accomplishing the intended purpose, whether it is better irrigation equipment, toilets that flush well with less water or better controls on industrial cooling towers. Independent testing protocols will ensure that products carrying the WaterSense label will be 20% more efficient than the average product in the same category.

WaterSense will also provide technical information and recognize leadership in water efficiency through formal partnership agreements. Manufacturers committed to water efficiency and product innovation can distinguish their products from others in the marketplace. Using the WaterSense label will help build consumer demand and gain national recognition for high-efficiency, high-performance products. Utilities will help promote the WaterSense program through public-awareness campaigns to reach local water-conservation goals. Retailers and distributors will stock and promote certified water- efficient products.

The EPA anticipates that local, state and federal governments, service providers, businesses and trade associations will join them as partners. The EPA will continue to build brand awareness across a wide range of industrial, commercial and consumer sectors through extensive outreach and education campaigns.

Irrigation that makes sense

Non-agricultural irrigation will be the first focus area for WaterSense. Commercial and residential outdoor water use in the U.S. accounts for more than 7 billion gal of water each day, mainly for landscape irrigation. As much as half of that is wasted due to evaporation, wind, or improper irrigation design, installation and maintenance. An efficient irrigation system must be outfitted with water-efficient products that are properly designed, installed and maintained. WaterSense will promote water efficiency in irrigation products as well as professional irrigation services.

WaterSense is in the process of certifying programs for irrigation professionals who advance the principles and applications of water-efficient irrigation. To qualify for the label, certification programs must verify their professional proficiency in water-efficient irrigation systems and be subject to independent review.

WaterSense is conducting research on several water-efficient irrigation technologies. The first products to be labeled will be weather-based irrigation control technologies and soil-moisture sensors. These products can minimize water demands for irrigation by tailoring watering schedules to local weather or landscape and soil conditions. This can significantly improve irrigation efficiency for homes, businesses, parks and schools nationwide.

Retrofits and new homes

Americans use significant quantities of water inside their homes. The average family of four consumes 400 gal of water every day, about 70% of which is used indoors—mostly in the bathroom. The toilet alone can use 27% of household water.

WaterSense is developing specifications for labeling high-efficiency toilets (HETs), which are expected by the end of 2006. Toilets that bear the WaterSense label will use less than 1.3 gal per flush and be tested independently to ensure that these products meet water efficiency and performance criteria. Specifications for residential faucet accessories are also under development. The EPA will promote both HET and faucet retrofits.

In addition, the EPA will fund a project to collect water-usage data in new homes from several water utilities across the U.S. The goal is to better understand water use for the estimated 14 million new homes that are likely to be built in the next 10 years. Water Efficiency Bench-marking for New Single Family Homes is a nine-city research study that seeks to establish baseline water-use patterns for new homes by collecting data from billing records, surveys and indirect measurements.

The study will look at “standard” new homes and “high-efficiency” new homes built to enhance water conservation. This will help establish targets for builders who wish to provide buyers with increased water-efficiency options and develop performance criteria. A special designation will also be created to help consumers identify these products. Results will help states and water utilities establish performance criteria for water use in new homes.

Meeting the challenge

The vision of WaterSense, based on President George Bush’s ethic of Cooperative Conservation, is to encourage Americans to make sound decisions about water and the envir-onment. Product labeling, education and outreach campaigns, and partnerships with governments and other interested groups will help transform the marketplace by encouraging consumers and organizations to purchase water-efficient products and wisely use this precious resource.