Reforming Conservation

Dec. 15, 2014
Effective water use demands more than a one-size-fits-all approach

About the author: Bob Ferguson is a consultant in water and wastewater product safety, certification, analysis and treatment, and is a frequent author on water and environmental topics. Ferguson can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @Ferguson9806.

Water conservation, and the related topic of rainwater harvesting, not only is a growing business (with sales and installations of low-use, low-flow devices, and rainwater collection and distribution products growing each year); but it also is an activity many proponents approach with an intensity that can rival a religious zealot.  

This is why I found it interesting to see a recent article in The Wall Street Journal about the problems being caused in Germany by water conservation efforts. According to the article, Germans have taken water conservation so seriously that it has become more than just a social responsibility, but a source of personal pride and an expression of one’s own virtue. The article pointed out that a generation of education about water conservation has made many Germans follow their practices so diligently that some have taken on practices that can safely be described as fanatical. For instance, people cited in the article said that they routinely bathe in the same bathwater more than once and then use the water from the tub to flush toilets. One woman reported that she saves the water that she uses to rinse her mouth after brushing her teeth in a cup by the sink and uses it to water her plants. Another woman who collects rainwater on her balcony for use in watering her plants said she frequently collects far more rainwater than she has containers in which to keep it. This forces her to pour some of it down her drain—
a prospect that she finds “very hard.”

Unintentional Consequences

Not all conservation is created equal: Municipal sewer systems in some cities have insufficient flow to operate properly (with distribution system piping that was designed to accommodate anticipated increasing water use), and corrosion of the sewer piping from conditions created by non-moving and stagnating sewage is an increasing threat. Ironically, in order to control odor and corrosion, utilities have to periodically flush the systems out with freshwater. The symptoms are not limited to municipal sewer systems. Apparently some basements in Berlin are flooding because the water table is getting too high as well. 

Historically, people have settled in areas where water was available.  Larger older cities tend to be on coasts, alongside rivers and near lakes. Water treatment and distribution technology, however, has allowed us to settle in lots of areas with little water. Phoenix certainly is a beautiful city, but the Salt River is no rival to the Mississippi River or the Great Lakes as a source of freshwater, so water conservation and rainwater collection make sense in cities like Phoenix.

Going Local

Applying water conservation standards universally or on a national basis, however, can lead to problems. As I mentioned in a November 2012 article on regulating rainwater harvesting in Water Quality Products (a sister publication to W&WD), what works in Arizona may be counterproductive or even hazardous to public health in areas with plentiful water, like Louisiana, where collection and storage of rainwater may do more to breed mosquitoes in New Orleans than solve any water problem. Ultimately, water conservation and rainwater collection is a local issue. 

Officials in Germany are trying to redirect the public’s well-intentioned efforts toward conserving water used for the production of consumer goods. By focusing efforts on reducing indirect water use, people can make a real difference and have a clear conscience when using water in water-plentiful
areas, like their homes, where their conservation efforts may
be counterproductive.

Think globally. Act locally (according to local conditions). It is the right idea, even if you would not likely see it on a bumper sticker anytime soon. 

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About the Author

Bob Ferguson

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