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Getting to Net-Zero Everything: Part 2

This three-part blog series outlines the urgent need to transition to achieve net zero energy, water, and carbon. This second installment focuses on the threats to global water availability and quality that pose alarming sustainable development challenges.

Water and climate are inextricably linked—climate impacts often manifest as water problems. Warmer temperatures and changing weather patterns affect water sources, placing tremendous stress on water reliability, accessibility, and quality.waterfall featured

Increased precipitation in areas like the Midwest, Northeast, and Southeast has led to excessive flooding, erosion, pollution runoff, and damage to surface water and drinking sources.

Extensive drought in the American West has depleted regional water sources and threatened waterways and reservoirs. Rising sea levels and superstorms along the seaboards have compromised coastal aquifers and wetlands.

And that’s just a short list of early climate change impacts.

Precious Resource Under Threat

According to the World Resources Institute, two-thirds of the global population will live in water-stressed areas by 2025 as a result of climate change, population growth, rising consumption rates, unsustainable withdrawals, poor infrastructure, and weak local governance.

3-Step Formula for Resource Savings

As the stress on our water supply continues to increase, comprehensive net-zero strategies are becoming essential—and cost-effective.

The formula for developing a successful management strategy isn’t complicated, but it does take forethought. Here are three steps to take: 

  1. Develop situational awareness and an accurate water assessment, keeping local water risks, regulations, pricing, climate impacts, and solutions in mind.  
  2. Determine appropriate water objectives and risk mitigation strategies, and identify innovative technologies that can conserve water and safeguard quality.  
  3. Implement sensors and monitors to offer real-time data, and create an ongoing monitoring and management plan.

Humans consume about 9,087 billion cubic meters of water per year, a number that is increasing by nearly 2 percent annually. The leading offenders are China, India, and the United States, consuming 1,207 billion, 1,182 billion, and 1,053 billion cubic meters respectively, followed by Brazil at 482 billion.

In the United States, skyrocketing population growth is intensifying water demand beyond current capacity limits. This is especially true in the West, where experts predict 100 percent growth in Nevada and Arizona by 2030, 60 percent in Texas, and upwards of 30 percent in California and Colorado.

Already experiencing dramatic shortages, some of these high-growth areas are implementing stringent policies, regulations, pricing structures, reporting, and drought contingency plans to manage water availability.  

As the need to solve for water availability becomes increasingly dire, so too is the urgency to address quality: Our dilapidated infrastructure and high levels of water pollution places the United States at a shocking 64th position in the World Health Organization’s drinking water quality assessment. 

Impact On the Built Environment

While power production and agriculture account for the majority of water use in the United States, managing water in homes and buildings is paramount.

Everyone in the building industry, or in business for that matter, should be paying attention to water, as it is the number one prohibiting factor to growth: If there is no water, there will be no permits.

Unfortunately, archaic laws sometimes stand in the way of common-sense solutions.  Nonetheless, net-zero water is now an attainable goal through the deployment of technologies and strategies that address conservation, monitoring, recycling, and environmentally appropriate discharging practices.

States and cities from coast to coast are tackling scarcity through the implementation of stringent policies and pricing mechanisms:

  • Santa Fe, NM, for example, has the most rigorous water regulations and highest prices in the country, and correspondingly, the lowest per capita water usage (87 gallons per person day.)
  • California has set an aggressive goal to limit use to 55 gallons per person per day by 2050 (indoor use only).
  • Other municipalities, like Westminster, Colo., are integrating data into planning processes, using sophisticated GIS software to overlay water resources and infrastructure to measure total impact before issuing building permits.

Offset programs proliferate as well, requiring that builders and developers submit net-zero water plans to get project approvals.

Exploding water tap fees have contributed to surging home prices and development delays in markets like Fort Collins, Colo., where hookup costs have increased by up to 400 percent. 

Bainbridge Island, Wash., and Osceola, Fla., are examples of cities that have placed temporary moratoriums on building due to depleted water sources. 

Solutions to Watch 

Fortunately, the water sector is experiencing substantial innovation and technological advances that provide solutions for any water management plan.

Low flow faucets, showerheads, toilets, and appliances are a must-have in the net-zero equation. According to the EPA, modern low-flow faucets reduce flow by 30 percent, saving approximately 700 gallons a year (the equivalent of 40 showers). Low-flow toilets now use 1.28 gallons or less per flush, reducing water use by 54 percent and saving homeowners as much as $110 per year.

When it comes to homes, more than 50 percent of water is used in bathrooms—showers and baths account for approximately 25-30 percent, and toilets make up about 20-25 percent. Graywater systems, like Greyter , capture and reuse shower and bath water so that it can be used again for flushing, reducing interior household use by as much as 25 percent.

Leak detection and water monitoring systems, like Phyn , also play a pivotal role, automatically shutting off when leaks are detected and also offering homeowners insights into how they’re using water and where savings can be achieved.

Outdoors, smart irrigation systems, like Rachio , can create tailored schedules that meet a yard or garden’s specific watering needs (based on climate, seasonality, weather, and other factors,) dramatically reducing use and saving up to 50 percent on bills. Organic lawn care strategies and xeriscaping (planting native and drought-resistant vegetation) can also save water, time, and money.

Other important innovations include:

  • On-demand hot water recirculatory systems that can be turned on with a switch (so that they don’t run continuously, using more energy than needed).
  • Rain/roof water harvesting systems with holding tanks and filtration systems so that water can be reused for indoor or outdoor applications.
  • Atmospheric generators that pull water out of the air.
  • New meters with auto/remote shut off.
  • Groundwater recharge products like permeable pavers

In combination with innovations, programs are starting to gain traction, such as the Water Efficiency Rating Score , or WERS, a performance-based rating for residential water efficiency. 

Certainly, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for reaching net-zero water, but codes and regulations will play an important big role. And, of course, increased consumer awareness will be paramount, requiring a combination of education and incentives to facilitate a behavioral paradigm shift. 

How do we do that?  Look for answers in the next installment of this Net Zero Everything blog series.

To learn more about getting to net zero energy, water, and carbon, watch our recent webinar about the topic