It’s Time to Rethink Water Use

This year’s Next Generation Water Summit focused on innovative ways to abate water supply, quality and demand problems currently facing the dry West.


As I traveled from the mountains of Colorado into the high desert of Santa Fe, a hazy area in northern New Mexico caught my attention. It’s definitely rain, I concluded. There were clouds in the sky, and it had already rained on the drive. As I continued on the road, it became apparent that this was, in fact, not rain; it was a new wildfire that had started the day before. 

The smoke was heavy, growing rapidly and glowing. It smelled like a barbeque and forced me to roll my windows up. It made me think about how last year, we were blessed with plentiful rain in the west that staved off the threatening wildfire season. However, this small wildfire reminded me of the past years and the potential for fire to take over the West once again. 


This photo of the fire displays how the red glow made the surroundings look almost apocalyptic.

This experience set the stage for the Next Generation Water Summit, where thought leaders, policy-makers and water enthusiasts meet to discuss the problems, challenges and solutions that surround the topic of water. 

The theme of this year’s Summit was “Water Reuse and Conservation: the New Paradigm.” Participants and speakers worked to collaborate on best practices and learn about innovative water conservation and water reuse techniques that can be used to comply with water conservation restrictions spreading across the southwest. 

The several guest speakers at the conference focussed on incentivizing the public to use less water and local efforts to help communities understand the pressing issues of water and compliance in water use reduction.

20 Days of Water Left

At the summit, Louie Trujillo, Mayor of Las Vegas, N.M., spoke on the dire water situation that unfolded as a result of the large wildfires that ravaged New Mexico last year. While Las Vegas residents lost homes and properties during the fire, he lamented that the worst was still to come. 

Wildfires change the composition of the soil after they have burned, making it more susceptible to erosion. After the fires, Trujillo noted that the area experienced the most intense monsoon season in 20 years. As a result, the record rainfall pulled thousands of acres of fire debris, ash and chemicals into the river, rendering it unusable.

Severe measures needed to be taken to get the city out of crisis. Las Vegas had an estimated 20 days of fresh water left. The citizens were asked to reduce their water intake to less than 40 gallons per day–down over 50 gallons from the national average of 92 gallons per day. Restaurants were asked to serve on single-use dishes, hotels were asked not to change sheets every day and hospitals were urged to contract out their laundry services. 

Since the city already had strict water ordinances in place, the community was able to come together to significantly reduce water consumption. Additional help from federal and state funding and aid allowed the city to acquire a temporary filtration system that would filter lake water and put it back into the reservoirs. 

In an effort to create resiliency from future water crises, the city is going to implement a water recycling system – taking effluent water and making it safe for drinking. 

Water Preparedness

Adel Hagekhalil, General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, spoke on the importance of water reliability and resilience and the need to rethink water management. He noted that “holistic water management is smart water management.” 

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s new One Water approach is putting all the pieces together to shift reliance on imported water to new local supplies and greater local conservation. Hagekhalil is well aware of the dwindling water supply and is pushing for programs and systems to be in place in order to avoid a disaster like what happened in Las Vegas.

For example, the Pure Water Southern California project is set to become one of the largest water recycling programs in the United States. When implemented, it will produce drinking water from cleaned wastewater and produce a sustainable source of high-quality water for up to 15 million people. 

Where Does Your Water Come From?

In our climate-changed world, California’s Mono Lake illustrates the need for bold local actions to protect and restore distant ecosystems that support both wildlife and people. Too often, drought-driven water shortages are viewed as a tradeoff between environmental and human needs. However, Martha Davis, former assistant general manager at Inland Empire Utilities Agency, presses that we do not acknowledge the environmental and human impacts of water relocation. 

Mono Lake has “continuously existed on the planet for at least one million years,” Davis notes as she presses the rarity of this salt lake. This very simple but productive ecosystem supports the bird population. “Mono Lake is the equivalent of an avian gas station,” explains Davis as she talks about the hemispheric migration patterns of 350 species that revolve around the lake. “We’re talking about a scale of migration that has occurred on our planet for eons,” she presses.

However, during the early development of the area, Mono Lake was almost destroyed. The newcomers saw this lake as a saline sump, but booming Los Angeles saw great value in the tributary streams for diversion.

The lake was finally protected in 1994, but between 1940 and 1994, the lake dropped over 40 vertical feet and devastated the ecosystem as salinity went up and productivity of the lake declined. Dust storms violated the Clean Air Act’s health standards, and local tribes lost a spiritual center. 

Davis uses Mono Lake as an example, “there are special places at the end of all of our taps,” she urges us to remember. “Going down the path of talking about tradeoffs is a loser’s game.” She pushes for us to acknowledge our shared needs and struggles and to not put the problem in a new location. 

We need to think about shifting towards resilience and “think about how the centralized systems can work better for all of us,” says Davis. She presses for building climate-appropriate landscapes, reusing water and avoiding placing injustices on other areas.

Net-Zero Water Homes

A Texas building and architect duo are “breaking the tool” when it comes to net-zero water home construction. Homes that generate 100% of their water on-site will become increasingly important as drought and water shortages proliferate. 

Darrel McMaster, CEO of Sustainable Homes, and Laureen Blissard, technical director at Green Builder Coalition, denote how they manage to model usage, capture and reuse of water on a property with the Water Efficiency Rating Scores (WERS) tool and the unique ways they work as a team to ensure water quality and reliability.

McMaster does this by requiring a rainwater collection and seven-stage purification system on every home he builds. With Blissard’s help, he identifies the size of the collection tank based on the rainfall in the area and natural sources, like streams or springs. 

He notes that while rainwater harvesting can be considered undesirable, it’s actually the purest form of water and purifies further as it sits in the cistern. The water testing lab even called to ask where he got his water since it was near medical grade.

Additionally, McMaster acknowledges that you cannot have a net zero carbon home and not include all of the utilities. He pushes for the understanding of the nexus between water and energy, noting that “19-20 percent of all energy used in California is dedicated to water. It must be extracted, treated, and pumped both to and from the home, requiring energy at every stage. 

It also takes a massive amount of water to produce electricity as well. In fact, 25 gallons of water are required to produce 1 kWh of electricity. Therefore, it’s paramount that the homes McMaster builds are both energy and water independent.

A Better Future

Throughout this informative conference, it was apparent that our water infrastructure, allocation and use are antiquated and from a time when water was more plentiful. In order to keep up with the changing climate, the entire system needs to be rethought. It takes events like this Next Generation Water Summit to bring about the opportunity for collaboration and positive progress.

Join the discussion next year, either live in Santa Fe, N.M., or virtually! Watch for updates in Green Builder Media’s Vantage newsletter .