5 Apr 2018

Reducing residential and commercial water waste (part 3 of 3)

This post contains some of the interesting elements from a report I prepared for a client who never put the information into public circulation. I am posting it here in the hope that it's useful to readers. [Read Part 1][Read Part 2]

A drinking water provider (DWP) delivers potable drinking water to residential, commercial, industrial, institutional and/or government users. This solution addresses use by the first four classes (abbreviated RESCOM).

This solution thus focuses on the actions that a LG can take to reduce RESCOM water waste. Some actions (e.g., regulations on water use or appliances) are direct; others (e.g., water metering and pricing) are implemented and managed by the DWP. We will treat LG and DWP as separate entities (even if they are legally merged).

This solution proposes a number of policies for LGs and DWPs. The relative effectiveness of different policies depends on local conditions. Implementation of multiple policies should result in greater cumulative savings (i.e., positive reinforcement).

Effectiveness should be evaluated based on the cost per unit of demand reduction or water saved. Some policies will have “negative costs,” i.e., they reduce water consumption by ending inefficient spending. Other actions may not recover initial spending for years, but such long payback periods are not unusual. Cost-recovery for water infrastructure is measured in decades. This solution’s impacts will arrive in the short term (reduced water consumption and improved reliability) and long term (lower infrastructure spending).

Why save water?

Cities facing water stress (or scarcity) must find ways to increase supply or reduce demand if they are to avoid shortages that reduce economic activity, impair local ecosystems and threaten citizens’ quality of life. In many cases, it is legally, politically or environmentally difficult to increase water supplies, so it is necessary to reduce demand.

The policies discussed here can reduce water use by 10-50 percent, depending on local conditions. The largest reductions could occur in cities – such as those in the southwestern US -- where customers use 50-70 percent of drinking water outdoors, as such luxury uses are “waste” by definition where water is scarce. The smallest reductions would occur where metered customers can only reduce their indoor water consumption by installing low-consumption appliances (e.g., toilets or showerheads).

Of the numerous cases studies supporting these statistics, it may be useful to look at [snip] Loaiciga and Renehan (1997), where higher (metered) tariffs lowered demand in Santa Barbara, California, by 50 percent during a drought and [snip]. It is useful to note that conservation did not threaten utility finances in any of these cases. Indeed, it is much easier to increase revenues (via higher tariffs) with water meters, as increases can be justified as means of protecting reliable service.

The timely implementation of this solution will rationalize water use and thus minimize capital spending, distortions to business decisions, environmental stress, costs to consumers, and socio-political controversy over “fair” access to water.

Long-term benefits of solutions
  • Improved social and economic indicators for mortality, morbidity, and productivity
  • Improved social cohesion and cooperation by ensuring service to all the “public”
  • Attracting new residents and businesses through reliable water services
  • Decreased pressure on water resources and related political tensions
  • Improved ecosystem health and ecosystem services.
  • Decreased or postponed capital investments in water-supply infrastructure
  • Improved awareness and responsiveness to climate change
Short-term benefits of solutions
  • Improved reliability and quality of DWP services
  • Improved DWP financial sustainability
  • Decreased water consumption
  • Lower capital spending and expansion-related system disruptions
  • Decreased energy consumption linked to lower water use
  • Decreased greenhouse gas emissions linked to lower energy consumption
Indicators of results
  • Water production at treatment plant, in m3/day
  • Water consumption from household meters, in m3/day or liters/capita/day
  • Water consumption by commercial, industrial and institutional activities, in m3/day
  • Median change in year-on-year consumption for RES and COM, in percent
  • Metered water use out of total water extractions/withdrawals, in percent
  • RESCOM payments to DWP, as a percentage of total DWP income
  • Health indicators, e.g., water-contamination-related hospital admissions
  • Affordability indicators, e.g., percentage of customers with unpaid water bills
Local government roles
  • Planner
  • Policy maker
  • Regulator
  • Operator of municipal facilities (rolled into DWP role)
  • Role-model
  • Stakeholder engagement
Integrated solutions involve enabling, required and multiplier actions that, respectively, enable a solution to be discussed, are required for a solution to work, and multiply the impacts of a solution. There is far too much detail in my original report to include here, but these can be, for example, establishing a policy for reliable water supply (enabled); reporting RESCOM water use and per capita household consumption (required); and monitoring measures of environmental, economic and social sustainability (multiplier).

Necessary preconditions
  • DWPs are either investor-owned, autonomous public corporations, or part of municipal government. No matter the DWP’s organizational form, it will be regulated as a public utility with a “natural monopoly” on water services.
  • Local government has some level of control over DWP. Although it is possible to encourage people to use less without any control or coordination with DWP, such a message may be nullified if DWP benefits from “wasteful” use (i.e., higher revenue) or faces no penalty for depleting reserves that may be useful later.
  • The water supply network provides safe water services that satisfy the basic needs of people in the community. This solution does not apply if basic services are not available.
  • DWP must have billing and accounting systems, system meters, staff for outreach, accounting and engineering, and so on. An underfunded, understaffed, or underqualified DWP cannot focus on reducing water use without first establishing the minimum infrastructure necessary to serve customers.
Success factors
  • Adequate funding, staffing and time
  • Political support for action (i.e., acknowledgement of water waste)
  • Social acceptability, i.e., an agreement that the bulk of the financial burden from metering, higher prices or other conservation actions should fall on heavy water users (as opposed to falling on the wealthy, via property taxes). Such a result is possible if, for example, excess revenues (from raising prices above cost to reduce demand for water) are returned to customers in the form of lower fixed charges.
  • Willingness to experiment, learn and reiterate
  • Choice of technology, techniques and regulatory-price mix suitable for local conditions rather than outside imposition of “best practices”
Barriers to results
  • Political opposition to changes in water pricing or use
  • Regulations that prevent changes in water charges or water use
  • Favored groups (e.g., receiving lower prices per cubic meter) may oppose changes in prices or regulations
  • Lack of time and money necessary to establish a baseline of water use and plan for reducing water waste
  • Inability to gather or commit RESCOM, DWP or LG leaders to solution
Risks
  • Risk is related to fear of change, and staff who fear change may block solution rather than cooperate. The “hidden” nature of water makes it easier for people to hide their opposition (e.g., not installing low consumption toilets, certifying wasteful water use as “necessary,” etc.)
  • Water price increases often have a disproportionate impact on poor people who may oppose them. Exemptions create a risk of misclassification through incompetence (poor recordkeeping) or corruption (the rich bribing inspectors to be classified as poor)
  • Decreases in consumption may drop revenue and destabilize DWP finances
  • Introduction of incentives to use less water may be opposed by customers who feel that the quality of the existing service does not justify current prices.
  • Some actions may require upfront funding from non-customer sources. Outside funding from debt or bond markets may require LG to seek borrowing permission from citizens or other political bodies. Loans or grants from national or international sources may be easier to get but bring conditions or restrictions that interfere with LG, DWP or RESCOM opportunities or choices.

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