North Georgia Shows Us How to Stop Flushing Money Down the Toilet

by Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.

15 counties in North Georgia, around Atlanta came together to form The Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District. This group  figured out a clever way to slow the rise in cost of water and sewage treatment for their customers while protecting the environment. [1]   This successful effort  reduced water usage per capita by one fifth with no pain to the customer at all!

First, they realized  that only one-third of all water use was by industry or shopping centers and so forth.  Since most of the rest was used in homes,  they looked at major household uses.  Nationally,  about 15%  to 25% of all water used in a home is used to flush toilets! [2]  So they figured out if they could reduce the amount of water used to clear toilets, they could stop flushing away money.

The group saw the value in rebate programs to encourage people who owned old wasteful toilets to replace them with modern water conserving models.  Some old toilets use as much as 7 gallons per flush![3].  In order to qualify, the old toilet must exceed 1.6 gallons per flush.  Modern "normal" toilets (not the extreme version) only use 1.28 gallons.[4] More than 75,000 wasteful toilets have been replaced.[5] 

Second, the Water Planning District (WPD) changed the way they monitored for leaks in their freshwater pipe network.   Water districts  are local entities, wildly different in the sources of their water, and the customer base that uses it.   This makes efficiency and effectiveness comparisons difficult.  With the emergence of "big data", it is now possible to have utilities contribute information on their customer base, time of day and season usage, and many other variables.

A shared piece of software was installed for use by WPD's  56 members. This allows the members to benchmark themselves against each other, and use this data internally to detect system variance or irregularity , like leaks, theft of water, and other issues.  Last year in the WPD more than 12,000 leaks were detected.[6]  

These and other programs the District put in place have resulted in a 20% reduction in water use per capita.[7] This effort is worth imitating because our largely unrecognized water supply problems badly need fixing.

In 2000, EPA surveyed our nations water and sewer systems, and discovered that most of it was built in the 1950's - over 60 years ago.   We are running out of time.

Our nation's current old broken plumbing results in over  6 billion gallons of water being lost to leakage alone each year - enough to  satisfy the water needs of our most populated state, California![8]

In the last five years, nearly every region of the country has experienced water shortages. At least 36 states are anticipating local, regional, or statewide water shortages this year, even under non-drought conditions.[9]  Should climate change factor in, this number will rise.

This is one of those national  problems that requires local action, because 98% of all water infrastructure is the responsibility of state and local government agencies.[10] And it will not be cheap, because with  an estimated 240,000 water main breaks a year, it will take more than $1 trillion to repair and replace systems over the next 25 years, according to the American Water Works Association.[11]  For every dollar invested in water infrastructure, about $2.62 is generated in the private economy.[12]

As is often the case, common sense good investments were not implemented until crisis intervened.  In this case, the Atlanta region suffered predictable drought both in 2007 and 2012, nearly draining Lake Lanier, and leaving Atlanta dry.  Something had to be done.

Your community does not need to wait for crisis to act.  Water is a vital life support.  As a country  we face increasing demand, local and/or regional scarcity, and threats of toxic contamination.   Programs like the one above can slow the rise in  water and sewer bills, save precious natural resources, create jobs, and protect our ability to grow. Local civic leadership can face the opportunity knowing their efforts will be blessed by all parts of the political spectrum.  It doesn't get much better than that.

 Let's make sure we don't wash our hands of the opportunity.