War on Water

by Katie Lee

For retailers, this is no time for drought fatigue.

By Klaus Reichardt

Retailers throughout the country can all learn a lot from what has been happening in California over the past few years. The state has suffered one of the worst and most prolonged droughts in its history. For more than 4 years, citizens and industry have been asked to conserve water and to use water more efficiently, which takes things a step further and refers to long term water reduction as we shall discuss later. When California’s winter storms were over in 2015 and it was clear the drought would continue, the state finally decided it was time to impose actual water restrictions forcing everyone to find ways to reduce water consumption by 25% or more.

Today, with reports that a major El Niño is affecting the state and likely bringing with it lots and lots of rain, many in the state believe their long, dry nightmare may be over. They can start using water again. Hooray for long showers! No more brown lawns around shopping malls. People can even wash their cars again on a Sunday afternoon.

Well, two things are happening that retailers need to pay attention to. One involves California, and the other involves all of us.

First, the mighty El Niño everyone has been talking about may not be as mighty as originally believed. Yes, there was considerable rainfall in California in January, but in parts of the state such as the central areas, February has been nothing less than bone dry. This makes March the big unknown. It’s possible February was just a dry blip on a rainy map. But some are beginning to fear it was an indication that our El Niño came and went faster and with less rainfall than anticipated.

But now there is a second issue that impacts us all. In mid-January 2016, just as Californians were beginning to get excited that they finally may be out of the dry woods due to all the rain they were receiving, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2016 was released. This report surveys approximately 750 experts on the perceived impact a risk would have on the world and the likelihood that it may occur over an 18-month period as well as over a 10-year timeframe.

As to the 18-month timeframe, the report says “failure of climate change mitigation and adaption” is the big concern. But it is the big 10-year risk that caught everyone by surprise: water crisis, specifically droughts and shortages but also including flooding, were the big risks these experts foresee a decade out. For water to be the top concern is alarming for many reasons, but for retailers and all business people, it can potentially have a big, negative impact on the world economy.

Something Interesting to Note

Earlier, when we were discussing the 4-year-old drought in California, we said “the state finally decided it was time to impose actual water restrictions,” after about the fifth year of the drought. But if we go back a good 40 years, back to the late 1970s, California had another drought that was as severe as this one but actually much shorter. Within just a year the state was on its knees asking residents to cut back not 25% but as much as 40% or more.

We should also add that in the late 1970s California had about 20 million residents. Today that figure is closer to 40 million. So what gives? Why did the state have to impose drastic water restrictions in just 1 year of drought 40 years ago but was able to go a good 4 years in the 2010s just asking people to please cut back?

What happened are two things:

1. The state learned a lot after the 1970s drought and implemented changes to help mitigate the impacts of future droughts.

2. New, more water-efficient technologies have been introduced — most all of which were not available 40 years ago — which have had a big impact on reducing water consumption.

After the 1970s drought, most Californians forgot about the drought and went back to their old water-using — some would say waster-wasting — habits. But some state officials and business and agricultural leaders knew the drought was not a one-time occurrence. California has had many droughts, and with population and commercial growth, these droughts have the possibility of becoming all the more serious. As a result, they implemented a number of changes including increasing water storage capabilities, improving water infrastructure, slowly raising water and sewer rates (so they were closer to the true costs for these services), and developing a type of water sharing program so that water could be directed from water plentiful areas to those that are water short.

But as we shall discuss, it has actually been the free enterprise system that helped address the bulk of California’s water related issues.

Less Water in Retail

While we could discuss a number of technologies now in use in farming, manufacturing and other industries that have helped reduce water consumption, this would not apply to retailers. But one area that does apply to retailers which has had one of the biggest impacts on reducing water consumption is the restroom.

Back in the 1970s, a toilet or urinal in your store used as much as 3 gallons of water per flush — sometimes more. By 1992, manufacturers were legally required to reduce this to 1.6 gallons per flush for toilets and about 1 gallon per flush for urinals. But then the free enterprise system we just mentioned stepped in. Realizing there was both a need and a market for more water-efficient products, manufacturers developed an array of restroom fixtures that use even less water than mandated.

Have you heard of dual-flush toilets? On average, these use about 1.25 gallons of water per flush and are now found in all types of facilities including stores. There are even sensor-controlled dual-flush toilets. The sensor determines which type of flush is needed — to remove liquid waste or solid waste — depending on how long the toilet has been used. (More than 60 seconds usually tells the sensor a bigger flush is needed.)

The last time you were on an airplane, you likely used a compressed-air or pressure-assisted toilet. These use about a half-gallon of water per flush and appear to have a growing future in commercial facilities.

With urinals, progress has moved a bit slower, but some big changes have recently occurred. For this we have to go back to California. As part of the new water restriction mandates, all new urinal installations in California must include urinals that use a half-gallon of water per flush or less.

But what we also see happening is California building owners and managers taking this a step further on their own. Instead of installing these reduced water urinals, they are installing no-water or waterless urinals. But this time, water may not be the central reason. Even if a urinal uses a half-gallon of water per flush, it still needs all the same plumbing and flush mechanisms as a urinal using 1, 2 or 3 gallons of water per flush. That can be costly for such a small amount of water. None of this is required with a no-water urinal meaning those costs, which can be ample with many installations, are eliminated.

While water concerns often have a “doom and gloom” umbrella hanging over them, hopefully I am able to leave you on an uplifting note. We must not lose faith in our ability to address the world’s challenges, and water is a perfect example of how this can be done. Does the risk reported in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report for 2016 raise unnecessary concerns? No. It just means we have to put our heads together and find ways to deal with potential water challenges.

— Klaus Reichardt is founder and CEO of Waterless Co. LLC in Vista, California. Reichardt founded the company in 1991 with the goal to establish a new market segment in the plumbing fixture industry with water conservation in mind. Reichardt is a frequent writer and presenter, discussing water conservation issues. Email him at [email protected].

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