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New San Diego Water Report Focuses On Efficiency, Conservation

Ann Tartre, Water Use
New San Diego Water Report Focuses On Efficiency, Conservation
GUESTS:Cary Lowe, Land Use & Environmental attorney, Chairman, City of San Diego Water Policy Task Force Ann Tartre, Executive Director, The Equinox Center

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Tuesday, October 9th. Our top story on Midday Edition, a new report from the Equinox center points to water use as the most critical resource challenge that San Diego faces. But unlike many other big-picture analyses, this one focuses on what each resident of San Diego can do to conserve and use our precious water supply more efficiently. My guests, Ann Tart is executive director of the Equinox center. Welcome to the program. TARTRE: Thank you, Maureen. CAVANAUGH: And Cary Lowe is here, chairman of the City of San Diego water policy implementation task force. Welcome to the program. LOWE: Thank you. CAVANAUGH: Now, Ann, can you begin by telling us why Equinox has identified water as the biggest resource challenge in San Diego? What kind of increasing demand might we be seeing in the next 2 decades? TARTRE: Well, Equinox center has focused on having a healthy economy in this environment, and water is a critical issue because as the region grows, if we don't do things somewhat differently here, we're going to need to import more water. We import about 70% of water we use here in San Diego from Northern California or the Colorado river. And those water supplies are at risk. So we can't cook, bathe, run businesses like our bioteches and pharmaceuticals without adequate supply of reasonably priced water. CAVANAUGH: And testimony us what is the Equinox center. TARTRE: It is a nonpartisan regional think tank, really focused on quality of life issues here in the radio knowledge and making sure that as the region grows, that we don't sacrifice our quality of life, that we still have clean air and water and good renewable energy sources am the CAVANAUGH: How did you compile the data in this report? TARTRE: We had access to some data that the State of California collected a few years ago, which really had a sampling of homes in San Diego County where they actually measured how people in single-family residences were using their water, how much water they're using on a daily basis, and we looked at that data and made some estimates about, okay, if this is how people are currently using their water, and we know that for example only 3-4% of the households in the region are equipped with the most efficient clothes washers are toilet flushing technologies, then how much more potential is there in the region to be more efficient if everyone replaced their clothes washes with more efficient washing machines. CAVANAUGH: So in other words, the data that you used, were people actually going into homes and seeing how people use their water? How many loads of laundry they did, how many times they flushed their toilet, that kind of thing? TARTRE: Absolutely. That is the level of data that we were able to get access to, which is really amazing. There were meters actually put on the homes in the sample. So they were able to see every time a toilet flushed, how much water was being used, or someone was watering their lawns, how much water was being used on average. CAVANAUGH: So the report finds that the next -- over the next 20 years, we could be using 30% less water. But what needs to happen for us to get there? TARTRE: We know the public already is very supportive of using water more efficiently. 95% of the people surveyed believe it's their civic responsibility to use water efficiently in the region. Some of the challenge is just letting people know that this technology already exists, that it's out there, and also I think we need to look at how we price our water and making sure that we are incentivizing people to conserve and discouraging wasteful water use. CAVANAUGH: We think of conservation, I think largely of outdoor water use. Were you surprised that making these changes indoors are -- could potentially make such a big difference? TARTRE: Yes, absolutely. There's been a lot of work done already in the region on helping people to conserve water indoors. So I kind of thought we had tapped that out. CAVANAUGH: Sure. TARTRE: But it seems there's quite a bit more to conserve there. Only a small percentage of people have their homes equipped with the most efficient clothes warning and toilet technology. So there's a lot more to be done there. CAVANAUGH: It seems people actually do need some inseptive if they're going to be changing out their toilets and washing machines and basically changing the way they conduct the actual items they use in their home. Is that where public policy comes in? TARTRE: Absolutely. I think we've seen rebates and incentives work here in the region and elsewhere. It's just that we could probably do more. We need to make sure those are maintained to help people transition to those new technologies and to get their return on investment. CAVANAUGH: Cary, you are with the City of San Diego water policy implementation task force. Which kind of a job would you say the city is doing to reduce water use? LOWE: I think the city is taking steps in the right direction, but there's a long way to go. The City Council take an important step last year when they adopted a series of water policies recognizing officially for the first time, I think, that we really have a very critical ongoing situation. And now they've turned those policies over to our task force which is an appointed group of citizens with expertise in a lot of different aspects of water issues to advise the City Council on how to prioritize those policies, how to go about implementing them, what kind of timelines they should try to attach to those. And the top priority from our standpoint, from the top of the task force, frankly, is conservation, which is the subject of equinox's report. And we're literally right in the middle of our discussion now at the task force of what kinds of policies not only should be adopted by the city, but how to implement them and really create a real sense among the public not only of the importance of conserving, because people want to do the right thing, we know that, but they need more direction, more incentive, and more of a sense that we're all in this together. And that if each of us practices conservation, that it really collectively can make a huge difference for the sustainability of this region. CAVANAUGH: Well, for instance, if someone is thinking my washer, my dishwasher or my clothes washer is getting pretty old, I want to change that out, but if I go with this standard one, are the one that uses a lot of water, it's going to be a little bit less extensive than if I go for one of these newfangled low-water things. So is there any way that you're talking about that the city might be able to step in and give a little bit of push to that person who's trying to make that decision? LOWE: Well, there are programs in place, but they're on a small scale in most cases. Between the water utilities, and the public agencies, they do some things like that. They do provide some financial incentives. But it's always been on a very what I call unambitious basis. And these things need to be ramped up tremendously. The difference in cost is often quite minimal. Between a very efficient appliance versus an average, typical one. People don't know that. And when they do find out, especially if there's some incentive, a payback through their utility bill or a low-interest loan or whatever, many, many people would avail themselves of that pretty quickly. But what really has to happen to facilitate or promote that is that we really need it to have a big public discussion about this, where political leaders, community leaders, academics, everybody is on the same page telling the public day in and day out, you got to conserve and it's important that you do your share. We look at countries where this has been an issue for a long time, Australia, Israel, the average person in those countries uses about 1/6 of the water that the average San Diegan uses. Lots of room there for improvement. People just need to be given some direction and incentive. CAVANAUGH: Right. And I think that brings us out of doors. You go to Australia or Israel, and they don't necessarily have the kind of lawns and the greenery that we have here. What can people do according to -- what kinds of savings could we make in San Diego according to this Equinox analysis if we change the way we gardened, basically? TARTRE: Well, first of all, our research shows that just by eliminating overwatering alone, of the existing landscapes, each household could save on average about 17,000 gallons of water per year. That's pretty significant already. That's a 26% reduction from people are currently uses in their yards to water. In addition to that, if folks wanted to take an extra step and change out 10-20% of their yard from grass to low-water plants or zero scaping, then you could save almost double that, up to 38,000 gallons of water per year. There's a lot of opportunity to be more efficient with our water outdoors. CAVANAUGH: One of the big messages of your report is that water pricing can be a big incentive to save. Or reduce or can if it's not done correctly, reduce the morale to save. For instance, here in San Diego, water agencies say they lose money when we conserve. And they have to raise their prices just to maintain enough money to pay their staff and maintain their equipment. That can't be helpful. TARTRE: Yeah, it's kind of a conundrum in the water sector, the water utility sector in terms of the business model. Although many, many water utilities are doing what they can to promote the message of conservation, at the same time, they have to cover their capital costs and operation costs. And one of the ways they do that is by selling more water. So when people reduce their water use, then the water utility is selling les water and therefore making less money. So there's kind of a challenge there, and they have to raise their rates. And sometimes you hear people in the community say, well, geez I've been doing my best to conserve yet my bill is going up anyway because every unit I'm using is more expensive than it was a few years ago. LOWE: We have to be a little patient because over time, that's really going to change. We're not going to need to build as many aqueducts and dams and other capital facilities. So when people look at their water bills closely, they'll see that the biggest part of what they're paying for, actually, for most people is those capital facilities. Not the water itself that's being delivered to them. When those facilities get paid off and we don't have to build as many new ones because we're conserving or doing other things to reduce water needs, those bills are going to come down. And I know it's hard are in people to understand that in the short-run, but in the longer run, it really will make a huge difference. It's also a matter of getting people to look at a somewhat bigger picture and saying I know my water bills are going up a little bit, but this is really an important thing to do anyway. This is important for the future of this region and for our industry and homes and sustainability in every respect because the water is not going to be there, and we're going to have to cut back. And even if it means paying a little more for it in the shorter run, it's simply we're going to have to do for this region to survive. CAVANAUGH: Ann, your analysis of this, the Equinox study that's come out, which people can find online at, is really a very hopeful document, I think, because it's filled with things that we can do either now or very shortly in order to change our situations dramatically when it comes to water use. But can we conserve ourselves out of our water crisis? TARTRE: That's a great question. We live in a semiarid climate, we have a growing population and economy, and we have very little local water sources. We do think that conservation efficiency can go a long ways toward meeting our water challenges. We think the estimates we put out are somewhat conservative. They're based primarily on people just changing technologies in their home, not talking about major behavioral changes, showering less or doing your laundry less frequently. And there's a lot of evidence out there that show that there's -- the changes could be significant, and there's important tools that they could use to incentivize people to change their behavior in addition to changing technologies. So I am hopeful that there's a good opportunity here to make a big difference. And let me just say, this is not the solution to all of our water challenges, but it's really important for us to get a handle on how much more potential is there to use our water more efficiently,o over time, we can look at, as the population grows, how much water will we need in the region, and once we have that number, it's important to have debate around supply sources and how much more are we going to need and how much should we spend on desalination, reservoirs, the expensive infrastructure projects. How low can we go in terms of efficiency, and then have that informed dialogue about those other pieces. CAVANAUGH: Thank you both very, very much. TARTRE: Thank you. LOWE: Thank you.

Equinox Center Water Report
Equinox Center H2Overview Project, October 2012
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

A new report from the Equinox Center points to water use as the most critical resource challenge San Diego faces.

But unlike many other big-picture analyses, this report focuses on what each resident of San Diego can do to conserve and use our precious water supply more efficiently. Data used in the report finds that over the next 20 years, the region could be using 20 to 30 percent less water than managers predict.


Ann Tartre, the executive director of the independent, non-partisan, non-profit Equinox Center, told KPBS that 28 percent of water usage in the home comes from toilet flushing, while 20 percent comes from the clothes washer and 17 percent from the shower. She said only 3 to 4 percent of the population has installed the most efficient washing machines and toilets.

"So it looks like there's still more room to conserve and be more efficient in our homes," she said.

The study also found the average family uses 50 more gallons of water a day than they need to for outside watering, Tartre said. If a family stopped watering their landscape, they would save 17,000 gallons of water a year.

Other possible measures include determining how much water a yard really needs, watering at night, or watering less frequently, she said.

Corrected: November 30, 2023 at 6:26 AM PST
Claire Trageser contributed to this report.