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Water conservation can reduce the economic and environmental cost of meeting our region’s water needs

This year’s drought has probably gotten your attention. It surely has concerned our public officials. The Birmingham Water Works and Sewer Board (BWWSB) should be commended for its initiative to ask other water providers in the area to join in regional water supply planning to meet current and future growth needs. The BWWSB began the process for water supply planning in 2006.

In the push to find solutions for our growing region’s water needs, let’s make sure the focus also includes wiser water management. Why? If we do a better job of conserving our water resources, it could cost us less to grow – less money, less energy, and less impact on our limited water resources.

We need to conserve our existing lakes and our natural, healthy rivers – the loss of these resources we love would be a heavy cost. Area residents and businesses also need to keep their water bills as low as possible.

It is clear that additional water supply is needed to meet future needs. So far, the solutions that the BWWSB appears to be studying are large construction projects to expand the water supply. Projects such as new reservoirs, pipelines and wells will be expensive to build, and the ratepayers will bear those costs through rising water bills.

CRS is also encouraging the Water Board to study and actively pursue methods for water conservation and water efficiency, so that the water system can meet current and future needs at a lower cost to you and to the environment.

Let’s figure out how much water the region can save
BEFORE we decide how much more water we need.

In a state as water-rich as Alabama, we’re not used to having to save water. That time is here.
Lower cost ways to free up water through conservation need to be studied alongside the plans for dams and reservoirs, like the one that is proposed to inundate the Locust Fork River, one of the state’s remaining free-flowing, high quality streams.

Conserving drinking water gets the greatest “mileage” out of the water supplies we already have, just as autos are being re-engineered to go further on the same tank of gas. Let’s figure out how much water the region can save BEFORE we decide how much more water we need.

Municipal drinking water systems and sewer systems eat a tremendous amount of energy to treat, pump and pipe all that water, and within our homes it takes energy to heat our water. If we reduce our water use we will save energy, reduce our carbon footprint, and help calm climate change as well.

There are four conservation solutions the Water Board could explore seriously, with equal resources given to studying them as are spent on planning water supply expansion projects. These potential solutions are: plug leaks, reuse water, harvest rain, and practice water-smart lifestyles. CRS and green building advocates can come together to support this direction by the Water Board.

Plug Leaks

Invest not only in new expansion of the water system, but also give priority to rehabilitating older water lines to REDUCE WATER LOSS THROUGH WATER MAIN LEAKS.

Study the feasibility to create a program that would HELP LOW INCOME FAMILIES AND SENIORS FIX LEAKS AND INSTALL MODERN LOW-FLOW TOILETS AND SHOWERHEADS – which will help them reduce their water and sewer bills over time.

Our water system is leaking. There’s a debate over just how much of our treated drinking water is somehow lost between the water plant and our homes – faulty meters and water theft play a role – but it looks to be more than industry standard. Our region can’t afford to lose any more of our water supply than can be avoided.

The BWWSB water system is completely separate from sewer system management. Still, it’s important to look for lessons in the sewer debacle. For many years, so much money was spent to build new sewer lines for expanding suburbs that far too little was spent on maintaining the sewer pipes in older neighborhoods. Aging pipes began leaking like sieves, causing raw sewage spills in our creeks, streets and houses.

The BWWSB recently reported that their budget for repairing and replacing older water lines has been tripled to address leaks. Is there currently a proper balance between investment in water system expansion and keeping the water pipes and meters in the older neighborhoods in strong shape?

There is also sure to be significant leakage in the water lines and fixtures on private property, especially for low income residents and senior citizens in older urban areas, with older homes. Could enough water be saved to justify financial assistance or long term financing to help these property owners repair leaks or install modern water-saving toilets and faucets?

As an example, Alabama Power and Alagasco have successfully used credit and affordable repayment terms to encourage their customers to install more energy efficient appliances. The customer can pay the cost over time on their utility bill.

In a program like this the water customer could offset the payback amount with the savings on their bills because of reducing their water use. Since reducing water use will also reduce sewer bills be even more, this would be a great public relations strategy and a win-win for both the BWWSB and the customer. The BWWSB should study whether a program like this could recover existing treated water at a lower cost than producing an equal amount of new water supply.

Revitalization is gathering steam in central Birmingham as well as older suburban districts from Norwood to Homewood. Water Board investment to find and plug leaks in older communities would support those private investments. It can be less expensive to provide water, power and sewer to new residents and employers that move into revitalizing communities where those utilities already exist, rather than laying new lines for far flung growth. How much water does it take just to fill the lengthy pipes that serve distant new suburbs?

Reuse Water


ENCOURAGE INDUSTRIES TO FILTER AND REUSE THEIR PROCESS WATER and harvest storm water to use as industrial process water where possible.

Our municipal water and sewer systems are built to treat, pipe and pump drinking water at great expense, use it once, then throw it away by sending it back to our rivers as treated sewage. Many communities are finding ways to recycle drinking water.

Graywater is non-sewage water, such as from showers and washing machines, which homes and businesses could store and reuse for landscape irrigation or flushing toilets. This would reduce drinking water demand and should reduce sewer bills. Graywater reuse for flushing toilets will require changes to local building codes.

Treated sewage shares one feature with the composted manure you use in the garden – it is safe but supercharged with organic fertilizer. The high nutrient content of treated wastewater upsets the natural balance in rivers and lakes, causing gluts of algae and fish kills. A state-mandated pollution clean-up plan for the Cahaba River requires that the wastewater treatment plants install new technology to remove much of this nutrient content, and these improvements are costly.

Instead, some communities are reusing treated wastewater in cost-efficient ways that protect water quality in rivers. Nutrient-charged wastewater may be bad for rivers, but it is good for plants and could become a source for landscape irrigation for nurseries, golf courses, office parks, and homes. Aldridge Gardens in Hoover is trying to work out a system to do this. St. Petersburg, Florida has a separate system of pipes throughout the community that deliver treated wastewater to be used for lawn watering.

Treated wastewater might also be a source for industrial process water. Jefferson County’s Village Creek wastewater plant, for instance, discharges 60 million gallons per day and is located near industries.

The cost of wastewater reuse distribution could be planned over the long-term by building systems over a twenty to thirty year period. This cost should be compared to the total cost of new water source development.

Industries are also altering their processes to use less water. U.S. Steel in Fairfield reuses process water. McWane Pipe has installed a system that both reuses process water and harvests rain for process water, which has reduced their draw on drinking water.

Harvest the Rain

INSTALL RAIN BARRELS to collect water from downspouts and reuse for landscape watering.
CREATE A RAIN GARDEN in a low area, mixing sand into the soil and using plants that like wet feet, to collect and infiltrate runoff from your driveway, roof, and yard.
REDUCE RUNOFF FROM PAVING and infiltrate rain into the ground to replenish rivers and lakes in dryer weather.

One of the greatest actions we can take to safeguard the health of our rivers and our drinking water sources is to “harvest” rain on the lands we influence – our homes, businesses, schools and churches.

One of the climate change models predicts hotter, dryer weather for Alabama. This would lead to greater demands for landscape irrigation water and yet less water supply to rely on. With the likely potential of less rain and more droughts, our region needs to do a better job of harvesting rain and safeguarding water supply in our rivers and lakes during the summer.

The standard practice in new development has been to collect rain and send it off our property as fast as possible, directing it across driveways and into street gutters and storm drains. Unfortunately, this transforms a resource – rain – into a waste product called “storm water,” a gush of warm, dirty water that carries mud, oil, bacteria, pesticides and other pollutants into our rivers and causes erosion and flooding. The natural cycle, where most rain soaks into the ground to recharge streams during dryer weather, is disrupted.

Rain is too precious a resource to throw away. There are many ways to harvest rain and reuse it. Downspouts of homes and businesses can be connected to rainbarrels to provide landscape water. The new Trussville High School will collect storm runoff from the school roof and pavement to store in a large pond, providing water for landscape irrigation. Some industries collect rainwater for cooling or for their industrial processes, and save money.

There are many techniques for rain infiltration, which can reduce the size and cost of traditional storm drainage and can protect water quality and drinking water supplies in our rivers and lakes. Roofs and paving can drain to “bioswales” or rain gardens instead of to gutters and pipes. Rain gardens are concave, landscaped areas where runoff is filtered and soaks into the ground, so that it travels slowly as groundwater, becoming cool and clean again, to replenish our rivers and lakes in dryer weather.

Streets and parking lots can be designed with minimal storm drains, allowing rain to sheet flow into grassed swales or bioswales. Porous materials can be used for drives and parking, such as gravel driveways for homes and porous paving for businesses and institutions.

Practice Water Smart Lifestyles

Install DRIP IRRIGATION hoses in your yard – it’s cheaper than you think!
FLUSH LESS DRINKING WATER – put a water-filled baggie in your toilet tank … “when it’s yellow, let it mellow,” … install a low-flow toilet.
TURN OFF THE TAP – don’t run the water while you brush your teeth, soap your hands, or soap your dishes … take shorter showers and turn the flow down (it still feels great)!

If you are reading this article, you probably already know how your household can contribute to water conservation efforts. The time has come to think about being thrifty with our water all of the time, not only during drought. Practice water conservation in your home, school, church and office, and make it part of your lifestyle.

You can probably reduce yard watering, maintain healthy landscaping, and save money on your water bills. Install rain sensors and pressure regulators to get the most efficient use of automatic sprinklers, or even stop using them. Install drip irrigation for flower and shrub areas, which can be very low cost.

Within your home make sure washing machines and dishwashers have the fullest load possible. Fix any leaks. If you can’t afford to replace your toilet with a low-flow version, put a water-filled baggie in the tank to reduce each flush. Hot showers are one of the great inventions of modern life, but surely we can shorten them, reduce the flow, and install low flow showerheads. And especially, don’t run the water while brushing your teeth, soaping your hands, or soaping the dishes!

There are many ways we can save water that may require some changes in daily life, but will not reduce our quality of life.

What will motivate each of us to make those changes? Consider again these crucially-important benefits of saving water:

Your family or business will save money on your water and sewer bills

You will use less energy, reduce your carbon footprint, and help calm climate change

Our region can meet our water needs for growth at a lower cost to residents and businesses

The water quality, recreation and wildlife value of our rivers and lakes will be protected

The Cahaba River Society invites the Birmingham Water Works and Sewer Board and other groups to seriously study water conservation planning and explore ways our region can become more water smart to meet current and future needs.

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