A Question of Value

Water will be at the center of development and growth battles in the years to come, and builders need to be on the right side of this war.

By Ron Jones | February 28, 2001


Contact Ron Jones at greenbuilder@juno.com


An acquaintance of mine recently mentioned to me a curious experience. During a lengthy stay in a Third World country, he had to adjust to several small surprises—like being picked up at the airport and watching as the travel bags are automatically loaded onto different vehicles in case of a high-jacking. Then, there was lingering over the decision to drain the water after that first real hot bath in weeks, unable to get over how many, many buckets of water the full tub contained.

The second story reminded me of how my own behavior toward water and its use is affected when friends and I set up an extended camp in the wilderness high country. We find that water suddenly becomes more important and valuable when we have to collect, store, transport, and even heat it a gallon or two at a time.

The first consideration is always the horses. They need a lot of clean water every day and it can be time consuming to take them from pasture to water and back if it involves any considerable distance. But drinking water is critical to a healthy camp and so a spring must be located in addition to any flowing streams. It’s unwise to take water from the surface for drinking purposes because of the various contaminants and microorganisms that are prevalent in even fast flowing currents.

You can treat the water of course, with chemicals and filters. But nothing is really quite the same as mountain spring water that is collected from little seeps in the rocky hillsides or cliff faces. It is cold and clean and clear and nothing else tastes like it.

Hot water is at a real premium as any camper can tell you! You learn how to rinse the washed dishes and cooking implements in an order from the smallest to the largest so you can put the precious liquid to use several times while it is still hot. Silverware, coffee and drinking cups, bowls, plates and larger utensils, coffee pot, small cooking pots and so forth are then rinsed by pouring the same water over each and catching it each time in the biggest pot in camp, which is itself the final item in the rinse.

But even then, the lukewarm water that is left is prized for a little personal luxury, like rinsing feet weary from long hikes on uneven ground or from extended periods in the unfamiliar stirrups of the saddles. Only after every conceivable use is the water finally tossed.

Like most people in this country, and the developed world, I turn on the faucet, hot or cold, and expect water to appear every time, as if there was no other option. But we are fooling ourselves when we take water for granted. Clean water may be our most precious resource, and maybe our least appreciated. It is also, I believe, the item that will be at the center of battles over growth and development in this country in the coming years.

You don’t think so? In Colorado today, state statutes require that the developer be able to demonstrate a 100-year supply of water in order to receive subdivision approval. Individual counties are able to enforce a more stringent requirement, and in fact, El Pasco County requires a 300-year supply before approving any new development.

Water seems so plentiful in some parts of the continent that, at times, it is almost a nuisance. Shallow ground water and heavy run off, even flooding are legitimate concerns for many people in many places. That’s not the case for the majority of us though.

Turn on the Discovery Channel, PBS or the Learning Channel and chances are you won’t have to wait too long before finding one program or another related to our dwindling water resources. I’ve seen documentaries on the alarming depletion of the Ogalala aquifer in the Midwest, the crisis in the Everglades and more than one about the sorry, saline trickle that is all that’s left of the mighty Colorado River when it finally reaches the Gulf of California south of the US-Mexico border.

Whether the issue is storm water management, wastewater treatment, fish and wildlife habitat or the conflict between urban and agricultural demands on water, the message is still the same. We are on a collision course with water shortages, and as builders we had better try to step out in front of, and for once, not be behind, the curve.

Low flow plumbing fixtures and faucets and sensible landscape practices only begin to address the problem. More aggressive and innovative measures need to be found and implemented, and they must avoid extra expense and effort whenever possible.

In our projects we are employing water-harvesting techniques and we reuse materials wherever possible. We make efforts to specify permeable surfaces in landscape design and driveways. Wherever—however—possible, we try to reduce the amount of runoff our work creates and make use of the water that falls naturally on the site.

We have built gray water systems in certain cases, but it is worth mentioning that these are not approved in all jurisdictions. For example, gray water systems are not approved in the city where we do the majority of our building, but the reason has nothing to do with the technology. Rather, the city is bound by obligations to downstream water users and thus must return all the water it pumps for municipal use back to the Rio Grande after processing. In the unincorporated areas of the county surrounding the city, however, we have received permits for gray water systems when we meet state environmental requirements. My point is, the use of water is pretty complicated sometimes—even after it’s gone down the drain.

I’ve read that the average American household produces somewhere in the neighborhood of three-quarters of a million gallons of wastewater each year. If that water ends up in a treatment plant imagine how much energy is used to pump and treat it. In terms of the dollar costs alone, the burden to the consumer is staggering. That cost is important to us and to our customers.

The whole issue is really one of awareness, and then of respect.

Who hasn’t been annoyed by the sight of automatic lawn sprinklers merrily spraying away during a downpour or water running down the gutter from a hose carelessly left running? Many communities have penalties and fines for water users who are wasteful, and rightfully so.

Question is, what can we do as builders to change the way we employ water in the design and construction process and in the long haul, when our customers are leading their lives in the homes we build?

If installing hot water circulation loops as standard features in our homes is a way to save water over the long haul, then that will be how we build. Educating our customers on responsible choices in water-using appliances—dishwashers, clothes washers, helping them understand the tradeoffs between evaporative cooling versus air conditioning, these are the assignments we as builders must be willing to undertake.

If we don’t start finding ways to address the problem in a more meaningful way, then regulators at various levels will be glad to devise and enforce measures for us. It’s really just about caring. A builder’s job isn’t over just because a building is built. It’s yours for as long as it stands there.

As for me, I don’t have to water the horses tonight, I can only dream about the high country from here. But I’m reminded of my friend with whom I’ve enjoyed many a single malt. When he’s asked if he wants “water with that” he replies, “I’m thirsty, not dirty.” Problem is, water may become too scarce for some of us to use for drinking or washing.