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The New World – Using Toilet Water to Wash Your Hands? Ew.

Last week our annual Red Sox outing came close to being washed out.  The first pitch was thrown with threatening clouds over Fenway, while our iPhones lit up with tornado warnings for Greater Boston.  But we lucked out and the game played on uninterrupted, although the last place Sox did avoid the win.

As a distraction from watching errors on the field I started an informal survey of the water saving Sink Positive toilet retrofit we’ll be installing in our new office space this fall.

As I showed the photo there was one of two reactions – a Jimmy Fallonesque “eeeew” or an engineer’s “cool.”  There were scrunched foreheads as people asked themselves,”is that water clean?” “Is that a dentist’s sink?”

“Is one tankful enough water to wash my hands?”

toink2But the point of the survey was more to test how top of mind water conservation is for our New England team, compared with our team living west of the Mississippi.

Weeks earlier at our West Coast field meeting we heard first hand accounts of the drought’s impact.  Our food processor customers struggling to accommodate their business.  Farmers, responsible for 80% of the California’s consumption, racing to dig more and deeper wells, while battling legislation that would reduce their usage.  And our team members talking about their own dried out, brown front lawns and people stealing water from hydrants.  We heard what West Coasters are coming to accept – fresh water is scarce and there is no easy solution.

Obviously the global water problem is not new and every continent faces challenges.  Some environmentally advanced countries like Australia have been proactively dealing with water shortages, providing learnings for everyone else.  For decades third world countries have been fighting for access to clean, safe drinking water.

But here in the US, California is the first state to deal with water conservation so aggressively.  Arizona, Oregon, Nevada, Utah and Washington have all been facing serious drought conditions as well, but California is leading the way with action.  Last summer, Governor Brown started by introducing $500 penalties for water offenders.  This past April his executive took the next step, mandating a 25% reduction off 2013 usage levels.  Californians are being pushed quickly to change their behavior, adopt water efficient technologies and reconsider their own laws.

Behavior change through rate increases will be tested.  Rate increases helped Austin, TX reduce usage by 20% from 2011 to 2014.  Households in California and the West generally pay more than the rest of the US, but the pricing doesn’t yet reflect the latest mandate.

Hitting consumers with even higher rates and fines may provoke protests, but ultimately lead people to take shorter showers, use more front-loader washing machines and install more Sink Positives on their toilets.   The neighborhood effect is already playing out, with homeowners shaming neighbors who wash their cars too many times on local social sites.  “Remove your lawn” rebates can help as well.

New water efficiency systems must be developed to address massive waste as fresh water drains directly into the Pacific Ocean.  And we need more light-hearted Shower with a Friend style apps.

California must lead in the courts as well, with challenges to the mandate already in progress.  It’s comical that 400 water agencies will focus on imposing a mandate on the consumers of only 20% of the water, while farmers are excluded from the executive order.  The farmers must be part of any solution, be it through new technology or through absorbing a financial burden with a water tax or rate change.

After the Supreme Court’s same sex marriage ruling, Massachusetts is patting itself on the back for having been the first US state to push this legislation through.   Hopefully California can set a similar precedent for what ultimately becomes national legislation for water conservation.  The EPA today spends more effort on pollutants, such as their recent study disputing water contamination from fracking.  But the agency is also in a great position to take a leadership role on water conservation.

Maybe the silver lining is increased US public awareness, which is needed and must precede a drive for behavior or legislative change.  Social media has assisted this, with water conservation hashtags, Likes and google searches.  And higher prices for our vegetables and fruits are coming, which will reinforce the message – water is a valuable and limited resource.

The recent US Open was played at Chambers Bay in Seattle, a links-style course using fescue grass, which looked brown and patchy on TV.  At a restaurant during the final round I overheard someone at the bar say, “they need to water that course,” and, surprisingly, his friend responded “it must be that drought out there.”

So maybe awareness is in fact increasing.  Now we just need broader behavior change, technologies and policies to follow.