Water-efficient fixtures could become mandatory in Colorado

Nearly all the toilets at Lowe's have WaterSense certification of high efficiency, but Denver Water wanted to ensure that savings were universal across Colorado. Photo/Allen Best

Nearly all the toilets at Lowe’s have WaterSense certification of high efficiency, but Denver Water wanted to ensure that savings were universal across Colorado. Photo/Allen Best

Water-efficient  fixtures  may become mandatory in Colorado in 2016

by Allen Best

It seems like sneering at apple pie, motherhood, and blue skies. Why would you vote against water-efficient plumbing fixtures?

Nonetheless, S.B. 14-103 was approved by the Colorado Legislature with just one Republican vote. The bill would require that only those plumbing fixtures certified under the WaterSense program can be sold in Colorado as of Sept. 1, 2016.

A representative of  Gov. John Hickenlooper said on April 25 that the governor plans to canvas water leaders around the state to understand the impacts to water use  and conservation.

California first mandated toilets, urinals, and other plumbing fixtures certified by the federal government’s WaterSense program, but so have Texas and now Georgia. All three have struggled with drought in recent years.

Drought is no stranger to Colorado, either. Even in good years, there’s not necessarily enough water for everybody. That’s likely to be even more true in the future. Demographers project that the current population of 5.2 million will expand to 8 to 10 million by mid-century. There is common—but obviously not universal—agreement that the first option should be to maximize existing supplies.

Denver Water, the primary proponent of the efficiency legislation, estimates that broad adoption of the water-efficient toilets, urinals, shower heads, and faucets will produce 40,000 acre-feet of savings across Colorado by 2050. The agency serves a quarter of residential customers in Colorado.

“Every conversation about water should start with conservation,” says Greg Fisher, manager of demand planning for Denver Water, parroting a line used by Hickenlooper (and probably many others).

Denver has significantly reduced per-capita consumption in the last 40 years. In the early 1980s, Denver Water coined the word “xeriscaping” to embody the idea of using plants and grasses native to the climate, to minimize the amount of outdoor irrigation at homes.

The drought of 2002 drove Denver to insist, not merely encourage, cutbacks to outdoor use. After the immediate threat ebbed, however, customers generally stuck with their new ways. Residential use in Denver and its service areas in close-in suburbs now averages 85 gallons per capita per day. That’s a 20 percent reduction since the start of the 21st century, but Denver hopes to squeeze another 2 percent of reduction in the next couple years.

Change-outs of indoor plumbing fixtures have helped shrink the per-capita use, says Fisher. Using rebates and assistance to low-income residents, Denver has retrofitted 135,000 toilets in its service area since 2003. The city’s WaterSense Challenge program also provides multifamily customers bulk discounts on toilets, faucet aerators, and showerheads. Field technicians in the agency’s commercial audits replace showerheads and faucet aerators free of charge.

While outdoor use is responsible for roughly three-quarters of residential water use, indoor plumbing changes can yield perhaps surprising  savings.

The objections to mandates

At a House of Representatives committee hearing in March, Republicans questioned why Colorado needs a “one size fits all” approach to water efficiency. The general tone was that government had no right getting involved in people’s bathrooms. One of those committee members, Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose, later told a gathering in Durango that he opposed the bill because it wouldn’t save much water and it was impossible to enforce, according to a report in the Durango Herald.

Fisher had first taken the idea of water-efficiency standards to legislators two years ago, but admits now that he wasn’t ready to answer all the questions. This time, he says, he was ready, and his core argument was that more efficiency does not preclude consumer choices.

“People still have thousand of choices,” says Fisher.

watersense_logoWaterSense has now certified 730 different types of tank-style toilets, along with the 300 models of showerheads and 2,700 faucets models. Created in 2006, WaterSense is administered by the EPA, although products are evaluated by third-party contractors.

WaterSense-labeled toilets use 20 percent less water per flush but perform as well or better than today’s standard toilets and older toilets that use much more water.

Toilets once needed 7 gallons of water per flush. That dropped to 3.5 gallons and then, by 1996, 1.6 gallons. Now, all toilets certified by WaterSense use 1.28 gallons or less, with some models using as little as 0.8 gallons per flush.

WaterSense-certified bathroom faucets outfitted with aerators can save 30 percent.

Why mandate WaterSense fixtures? Building codes have begun requiring greater efficiency. And consumers at The Home Depot and other places are buying them on their own.

Voluntary adoption lagging

Fisher said Denver Water decided that mandates were needed to capture the entire market, retail and wholesale, and accelerate the pace of adoption.

“If we felt comfortable that the market was going to take care of this in the near future, I don’t think we would have seen the need for the bill,” says Fisher.

But he also said that Denver, in its strategies, wants to emphasize that lifestyles need not be sacrificed even as greater efficiencies are wrung out of water supplies.

That would have been the testimony of Karen Guz, director of water conservation for San Antonio Water System, had the House committee hearing occurred as scheduled. She had to catch an airplane and hence did not testify, although a stand-in from Denver said that four-star hotels in San Antonio have embraced the WaterSense fixtures without complaint. Indeed, there has been enthusiasm there. (See related story).

A trio of bills in Legislature

This is just one of a trio of bills aimed at increasing water conservation and efficiency that were introduced in the Colorado Legislature this year. The most controversial was introduced by Sen. Ellen Roberts, the lone Republican to cross the partisan aisle to vote for the efficiency mandate. Based in Durango, she proposed strict limits on lawn sizes in any subdivision using new imports of water in cases where farms had been dried up for municipal supplies. The idea was sent to an interim summer committee for further consideration.

Yet another bill, introduced by Sen. Gail Schwartz, a Democrat from Snowmass Village, would have allowed legal transfer of water saved by farmers and ranchers through improved efficiencies. Under her original proposal in S.B. 14-023, the saved water could have been donated as dedicated instream-flow right in the rivers and creeks. It reportedly has run into opposition because of various concerns.  


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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