Report: Saving Water Saves Energy, And Vice Versa

Northern California's Los Vaqueros reservoir | Photo: Earmuffboy/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Savvy Californians know that cutting down the amount of water we use saves lots of energy. It takes a huge amount of electrical power to pump water to our thirsty cities, and when it gets there we burn natural gas to heat it. But did you know that saving energy also saves water?

That's the message of a report, Water-Energy Synergies: Coordinating Efficiency Programs in California released Wednesday by the Oakland-based environmental thinktank the Pacific Institute.

Of the energy sources used in the state of California as we go about our daily lives, an astonishing amount is used to move, heat, and treat water -- 19 percent of the state's electricity consumption and 32 percent of the natural gas we use go to enable our water consumption habits. The state uses 88 million gallons of diesel fuel annually to handle our water supply as well. That's a smaller percentage of total use, as about three billion gallons of diesel are sold in the state each year, but it does contribute almost 900,000 tons of greenhouse gases to our atmosphere each year, more than the total annual CO2 emissions of 50-odd whole countries.

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The report's authors, Pacific Institute water experts Heather Cooley and Kristina Donnelly, put it bluntly: leaving your hot water running for five minutes can use as much energy as operating a 60-watt light bulb for 14 hours.

And every form of energy generation we use, from gigantic nuclear or coal plants to gas to hydro and geothermal, to natural gas production and transportation, consumes some water. Even rooftop solar panels can need an occasional cleaning. Which means that conserving an acre-foot of water actually conserves more than that, because you're not just saving the water you save, you're also saving the additional water it would have taken to pump, treat, and heat the water you saved.

And likewise, saving energy helps conserve the water you'd have needed to generate that power, and not having to pump that water saves more energy. It's enough to make your head spin.

You'd think California's regulators and utilities would be all over taking advantage of the opportunity to harness that positive feedback loop type synergy between saving water and saving energy. And there are great examples of efforts to take advantage of that synergy, from low-flow showerhead giveaways to agency rebates foor efficient front-loading washing machines.

But as the report details, there's not nearly the coordination among energy and water utilities that there could be. Some utilities do both water and power distribution, the Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles being the largest example. But in much of the state, water, electrical power, and gas distribution are balkanized among different companies and agencies wiith divergent agendas and disparate levels of funding.

Cooley and Donnelly surveyed 76 water and energy professionals in the state to assess what the barriers were to better coordination of water and energy conservation efforts, and they found that the worst barriers to cooperation in conservation seemed to come from the water agency end. Unlike the uniform energy efficiency policies set by agenciies like the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), water conservation policies are more scattershot, and water coompanies seem not to devote more than 1 percent of their annual budgets, on average, to conservation. That means less funding for programs, which means conservation efforts are squeezed into the job descriptions of already overburdened staff.

The report concludes by suggesting that water companies dedicate at least one staff person to oversee conservation incentives and working with energy companies, and urges the CPUC and California Energy Commission to develop guidelines for allocating cost-savings among water and energy companies when they do work together to save each others' resources.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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