Water Scarcity and the Promise of Reuse

Water scarcity is a growing problem around the world. In the United States — particularly in the arid Southwest states of California, Arizona, and Colorado, to name a few — frequent droughts and shrinking water supplies are driving a rise in water prices and water restrictions, as well as a renewed interest in new solutions.

In the face of growing drought and water scarcity, what can we do to save more water? What can we do to make the most of the water we already have, while securing a sustainable supply of water for future generations?

One obvious solution is to simply consume less water, whether by purchasing high-efficiency household appliances or planting a drought-tolerant landscape that requires less irrigation. Even switching to a vegan diet can help reduce your personal water “footprint.” However, effective water conservation can come at a cost to personal lifestyle. Many homeowners are reluctant to give up their long showers and lush lawns.

Another option is to increase our existing supply of water, which could involve digging new wells in every community or constructing billion-dollar regional desalination plants along the coast. For most communities, however, this approach is prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, extracting even more of an already dwindling resource is likely an unsustainable direction that just kicks the problem down the road.

Between water conservation and water production, there lies another emerging solution: water reuse. Just as aluminum cans are recycled into ever more cans, so can wastewater be recycled into clean reusable water. This approach is more affordable and sustainable than building new infrastructure. It promises an escape from the old mindset of resource scarcity and enables a new paradigm of water abundance.

While many do-it-yourself enthusiasts have been experimenting with onsite reuse for years, a growing network of national organizations and initiatives are now driving this nascent market forward — most notably, the National Blue Ribbon Commission for Onsite Non-potable Water Systems. Today, in the programs of national and international conferences, it’s hard not to find a presentation or discussion panel about onsite reuse.

As interest in onsite reuse grows, new technologies and solutions are emerging to meet the challenge. In 2017, our team at LeapFrog Design began developing a household greywater recycling system to address water scarcity in the context of urban informal settlements. In many arid countries like Peru, onsite water reuse can dramatically extend the use of a vital and increasingly scarce resource — drinking water — thus providing added water security and reducing water purchasing costs.

As an innovator in this field, our team was funded by the National Science Foundation to further our research and product development and to conduct market research on the potential of our technology to serve the United States in water-scarce areas. Over the last few months, we interviewed over 130 industry leaders, policy experts, and potential customers to better understand the water use and reuse ecosystem in the United States, focusing on onsite non-potable reuse at the household scale. This is what we heard.

Shrinking Supply, Growing Demand

We began our search by speaking with leaders in the water industry — a complex ecosystem of actors who are responsible for supplying, treating and delivering potable water to every household, as well as collecting, treating, and disposing of wastewater.

Across the southwest United States, leaders from this industry all echoed similar concerns about worsening droughts and the instability of the regional water supplies that they and their customers rely on. However, the challenges faced by each community are different. Many face drying aquifers and dwindling snowmelt, while others benefit from plentiful water sources but struggle with water quality and expensive treatment.

Nearly all communities are having trouble raising the massive amounts of capital needed to expand their infrastructure and increase their water supplies. Many already struggle to maintain their existing infrastructure of aging dams, pipelines, and treatment facilities.

There is no “one size fits all” solution, but all recognize that better water conservation could help manage demand and protect their limited resources. The problem is: how do you get people to use less water?

In an attempt to reduce demand, many water agencies long ago raised their fees and changed their rates to penalize excessively high users. Soon, the State of California will impose strict limits of 55 gallons per person per day.

Unfortunately, water restrictions are difficult to enforce, and water utility companies are reluctant to become water “policing” agencies. Furthermore, these restrictions are simply not effective against some of the worst offenders. Many wealthy homeowners are willing to pay the higher rates simply to keep their swimming pools full and their vast estate lawns green. This might be good for agency revenue, but not for the sustainability of the water supply.

As an alternative to punishing high water use, water agencies are also offering rewards for good water-conserving behavior. These often take the form of rebates, which exist to spur homeowners and homebuilders to switch to water-efficient appliances and drought-tolerant landscapes.

Between the high costs of expanding water supplies and the unpleasant task of encouraging (and enforcing) water conservation, where does water reuse stand as an option for communities?

Well, there is a lot of discussion among water agencies and engineers about “water recycling”, a specific term that refers to centralized (off-site) solutions where municipal wastewater is centrally collected and treated to drinking standards before being reintroduced into the public water supply.

However, like other approaches to increasing water supplies, this centralized approach to reuse requires massive capital investment. Current regulations require recycled water to be conveyed in separate purple-colored pipes, which forces cities to essentially install a second water grid.

An alternative is onsite water reuse.

Unlike water recycling (i.e. potable reuse), onsite reuse is currently not treated to drinking standards, but it might not have to be. The amount of water used for non-potable uses, like laundry and garden irrigation, vastly exceeds the amount used for drinking, so reusing just half of this gently used greywater could drastically reduce each household’s water budget. And if that treatment could be handled onsite, countless communities would be spared the high cost of replacing their water infrastructure.

How are homeowners and the housing industry responding to rising fees and water restrictions? Read part 2 here.

LeapFrog Design is pioneering sustainable onsite water reuse as a solution against drought and water scarcity. To deepen our understanding of the water reuse market in the United States, we interviewed over 130 industry leaders, policy experts, and potential customers.

We asked questions like: How is the water industry addressing drought and water scarcity? How are homeowners and the housing industry responding to rising fees and water restrictions? What are local and state governments doing to encourage conservation and reuse? What technological hurdles need to be overcome in order for onsite water reuse to grow and flourish?

Our conversations and insights point to exciting possibilities for sustainable onsite water reuse in the US and around the world. By sharing what we heard, we hope to spark further conversation and support for non-potable water reuse advancements in the US.

Part 1 studies the challenge of drought and water scarcity and how communities are coping with shrinking supplies and rising demand.

Part 2 explores the ways in which homeowners and the housing industry are responding to rising fees and water restrictions, as well as pioneering new approaches to onsite reuse. Read part 2 here.

Part 3 investigates the technological and political barriers for onsite reuse, charting a course for the future. Read part 3 here.