How to fix the 10 worst wastes of water

From the drought dilemma in California to extraordinary snowfall across the Northeast, the unpredictable nature of water supplies is prompting a high-profile conversation across the United States.

Globally speaking, water scarcity is an even more acute concern — one under the microscope this weekend at dozens of World Water Day events and scrutinized in the latest update to the United Nations World Water Development report. By 2025, the United Nations figures that nearly half of the world's pollution will live in water-stressed regions, making solutions to this challenge the focus for an emerging wave of technology and infrastructure services companies.

There are many reasons sustainability executives are watching water far more closely and seeking to reduce their organizations' consumption — such as shifting climate patterns, rising populations and the expansion of emerging economies. While some of these things may seem beyond our immediate control, there are factors exacerbating the situation that we can influence more directly — for good or for bad.

By moving to eliminate some of these wasteful practices, businesses and communities could help divert potable resources where they might have a more positive impact. With that in mind, here are 10 common practices making the water picture worse (in no particular order), along with some ideas for addressing them. 

1. Textile dyeing

Talk about a fashion faux pas. Did you know it takes about 26 to 40 gallons (100 to 150 liters) of water to process about 2 pounds (1 kilogram) of textiles? Now, multiple that figure by the 39 million tons of polyester that industry analysts believe could be dyed annually by 2015, and you end up with a lot of water just to support designer color choices.

Those are the figures cited by Nike, which just began working with contract manufacturer Far Eastern New Century (FENC) at a new waterless dying facility in Taiwan. The equipment used there, called the ColorDry process, uses recyclable carbon dioxide (CO2) to replace the water normally used in the process. The other side effects are reduced energy and the elimination of certain additives.

"Compared to traditional dyeing methods, the ColorDry process reduces dyeing time by 40 percent, energy use by around 60 percent and the required factory footprint by a quarter. It's also the most saturated, intense and consistent color we've seen," said Kuenlin Ho, executive vice president at FENC, in a statement.

Mind you, this is just one plant, and Nike needs to figure out how to scale this. But its leadership is likely to inspire others.

Another initiative to watch is the work being done by Levi Strauss & Co. (PDF) to encourage the use of recycled water for these processes. So far, the company has run a test project in China producing 100,000 pairs of jeans. It plans to expand this idea into Nicaragua.

2. Bottled water

Aside from the conversation about the negative impacts of plastic, the practice of bottling water is fraught with controversy. Certainly, the notion that bottles might make water more accessible in rural communities where clean drinking water is limited is sound. But is this really the right approach to that problem?

First, some perspective (albeit from an industry insider point of view): In 2012, bottled water sales rose by 6.7 percent in the United States to about $11.8 billion, according to statistics released by the International Bottled Water Association in mid-2013. That translates into an average annual consumption of 30.8 gallons per capita. This is happening despite that a majority of American consumers can pour a glass of safe drinking water from their tap, filtering it when necessary.

That's concerning not just because of the plastics problem, but because of the amount of energy necessary to produce bottled water. All things considered, the nonprofit Pacific Institute has estimated that it takes about 3 liters of water to produce 1 liter of bottled water.

Most efforts to reduce bottled water consumption, including the recent ban of bottled water at public facilities in San Francisco (the largest city yet to take such a position), have focused on the plastics problem. We're starting to hear, however, about alternate approaches. One idea to watch is the DEKA Slingshot water purification system, which is being turned into rural water kiosks as part of a project championed by Coca-Cola. These kiosks use solar energy to run the process. Indeed, the emergence of more energy-efficient, mobile desalination approaches will be crucial for addressing this challenge.

3. Data center cooling

Want to keep things cool? Just add water. At least that historically has been the philosophy for many years at two types of facilities critical to ongoing global economic growth: power plants and data centers.

Conversation around water use in data centers has become much louder in the past several years, building in intensity after social network giant Facebook began publicizing water consumption figures calculated as a percentage of kilowatt-hours of equipment energy used.

Facebook is using a measure called water usage effectiveness (WUE), developed by the Green Grid, which is akin to the power usage effectiveness (PUE) metric used by many companies to dramatically improve energy efficiency for this sort of information infrastructure.

Traditionally, data centers have used massive water-cooling towers to manage heat created by servers and other equipment. Most hot "waste" water is cooled and cycled through these systems; some is drained to remove sediment that could harm the equipment. How much water is needed? One figure suggests a 15-megawatt facility needs 360,000 gallons per day. Water consumption has been a source of controversy in a local debate concerning a massive data center run by the National Security Administration (NSA) in Utah. The 65-megawatt facility reportedly will require about 1.7 million gallons of water daily, 1 percent of the entire amount needed in the local community.

Aside from Facebook, high-profile cloud computing companies including Microsoft and Google have taken steps to address water usage by picking locations that can benefit from "free cooling," a method of using outside air to help dissipate the heat. In Atlanta, Google has invested in a treatment facility to purify water it uses for cooling, releasing it back to the local watershed. Meanwhile, Microsoft is collaborating with the city of Quincy, Wash. (PDF), to update the community's water infrastructure so that it can reuse water from a local food processing plant instead of drawing it from the potable water supply.

4. Wasted wastewater

The concept of water recycling and reuse — the notorious toilet-to-tap debate — has been around for years. In the United States, there are encouraging examples of progress in San Diego and other California cities grappling with the state's deepening water crisis.

There's a good reason for attention to this issue: In the United States alone, municipal wastewater treatment plants handle about 75 gallons per capita, per day, according to a 2012 paper (PDF) by the National Water Research Institute. And the 2012 edition (PDF) of the United Nations World Water Development Report reveals that 80 percent of the world's wastewater is not collected, let alone treated.

The infamous water-energy nexus — the fact that it takes an inordinate amount of power to treat stormwater runoff, agriculture drainage, sewage and industrial gray water to potable levels — is one reason water recycling is still the exception rather than the rule. But as resources dry up and water utility costs rise, more businesses and communities are experimenting with reuse and new treatment approaches.

Two pilots in California offer inspiration: In the Central Valley, WaterFX is using solar power to desalinate drainage water from farms, while Cambrian Innovation is using bioelectric technology to simultaneously clean production wastewater and generate energy for a brewery. That's just a drop in the bucket, but provides more evidence that the conversation is changing.

Of course, one might argue that the best way to prevent wastewater in the first place is to take water out of certain sanitation processes altogether. A pioneering project at the University of Colorado is testing a solar-powered toilet funded with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It heats human waste to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature high enough to create sterile biochar, which can be added to soil as fertilizer or burned as charcoal. The invention uses eight concentrated solar parabolic mirrors.

5. Outdated food sanitation equipment

For health and safety reasons, oodles of regulations govern how to clean ingredients, utensils and surfaces used in commercial food service operations. But some of the older equipment and appliances for doing this job use an astonishing amount of water.

A water-cooled ice machine, for example, can drink 100,000 gallons more water annually than one that is air-cooled, according to data compiled on behalf of Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). Another example: The industrial wash-down sprayers used to clean surfaces often have flow rates of up to 7 gallons per minute (gpm), while water brooms that brush and rinse simultaneously use a maximum of 2 gpm.

Even older dipper wells used to clean serving utensils can use a lot of water, because they flow perpetually. Newer ones, which drain and add water only when necessary, are far more water-efficient. Shari's Café & Pies, a regional restaurant chain in the Pacific Northwest, reduced water consumption an average of 50 percent in its kitchens simply by switching to a newer, more efficient system. Its investment to do so, for five wells each in 20 locations, was about $100,000. It made a return on this in less than one year. "It's a no-brainer to do this as fast as possible everywhere else," said Jodenne Scott, director of financial support services for Shari's.

6. Unmanaged landscape irrigation

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average American household commits about 30 percent of its daily water consumption to "outdoor uses," and half of that amount is wasted — just for keeping residential lawns and gardens green. (That figure [PDF] is subject to huge regional variations, with areas in the arid West and steamy Southwest using more than the average.)

In addition, sites that use in-ground irrigation systems and timers tend to have a higher consumption rate, about 35 percent, according to data compiled in 2012 (PDF) by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. "Not surprisingly, irrigation use was heavily influenced by climate and water price," the organization writes in its report suggesting related conservation methods.

It's hard to break out figures related to water wasted for commercial irrigation, but the Sustainable Sites Initiative believes that landscape irrigation accounts for more than 7 billion gallons of potable water daily across the United States, about half of which is going down the drain, so to speak.

The dilemma of how to make a facility or campus aesthetically pleasing with plants, trees, grasses and other landscaping features without straining the local water supply isn't new. Indeed, many businesses are exploring rainwater harvesting and other reclaimed water strategies, such as green roofs, used by Ford Motor Co. and Walmart to reduce their draw on local aquifers and reservoirs. Sensors that can override automated sprinklers based on actual precipitation, soil moisture and weather conditions hold promise in helping to reduce overwatering.

Other low-tech approaches, such as choosing native trees, shrubs and perennials, also can reduce irrigation needs. Sustainable Sites has been piloting various best practices for this as part of a rating system that gives credits for sustainable uses of water, soil conservation and "wise" vegetation and material choices.

7. Inefficient agricultural irrigation

Globally speaking, agriculture claims about 70 percent of the world's fresh water supply, according to figures used by the United Nations agency that tracks water supply trends. But the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) figures that anywhere from 15 percent to 35 percent of that amount isn't sustainable or reliable, and that nearly 60 percent (about 396 trillion gallons) is wasted annually due to leaky irrigation systems, wasteful field application methods and the practice of growing "thirsty" crops that really are unsuitable for specific growing regions.

Precision agriculture applications enabled by machine-to-machine (M2M) technology are increasingly cited as a useful way for cutting back on unnecessary irrigation. The wine industry is proving to be an early adopter, as field tests by Libelium illustrate, and a number of companies, such as OnFarm, are developing cloud services that could make this simpler for a broader number of farmers.

Beer companies such as MillerCoors are also taking an active hand in helping growers save water, as part of strategic efforts to reduce its overall consumption.

8. Post-harvest rice field flooding

When you think of produce, vegetables and other crops grown in California's Central Valley, rice might not be high on that list. Yet the state produces more than 2 million tons of the product annually through natural and managed wetlands — second only to Arkansas. The fields are flooded once in the summer growing season for irrigation and again in the winter, a process intended to decompose the leftover rice straw and prepare the field for the following season.

Some question the wisdom of that second flooding cycle, not just because of California's deepening drought but because waterlogged rice fields emit between 5 million and 100 million tonnes of methane annually, with big implications for global warming. "The by-product of straw decomposition via flooding and subsequent fermentation is methane, which is 20 times more potent [greenhouse gas] than carbon dioxide, the by-product of burning rice straw," notes Point Blue Conservation Science in a report (PDF) prepared for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in November.

On the flip side, this practice is viewed as a potentially beneficial way of creating habitat for waterfowl, which has been compromised in the state as agriculture has expanded (PDF). Apparently, flooded rice fields now account for 85 percent of the wetlands in California's Sacramento Valley, supporting more than 30 species of birds over the winter months.

That's one reason that EDF is studying the impact of rice flooding, and new ways of managing this process, very closely. One possible solution might be baling some of the rice straw before fields are flooded, which would reduce the GHG impact, but might affect the sorts of waterbirds attracted to these habitats. EDF expects to publish more data about this evolving issue in June.

9. Corn-based biofuels

Corn ethanol (PDF) accounted for nearly 66 percent of the global biofuels capacity in 2013, and it will dominate for some time, according to a February market report by Lux Research. Right now, the industry produces about 53.2 billion gallons annually.

While this helps reduce dependence on oil, the problem is that corn-based ethanol requires an enormous amount of water: According to estimates cited (PDF) by the Union of Concerned Scientists, it takes 500 gallons of water to irrigate the corn fields needed to produce one gallon of ethanol. That’s about 30 gallons of water to create enough ethanol to drive one mile.

Corn ethanol also doesn't have a great story to tell as far as water consumption during production: Apparently, this requires three gallons per one gallon of ethanol produced. That is more than double what's required for oil production.

The good news is that this issue is getting more exposure, and that is affecting investment decisions. "Next-generation feedstocks like waste oils and cellulosic biomass are not tied up in the food supply and could unlock significant economic advantages, assuming novel conversions commercialize," said Andrew Soare, senior analyst for Lux Research and author of its report.

The bad news is that viable alternatives to corn ethanol are emerging far more slowly than expected. Plans to build plants that could produce up to 782 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually — using non-edible plants, grasses or wood as the feedstock — have been announced. But only half of that capacity is likely to reach completion, predicts Lux Research.

10. Factory farms

Like bottled water, factory farms are a flashpoint issue for advocates of environmental and social responsibility. Ethics of humane animal husbandry aside, they are really bad for water ecosystems. There are two big issues: pollution, and the amount of water it takes to raise your average cow, chicken or hog.

The contamination angle is largely related to animal waste and manure. According to figures cited by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), factory farms are contributing to the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico (7,700 square miles in the summer of 2010), where there is not enough oxygen to sustain marine life. That's because of the nutrients contained in water runoff.

Raising animals at scale also consumes a lot of water, although you could argue that's the tradeoff for feeding the world's fast-growing population. Just how much does it consume? Here are NRDC's estimates: 1,850 gallons for one pound of beef, 719 gallons for a pound of pork and 519 gallons for a pound of chicken. That's compared with the 39 gallons it takes to produce one pound of vegetables.

This list isn't all-inclusive, of course: It's meant to get all of us thinking more about water. In fact, maybe it's time water efficiency metrics become as highly scrutinized as energy efficiency measures. Ready to dive in? Does your company have valuable insights to share for water conservation or reuse? Email me to share your ideas.

Water leak photo by Steve Cukrov via Shutterstock