Recently, a small group of media bloggers has been busy riffing about San Francisco’s sewer-odor woes, fueled in part by humor that is short on facts. Some critics even blame water-thrifty toilets for supposedly adding to The City’s sewer problems.
Like hundreds of other U.S. cities operating a 24/7 sewer system, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has a long-term capital plan to upgrade The City’s wastewater system that will help ensure it operates as efficiently as possible with lower flows.
Reduced water demand is a positive move in the right direction. Investments in water savings, including high-efficiency toilets and other water-efficient technologies, will play an important role in how San Francisco and other water utilities meet local and state conservation requirements and ensure a reliable water supply for future generations.
Today, major plumbing codes and several states mandate that most toilets installed use a maximum of 1.28 gallons per flush — a minimum 20 percent water savings compared to many existing higher-volume toilets. In addition, the SFPUC and many other water utilities demand more accountability from manufacturers and provide customers financial incentives for only those models that meet the highest performance standards.
The U.S. has saved more than 46 billion gallons of water — enough to supply San Francisco for more than a year — and at least $343 million in consumer water and sewer bills as a result of the millions of high-efficiency toilets and other fixtures installed since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched its popular WaterSense program in 2006.
National nonprofit organizations dedicated to water conservation, such as the Chicago-based Alliance for Water Efficiency and Green Plumbers USA, are active partners with WaterSense and many other U.S. water and sewer utilities that actively promote high-efficiency plumbing fixtures for their valuable water savings, sewer system benefits, and energy and carbon offsets.
The U.S. now saves more than 6 billion gallons of water per day — and equivalent reduced sewer flows — from the first generation of national plumbing-fixture water-efficiency standards mandated by the Energy Policy Act of 1992. Moreover, the sewer systems in several major cities have realized significant infrastructure and capital cost savings from toilet replacement and other water-conservation programs.
For example, New York City installed more than 1.3 million low-volume toilets between 1994 and 1997 in a bold water-saving strategy designed to reduce sewer flows. The result: NYC and its sewer ratepayers saved more than $1 billion by canceling a planned sewage plant expansion.
In San Francisco, the volume of wastewater flows has remained relatively constant for the past 30 years in part because water conservation has helped to offset The City’s population growth.
Better sewers are definitely in San Francisco’s future. In the meantime, the SFPUC and other water utilities need to continue promoting high-efficiency toilets and other water-saving devices because they are essential for a future water supply and sewer system that is affordable, manageable and truly sustainable.
By the way, today happens to be World Water Day. So keep conserving water today and every day.
Francesca Vietor is the president of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Mary Ann Dickinson is the president and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency.