Toronto is working to reduce water consumption by 15 per cent, or 212 million litres a day. While this will have environmental benefits, it is not altruism but economics that sits behind the conservation programs.
"It's a win-win situation," says Lou Di Gironimo, general manager of Toronto Water, of the Capacity Buy-Back Program, in which the city kicks in cash when companies make and document permanent water savings.
Companies end up with lower water bills, saving them money, and it also makes them more competitive and likely to stay in the city, he says. But for the city, the savings are even more important. "We can gain back that capacity and delay future costs," he says. "We can handle population growth without huge infrastructure costs."
The program has cut demand enough that the city now rarely experiences shortages during summer peak demand periods, and Mr. Di Gironimo says it recently saved $185-million because the city didn't need to build as large a water treatment plant as it would have without the program.
Companies and governments are going to have different reasons for conserving water in different regions, but the bottom line will always be a strong motivator. As pressure on water resources intensifies, the cost of water will go up, making conservation an even bigger priority.
In Ontario, the pressure largely comes from the cost of water infrastructure, such as pipes and treatment facilities. However, across the border in the Great Lakes states, supply is a bigger issue.
A huge volume of water is diverted from the Great Lakes into thirstier parts of the U.S., most famously through the Chicago Diversion, which began with a shipping canal in 1848 and today serves some 7 million people.
In 2008, a powerful new piece of legislation called the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Compact came into effect, ratified by Canada, the U.S., Ontario, Quebec and the eight states in the basin. It requires that water taken from the basin for use must be treated and returned to the basin, and also bans new water diversions. If a city straddling the basin's border wants to grow, it will need to cut water use to free up supply.
By contrast, in the Prairies, climate change itself will make water scarcity an issue. According to The New Normal, an anthology of research about climate change and the Canadian Prairies published by the Canadian Plains Research Centre at the University of Regina, the region will not necessarily get drier. Instead, it will have more concentrated and intense bursts of rainfall between drought periods. As a result, the priority will be on improving the efficiency of reservoirs, covering irrigation canals to reduce evaporation, and conserving water in cities so reservoirs don't run dry and crops don't wither during droughts.
Keeping companies afloat
While water conservation can be driven by government policy and incentives, it is frequently the effect of the bottom line that motivates companies to invest in new technology.
WIKA Instruments in Lawrenceville, Georgia makes temperature and pressure gauges. Between 2007 and 2009, the company replaced the water chilling systems on its 15 soldering stations with new ones that recirculate the water.
"We needed to conserve some water. Bottom line is we wanted to save some money, as we'd hit the recession," says company spokesperson Melissa Smith.
The company cut daily water usage from 60,305 gallons to 13,194 gallons. The chilling units cost $29,000 (U.S.), but paid themselves off quickly, as the company's water bill went down by $39,000 in the first year alone.
Environmentally, the effect is significant. WIKA gets its water from Lake Lanier, the artificial reservoir that's the water source for Atlanta and significant portions of Georgia, Florida and Alabama. The reservoir has been severely strained during recent droughts, threatening the supply of fresh water to cities and wildlife, and leading to controversial bans on outdoor water use. Switching to recirculating cooling systems means the company draws 10.5 million gallons less from that reservoir per year.