WaterSense and other EPA Responses to Climate Change

bridges vol. 18, July 2008 / Feature Article

by Benjamin Grumbles

The United States Environmental Protection Agency, regions, states, and tribes are working together to connect smart water policies with sustainable communities. Thousands of communities across the nation are facing difficult challenges in meeting their water resource needs. According to a 2003 US General Accounting Office report, 36 state water managers anticipate water shortages by 2013, and that is before taking into account drought conditions or any of the potential impacts of climate change. This is one reason EPA convened a work group in 2007 to examine the possible impacts of climate change on our National Water Program.


In March of this year, EPA released a draft strategy to respond to the challenges that water programs may face because of climate change. The draft strategy is the product of the workgroup, which was made up of senior water program managers from headquarters and regional offices and senior managers from EPA’s Office of Water, Office of Air and Radiation, and Office of Research and Development. In the National Water Program Strategy: Response to Climate Change, we provide an overview of the potential effects of climate change on water resources and America’s clean water and safe drinking water programs. We also outline 46 specific actions we are proposing to adapt program implementation in light of climate change


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}


Climate change is likely, after all, to have numerous and diverse impacts, including impacts on human health, natural systems, and the built environment. Many of these impacts affect water resources, including:

  • warming air and water
  • change in the location and amount of rain and snow
  • increased storm intensity
  • sea level rise
  • changes in ocean characteristics.

Our Response to Climate Change is meant as an initial effort to describe climate change impacts on water programs in the United States, define our goals and objectives at the National Water Program for responding to climate change, and identify a comprehensive package of specific response actions. The National Water Program established climate change-related goals in each of the three key climate change topic areas already identified by EPA: mitigation, adaptation, and research. In addition, we include two supporting goals regarding educating water program professionals on climate change issues and managing climate change work within the National Water Program.


Five Goals in EPA’s National Water Program Strategy: Response to Climate Change

At the highest “big picture” level, the response strategy represents a strategic choice by EPA’s National Water Program to change programs and invest resources based on a growing understanding of climate change. The five goals described below reflect another level of strategic choices, which includes the decision to expand water program efforts related to greenhouse gas mitigation rather than focusing only on water program adaptation, and the decision to have a sustained management focus on climate change issues.


Goal 1 in the strategy is: Use core water programs to contribute to greenhouse gas mitigation. The issue here is that the severity of impacts on water resources will naturally depend on greenhouse gas emissions over the long term. The National Water Program has a range of opportunities to contribute to the goal of reducing greenhouse gases, including improving water and energy efficiency and assuring that sequestration of carbon protects human health and the environment. The National Water Program will expand existing programs that result in greenhouse gas mitigation and expand efforts related to geologic and biological sequestration of carbon dioxide. EPA will use the best available science and technology to support responsible operation of water treatment and delivery systems through water conservation and energy efficiency.


We identified goal 2 as: Adapt implementation of core water programs to maintain and improve program effectiveness in the context of a changing climate, and assist states and communities in this effort. The strategic issue at stake is that EPA, states, and tribes implementing core water programs will need to continue to meet drinking water, clean water, and wetlands protection goals as the climate changes.


Warmer air and water, changes in weather patterns, and rising sea levels will create challenges that may require modifications to programs and the adoption of new tools in order to sustain past progress and avoid new risks to human health and aquatic ecosystems.


The National Water Program proposes, therefore, to implement a range of actions to tailor existing water programs to the challenges posed by climate change. The National Water Program proposes to:

  • measure, minimize, and manage the impacts of climate change on water resources using effective adaptation approaches, and be responsive in our standards and permitting programs;
  • be proactive in adapting watershed protection, wetlands, and infrastructure programs in light of climate change;
  • develop tools, standards, and guidelines, and identify best practices to understand and measure the nature and magnitude of chemical, biological, and physical effects of climate change on water resources; and • apply environmental science, technology, and information to guide and support proactive climate change planning and management.

We determined goal 3 is to: Strengthen the link between EPA water programs and climate change research. As research continues on how climate change impacts water and water quality, EPA needs to effectively communicate research findings to water program managers. We decided to identify and complement climate research by others that support water programs. The National Water Program seeks to expand participation in inter-agency and intra-agency research planning related to climate change, and proposes to adjust core water program research to climate issues as needed.


Goal 4 is: Educate water program professionals and stakeholders on climate change impacts on water resources and water programs. EPA water program staff members in national and regional offices need to better understand the anticipated impacts of climate change on water in order to manage programs effectively. Also, given the range of impacts of climate change around the country, water program partners at the state, tribal, and local levels need information and technical assistance to understand the likely impacts on watersheds, water supply, water infrastructure, and water quality. We propose, therefore, to invest in climate change education on water issues for water program managers and partners, to support sharing of information about state and local responses to water impacts of climate change, and to provide tools and technical assistance to support this effort.


Finally, Goal 5 is to: Establish the management capability within the National Water Program to engage climate change challenges on a sustained basis. Prior to the creation of the workgroup that produced this strategy, the National Water Program did not have a comprehensive effort in place to monitor climate change science, systematically assess climate change impacts on water programs, work with other federal agencies on this topic, or develop response actions. Implementation of this strategy, however, will require creation of new management capabilities in these areas. Our determination is that the National Water Program should maintain a Climate Change Workgroup, support EPA regional efforts to supplement this strategy, and reach out to other federal agencies with climate change interests.


Key Actions in Response to Climate Change

Each of these five goals is supported by more specific objectives and key actions. Some of these key actions involve existing water program work that has climate change implications, while other actions involve new activities, or changes in the direction of current activities, in response to climate change.


In developing the specific objectives and key actions, several important cross-cutting themes emerged. These themes include developing data to adapt to climate change, planning for extreme water events, increasing watershed sustainability and resilience, developing analytic tools, and strengthening partnerships.


Water (and Energy) Conservation through WaterSense

One of the key actions in our draft climate change strategy is to continue implementing the WaterSense program, highlighting the link between energy and water usage. Improving water efficiency is one of the most effective ways that communities can manage water supplies. EPA is working to foster a national ethic of water efficiency, so that water is valued as a resource that should be used wisely.


In June 2006, we announced WaterSense, a partnership that helps Americans make smart water choices that save money while helping the environment. WaterSense products use 20 percent less water and perform as well as – or better than – conventional models. Toilets account for about 30 percent of the water used in the home, so local governments across the country have begun offering rebates to consumers who buy high-efficiency toilets. Water efficiency also reduces the stress and strain on septic systems.

Across the country, our growing population is putting stress on available water supplies. Between 1950 and 2000, the US population nearly doubled. However, in that same period, public demand for water more than tripled! Americans now use an average of 100 gallons of water each day – enough to fill 1,600 drinking glasses! This increased demand has put additional stress on water supplies and distribution systems, threatening both human health and the environment.


The average household spends as much as $500 per year on its water and sewer bill. By making just a few simple changes to use water more efficiently, a family could save about $170 per year. If all US households installed water-efficient appliances, the country would save more than 3 trillion gallons of water and more than $18 billion dollars per year! Also, when we use water more efficiently, we reduce the need for costly water supply infrastructure investments and new wastewater treatment facilities.

It takes a considerable amount of energy to deliver and treat the water we use every day. American public water supply and treatment facilities consume about 56 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year – enough electricity to power more than 5 million homes for an entire year. For example, letting the faucet run for five minutes uses about as much energy as letting a 60-watt light bulb run for 14 hours.


By reducing household water use, we not only help reduce the energy required to supply and treat public water supplies, but we also help mitigate climate change. In fact:

  • If one out of every 100 American homes retrofitted with water-efficient fixtures, we could save about 100 million kWh of electricity per year – avoiding 80,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. That is equivalent to removing nearly 15,000 automobiles from the road for one year!
  • If 1 percent of American homes replaced their older, inefficient toilets with WaterSense labeled models, the country would save more than 38 million kWh of electricity – enough to supply more than 43,000 households electricity for one month.


WaterSense is helping educate Americans about the importance of water and energy conservation. Adaptation is particularly supported when water conservation is carried out in the broader context of water resources management. WaterSense Logo


The following additional key actions are garnering much attention:

To read all 46 specific actions we are proposing in our draft climate change strategy, please visit: http://www.epa.gov/water/climatechange. The draft strategy was out for public comment from March 28 until June 10, 2008. We also hosted a public Web cast to entertain strategy questions; this is archived at the aforementioned link. We are now in the process of responding to the comments that we received, as we continue to connect smart and collaborative water policies with sustainable development in a climate of constant change.


The author, Benjamin H. Grumbles, serves as Assistant Administrator for Water at US EPA.



Further information:


For more information on our draft water climate change strategy, visit: http://www.epa.gov/water/climatechange


For more about the WaterSense program in particular, visit: http://www.epa.gov/watersense/

For more on what the Agency as a whole is doing about climate change, visit: http://www.epa.gov/climatechange