Serious sustainability at OWASA

Sustainability - it's the buzzword that gets used and abused but somehow a useful replacement word is never found. It gets bandied about constantly as corporations, governments, and other agencies seek to position themselves for a future of inevitable resource scarcity, increasing energy costs, and pollution blowback. It gets hard to tell the greenwashers from those authentically committed to adaptation and innovation.

The Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA) recently published its first Sustainability Report (download PDF). It reports on many aspects of providing water and sewer services in an environmentally sound manner such as strategies for maintaining high water quality, a commitment to water conservation, the partnership with UNC for the utilization of wastewater for non-potable uses, energy efficiency, green design features at the new Operations Center, hiring a Sustainability Administrator, and recycling – to name a few.

Here is an excerpt which reveals that OWASA is well ahead of the curve:
“Water conservation is no longer just a drought management tool. It will play an increasingly important role in meeting our community's future water needs.”

Expanding on this, a major commitment to a sustainable water supply is found on page 6:

...on April 14, 2005 the OWASA Board of Directors approved a long-term water conservation goal and related objectives, including specific water demand reduction targets. The goal is:

To develop, fund, and implement a cost-effective water conservation and demand management program that will meet our community's long-term water supply needs (through 2050) by making the highest and best use of our local water resources and eliminating the need for costly new water supply sources and facilities.

I've served on the OWASA Board for over 6 years and it is my opinion that OWASA is in the very upper echelons nationwide of progressive and pro-active water and sewer utilities. OWASA may be the only utility in the country that has made a formal commitment to considering the conservation of water to be a source of supply.

What do you think? Is this report the equivalent of ordinary greenwashing whereby the public relations staff puts out a document using all the right words, puts on a couple of seminars, and calls themselves community leaders? Or is this the real thing happening right here?



Thanks for helping to publicize this, Mark. It's a very encouraging development. I was especially pleased to see the comprehensive range of initiatives (energy use, recycling, facilities planning, longer-term strategy) that take a holistic view of sustainability.

It would interesting to see how our towns and county would respond if challenged to produce similarly complete reports.

The devil is in all the details, of course. One person's "green" building is another person's energy hog. But the OWASA report provides enough substance to give me some confidence that they're actually walking the talk.


PS One area of special interest to me is pricing. OWASA already engages in demand-management pricing to encourage conservation, but I think they could move even farther in that direction. "Progressive" pricing, for example, could provide relataively low cost water for the first X gallons used per month, with the price/gallon rising dramatically once a certain threshold is reached . . . possibly with even a couple of pricing tiers. I doubt we can tell people that they can't take really long showers or water excessively large lawns or not have six children (with the attendant demands for water and sewer services) but we could make such extravagant uses more costly . . . thereby discouraging them at the pocketbook level.


OWASA is in the early stages of a rate study and the end result may very well be similar to the type of rate structure you describe.



You're talking about a incremental (inverted block) rate structure. While I agree with you that it should be put in place, I have some concerns. For example, a family that cares for their elderly/sick at home will have a signficantly higher water use (additional laundry, bathing, etc). If that family is low income, they probably won't have the most energy efficient appliances which will further exacerbate their water usage. Should they be penalized with the higher rate? The devil will be in the details....


You're right to complain that Sustainability is in danger of becoming a watered-down (pardon the pun) buzzword. In the capable hands of OWASA, however, it's got legs.


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