Bostonians Used Same Amount of Water in 2014 as in 1900

The battle against wasted water has been won, according to officials at the City and state levels – who note, and astonishingly so, that Boston used the same amount of water in 2014 as it did in 1900.

In news regarding water conservation, the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC) and the MWRA revealed to the Patriot-Bridge that a 10-year trend towards conservation arrived at a seminal moment in 2014 when officials found that water usage in the City of Boston was at the same level as it was at the turn of the 20th Century.

At the turn of the 20th Century, many toilets in Boston were still in large part confined to the outdoors, hospitals were just open rooms full of beds and not water-guzzling institutions performing life-changing treatments, and universities were tiny enclaves of scholars rather than large career-training centers with high-rise dormitories using untold millions of gallons of water.

Add in all the modern hotels and other modern conveniences, and one can see how extraordinary the numbers actually are.

“Boston actually used the same amount of water last year (2014) as it did in 1900,” said Fred Laskey, executive director of the MWRA. “You think about the skyscrapers, colleges and universities and hospitals that are now part of the city that weren’t part of the city in 1900 and that’s an incredible story. Water is the most precious of our resources. The fact that we are conserving like this is a great new trend. It is a great untold story.”

BWSC Spokesman Sean Canty said they are welcoming the trend and have been following it for some years.

“Our water usage across the City of Boston has gone down 25 percent across the board over the last 10 years,” he said. “At first, it was a big mystery to us. We do believe now it’s all of the conservation and efficiencies that have been introduced. We believe the low-flow toilets play a part in that, though that’s not the whole story. All of the efficiencies that are now available, whether it’s shower heads, washers, dishwashers – all of them use a lot less water. Those are the things we’re looking at for this.”

As an example, he pointed to the reform of the plumbing code in 1988 to require low-flow toilets. Regular toilets use 3.5 gallons per flush, while the low-flow’s use 1.6 gallons – a difference of more than half.

“That’s a savings of two gallons every time someone flushes the toilet,” Canty said. “Think of every toilet in every hotel, office building, home, hospital or restaurant, and you can see that small savings can really begin to add up to big numbers.”

Boston and most other MWRA communities get water from the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts. At 412 billion gallons, the Quabbin Reservoir is one of the largest man-made reservoirs in the country. In the late 1980s, it was not uncommon for MWRA’s service area to exceed the safe yield of 300 million gallons per day in consumption of the Quabbin on a regular basis.

Demand on the Quabbin these days is down around 200 million gallons per day, which is 130 million gallons less per day.

In Boston, since 1985, MWRA water consumption numbers have gone from 119.2 million gallons of usage per day to 62.9 million gallons per day last year. That’s a decrease of 47.3 percent, meaning that Boston has cut water usage in half over the last 30 years despite a series of building booms and urban expansions.

It’s also a number that leads to the eye-popping realization that Boston used slightly more water (64 million gallons) in 1901 as it did in 2014 (62.9 million gallons).

Laskey said the conservation victory is a result of three things – changes to the plumbing code, better leak detection and careful use due to rising costs.

“I think it’s several components that have led to this,” he said. “One, the change in the plumbing code requires any new construction or major renovation to use water efficient appliances, faucets and toilets. That’s a major component, but it’s only one component. The other is very aggressive leak detection and pipe rehabilitation. Some communities do leak detection every two years or annually. We have an aggressive program here. In years past, a leaky pipe could be emptying into the storm drain or the ground for a very long time. We tend to catch them very quickly now.”

Yet another piece of the puzzle is the fact that water has become so expensive. With an eye to the pocketbook, ratepayers are more apt to conserve on a large or small scale in order to save money.

“You also have the economic utility of it,” Laskey said. “Water is now a real cost-center in household budgets and business plans. Some 30 years ago, you could leave the faucet on all night and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. Now, it’s an important cost-center and people and businesses are formulating their budgets on water now. There is the economics of it. You save money.”

All that said, the elephant in the room amidst the great news on conservation is why water bills continue to eat up more of the household budgets when usage has decreased.

Laskey said the answer is simple, and it comes down to paying the freight on the court-mandated Boston Harbor Cleanup and Sewer Separation projects.

“Basically, why bills are going up is because the work we are bound to do for the clean up of the Harbor,” he said. “We financed that with 20 and 30-year bonds. It’s like the mortgage payment now…We spent $7 billion and 80 percent of that was required by federal and state regulators to come into compliance with the Federal Clean Water Act. It’s as simple as a mortgage payment. We have to make those payments.”

On another conservation note, MWRA officials said usage is down for the entire system – not just Boston. That, they pointed out, comes despite adding the five new communities of Bedford, Stoughton, Dedham/Westwood, Reading and  Wilmington.

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