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A Three-Pronged Approach to Water Conservation in Drought

What Can Residents Do?

Here are a few tips to help residents conserve water during a drought.

  • Use washing machines and dishwashers for full loads only.
  • When washing dishes or hands, brushing teeth or shaving, don’t let the water run.
  • Take shorter showers and install low-flow shower heads.
  • Mulch plants and trees, while watering either early in the morning or late in the evening to reduce evaporation.
  • Put the hose away. Use a broom to clean sidewalks, patios and driveways and a bucket and sponge to wash cars.

Aging infrastructure can be costly – and even more so during a drought, as thousands of gallons of potable water spill from leaking pipes when municipalities can least afford the loss. More than 2.1 trillion gallons are lost across the country each year. That hurts a municipality’s bottom line, but especially so during a drought, when every drop is precious.

Drought doesn’t only impact homeowners – businesses, especially restaurants, hospitals and farms, need a steady water supply. In 2012, two-thirds of the country suffered a chronic drought and, over a twenty-year period from 1980 to 2000, droughts cost U.S. communities and businesses more than $100 billion. In addition, cities are seeing historic growth – and historic pressure on resources such as water.

The most successful approaches to water conservation during a drought mitigate the impact on the system, residents and businesses. While you can’t always predict a drought, you can prepare for one by being proactive, flexible and communicating with your customers.

Be Proactive

Planning for a drought may seem overwhelming, but many best practices double as drought preparation. Integrating water, storm and wastewater and sanitation management with planning and economic development not only will improve water resilience, but also help address environmental and economic issues in your community.

A holistic approach can combine planning with water management to encourage green spaces and ground cover, which not only improves water availability, but also decreases vandalism and stress, with studies showing green space can be mentally restorative and invoke community pride.

Pairing up economic development and water management also can pay dividends: The Alliance for Water Efficiency estimates that a $10 billion investment in water efficiency across the country could increase the GDP by $13 to $15 billion and create 120,000 to 260,000 jobs.

Combining a cross-department approach with analytics – such as the analytics being used to produce real time data by the Sacramento Area Sewer District to prevent spills – will allow you to make improvements with an eye toward multiple benefits. Investments in resilient infrastructure also can save thousands of dollars in potable water by reducing water loss while improving performance and supply capacity and reducing operating costs.

Be Flexible

Every community has finite water resources – being flexible in their management is key to ensuring a steady supply through a drought.

There are several ways to diversify water supply, including increasing storage capacity, working cooperatively with other water utilities to share resources and using innovative technology, such as desalination systems and recycling grey water.

Although desalination has been expensive in the past, it is rapidly becoming more affordable, leading to Tampa Bay Water opening one of the largest desalination plants – alongside a 15 billion gallon reservoir. Even if you have your own supply of water, having a purchase agreement and connection in place with another municipality may provide the flexibility needed to survive an extreme weather event.

Reusing water that has been used in sinks, showers and washers for flushing toilets and doing laundry can reduce a household’s water usage by a third, and homeowners are beginning to take note, either retrofitting their plumbing or having homes built with systems to treat and store grey water for reuse. Some utilities, such as the Orange County Water District, have replicated grey water recycling across an entire water system.

There are several ways to store water, from more traditional water towers and reservoirs to less conventional practices, such as recharging groundwater in times of excess water and irrigation canals.  With global declines in water storage, increasing storage capacity is more important than ever.


Another way to increase your water supply is to communicate with your customers – a water conservation education program can free up supply by reducing use.

It is crucial to educate residents about simple practices to reduce their water use, as well as more elaborate conservation measures, such as installing cisterns or rain barrels to collect rain water and landscaping with native, drought-resistant plants.

Encouraging water-use efficiency across residential, agricultural and commercial sectors, in conjunction with infrastructure efficiencies, such as leak detection and energy audits, can be scaled to the size of the system and have both long-term and short-term benefits. The Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense program helps identify plumbing products, such as low-flow fixtures, meant to conserve water and energy. Low-flow fixtures can save thousands of gallons of water over their lifetime.

Communicating regularly with your customers about water conservation keeps it top of mind, but it also keeps open a line of communication if you need to inform them about voluntary or mandatory restrictions on water usage.

Private side water and sewer lines can also be a cause of potable water loss, and many homeowners are unaware of their responsibility for these lines. Consider educating them through a partnership with the NLC Service Line Warranty Program.

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Don’t Let Low Pressure Problems Get Your Residents Down

Sometimes more pressure is a good thing!

Your residents turn on the shower and get a weak drizzle or can’t run the sink and washer at the same time without the water slowing to a sluggish trickle – they have low water pressure.

Low water pressure usually is caused by clogged pipes, especially galvanized steel pipes, which have a rough interior which provides the perfect environment for mineral build-up. If residential pipes are clogged, they will either have to be replaced, in the case of galvanized pipes, or removed and the mineral build-up removed before being replaced, in the case of copper pipes. In both cases, the work should be done by a licensed and insured plumber.

To eliminate other causes before calling in a plumber, homeowners should check the water shutoff value near the water meter to see if it is fully open, or contact their local water service provider and request a pressure reading.

The optimal pressure for households is between 45 pounds per square inch, or PSI, and 55 PSI, according to the Family Handyman. Less than 40 PSI will result in low water pressure in the home and above 80 PSI will wear out the washers on plumbing fixtures, waste water and damage water heaters, faucets and appliances.

Low PSI in the home can result from an obstruction in the pipes or a leak in the water main. To check for a leak, homeowners should visually inspect the area where the water main comes into the home, usually the basement or garage.

They should also inspect the area outside the home where the water main comes into the building. The outside inspection should be conducted after there have been several dry days to see if there is an area where the ground is soggy. If there is a suspected leak between the home and where the service line meets the utility line, then a resident will need professional help – and homeowners may be unaware they are responsible for repairs to their service line. As these repairs can be costly, a water service line repair plan can protect homeowners from an unforeseen expense.

If only one or two fixtures have low pressure, the fixtures may be causing the problem. An aerator in the faucet can be checked by unscrewing it from the bottom of the faucet and disassembling it, according to Bob Vila. If there is mineral buildup, soaking the parts in white vinegar overnight and then scrubbing with a toothbrush and rinsing before re-assembling them might remedy the issue. Shower heads also can be soaked in a mixture of white vinegar and water for several hours.

If low water pressure is associated with running hot water, the water heater’s shut-off valve should be checked to assure it is open. If the problem persists, a professional should be consulted.

The National League of Cities (NLC) Service Line Warranty Program, administered by Utility Service Partners, a HomeServe company, was conceived in partnership with the NLC to educate property owners about their service line responsibilities and to help residents avoid the out-of-pocket expense for service line repairs. Contact us to learn more about how the NLC Service Line Warranty Program can benefit your community.

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From Rome to New Jersey: A History of Water and Public Health

The relationship between public health, clean water and sanitation has been explored since ancient times – the Greeks observed a connection between lifestyle, social class and health, but there were no public water supplies or sewers. It is speculated many ancient Grecian cities were established so far from bodies of water to protect the population from waterborne disease.

Although the Romans are cited as a benchmark for sanitation and hygiene, their idea of cleanliness was different from modern times. It is theorized water wasn’t frequently changed in the famous baths, spreading disease and parasites, and the sewers beneath Rome didn’t remove waste and sewage, but provided drainage and prevented flooding. The Romans were more successful at providing potable water. Using a series of aqueducts, water was brought from as far away as 60 miles outside the city and treated using methods such as aeration and settling basins, although some water sources were cleaner and more desirable than others.

Like ancient Greece, Medieval towns didn’t have sewers, but unlike the Greeks, Medieval people threw their garbage and waste into the street. Monasteries did have fresh running water, washrooms, latrines and sewers. Public health and sanitation were more strongly linked following the bubonic plague of 1348, and attempts were made to improve sanitation by improving water supplies and better garbage and sewage disposal.

Cleanliness improved in the early modern age, but in crowded urban areas, poor sanitary conditions and a lack of clean drinking water meant disease – especially waterborne diseases – ravaged populations. Waves of epidemics, including cholera, typhoid and dysentery, all waterborne illnesses, ravaged communities, and doctors simply didn’t know what caused them, only that they seemed to be related to environmental causes – many believed in the miasma theory, that poisoned air caused disease.

Cholera, known as “King Cholera,” was one of the most deadly. Caused by water or food tainted by fecal matter, cholera ripped through communities across the globe, including among the Ohio canals, filled with stagnant water that was the perfect breeding ground for the disease, in 1832. Thousands more died in New York City in the late 1840s

One of the first people who linked public health and water cleanliness in modern times was Edwin Chadwick, who wrote a report on the sanitary conditions in English slums in 1842, noting a correlation between the lack of a sanitary system and clean water with disease and high mortality rates among the poor. His research led to one of the first modern attempts by a municipality to operate a sewage system.

Dr. John Snow, an epidemiologist, was another early pioneer in linking contamination of public water sources and disease. In 1854, during a cholera outbreak in London, he complied a data map of deaths in the city and analyzed the data.

Snow already suspected disease was spread through contaminated water, having theorized a prior cholera outbreak was linked to the Vauxhall Water Co. It was a theory few others were willing to believe. As a result, more than 600 people died and many more fled during the 1854 epidemic.

Snow noted most of the deaths clustered around a single water pump – one that had been contaminated with sewage from a nearby cesspit. Not only did the deaths cluster around this one pump, but several nearby facilities with their own water sources didn’t have nearly as many cholera cases.

Snow took a sample of water from the offending water pump and found it to be full of small white particles – the bacteria, vibrio cholerae, that causes cholera – after examining it under a microscope. With this information, he convinced officials to remove the pump handle, preventing anyone else from drinking the tainted water. Within a few weeks, the contagion was ended.

During the American Civil Water, three times as many soldiers died from epidemic illness, including dysentery, typhoid and cholera, as did in battle. The practice of digging latrines conveniently near encampments exacerbated the issue. It was these practices that likely polluted the Potomac River and infected Willie Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln’s son, with typhoid, causing his death in 1862.

Epidemics of waterborne diseases continued to regularly plague the country until the early 20th century, when municipalities began providing treated drinking water through reliable delivery systems, beginning with Jersey City, N.J., in 1908. Within 10 years, typhoid cases dropped by two-thirds and it is nearly unheard of today. Drinking water treatment became widespread, virtually halting waterborne disease in its tracks.

Despite the importance of water systems in maintaining public health, our water systems are reaching the end of their usable lives – some of the Washington, D.C., water system dates back to Lincoln’s tenure in the White House. It is estimated that it will cost $1.3 trillion to fix the country’s water and waste water systems. Billions of gallons of clean drinking water are lost to leaky pipes, and there is no clear path to a system overhaul in sight.

Citizens may not realize they also own part of that aging system – the service line between a water main and a residence is usually the homeowner’s responsibility. Many are unaware of that responsibility or how costly it can be.

Contact us to learn more about how the National League of Cities (NLC) Service Line Warranty Program, administered by USP, a HomeServe company, can help educate your residents about their service line responsibilities while providing an affordable repair program.

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Is Your Water System Reaching the End of Its Life Span?

Approximately 90 percent of Americans get their water from public systems, and the country’s overall infrastructure has been graded D-plus by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Drinking water systems received a D and waste water systems a D-plus – and that grade hasn’t improved in years.

Most Americans receive their water through pipes that are coming to the end of their usable lifespan of 75 to 100 years, according to the ASCE drinking water report card. Those failing systems lose six billion gallons of treated water every day, or nearly 20 percent. The ASCE estimates it will cost more than $1.3 trillion to fix America’s drinking water problem.

Investment in our water systems has been inadequate for decades, and rate payer-generated revenue is flat and even declining as some municipalities see their populations shrink. The federal government provides low-interest loans for water infrastructure projects, but the millions invested in the program can’t keep pace with a need that exceeds $1 trillion. Meanwhile, state and local governments have decreased spending by more than 20 percent.

To compound water woes, public sewage systems, already serving more than 75 percent of Americans will see a demand increase of nearly 25 percent by 2032. An estimated 532 systems will need to be added to the 14,748 plants treating sewage to meet that demand, and the EPA estimates the cost to update and expand wastewater infrastructure to do so would cost $271 billion.

The problem with upkeep and expansion is the expense, and many smaller communities don’t have the economics of scale to fall back on. Neither can municipal governments count on the federal government to shoulder more than a small portion. Over the past five years, the federal government has provided $1.4 billion per year to all 50 states and the District of Columbia for sewage improvements.

The greatest portion of repairs will fall on the municipality themselves, because little money is available at the state level. States provide approximately $5.8 billion per year, usually discounted loans through Clean Water State Revolving Fund programs. At that rate, it will take nearly 40 years to make the repairs and upgrades needed by 2032.

Our water systems are facing decades of neglect, no clear consensus on what should prioritized, and no clear source of funding. Public spending on total infrastructure dropped from 3.6 percent of the Gross National Product in 1960 to 2.6 percent by 1985, according to Rebuild America Coalition. The coalition estimates spending to improve wastewater operations needs to increase by $13.8 billion annually. Additionally, the EPA estimates that $76.8 billion is needed for immediate infrastructure improvements to maintain drinking water quality and protect public health.

As public system age and government officials struggle to find the finding to repair them, so do private service lines and residents. In addition, many residents are unaware of their responsibility to maintain their service lines until there is an issue – an unhappy realization for many.

The National League of Cities (NLC) Service Line Warranty Program, administered by Utility Service Partners, Inc., a HomeServe Company, addresses aging private infrastructure by offering homeowners an affordable protection plan through partnerships with cities at no cost to the city.

Contact us to learn how Service Line Warranty Program can educate your residents about their service line responsibilities while providing an affordable repair program.

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Don’t Let Your Residents Be Left Out in the Cold

The recent bomb cyclone has played havoc across the country, from frigid flooding in the Northeast to abnormally low temperatures and snowfall in the south.

And as the temperatures sank, water line breaks cropped up. Municipalities everywhere have been scrambling to repair water lines – and the NLC Service Line Warranty Program’s network contractors have been dispatched to repair water service lines at homes across the states impacted by the weather event.

HomeServe’s contact center processed over 55,000 repair calls from customers between December 28 and January 7, including nearly 4,200 calls on New Year’s Day alone. The call volume was 87% higher than normal for this season.

As the cold gripped the country and 80,000 people lost power, areas unaccustomed to icy temperatures, such as Florida, Louisiana and Georgia saw record-breaking snowfalls and record-breaking water line repairs as systems vulnerable to freezing temperatures felt the impact of the bomb cyclone. In the south, homeowners unfamiliar with severe winter weather saw their water lines fail under the stress, and even in the north, record cold caused similar failures.

As first responders reacted to the fallout, so did NLC SLWP contractors, answering thousands of calls pouring in from distressed homeowners who were without water service in the middle of an extreme weather event. As first responders battled the elements, contractors trekked through the snow to fix heating and water systems as temperatures nosedived.

“I woke up on a Sunday morning, preparing for Sunday worship, only to find that the pipe leading to my water heater was dripping,” a customer wrote in a Jan. 10 Google review. “My problem was resolved in less than three hours, which is incredibly fast when you take into consideration that we have been experiencing extreme cold in the Northeast and there were probably others without heating that needed attention.”

Be proactive and don’t wait for another severe winter event to leave your residents without water or heat – Learn more (hyperlink) about how the NLC Service Line Warranty program can help residents in your community.

The Service Line Warranty Program is administered by Utility Service Partners, a HomeServe USA company.

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Resiliency in Action

For the past three years, the National League of Cities (NLC), the Urban Land Institute (ULI), and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) have joined efforts to host the Resilient Cities Summit, providing a forum for cities to discuss how they can be better prepared for climate risk and build for a more resilient future.

Resiliency—we know what the word means, right? But resilient cities? According to the American Planning Association (APA), the American Institute of Architects (AIA), ULI, and a number of other organizations that focus on the built environment:

The definition of resilience is “the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events.”1

What kinds of adverse events? And how does a city plan to recover?

“As weather events become more frequent and intense due to climate change, disruptions and stressors become a common concern among city officials and residents alike.”

In her keynote address to the 2016 Resilient Cities Summit, Katherine Hammack, Former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Army for Installations, Energy, and Environment, put it this way: “a resilient city or installation provides reliable communication and mobility; ensures continuity of critical resources; and provides and enhances man-made and natural resources.”1

What does that look like in action? Let’s visit one of our NLC Service Line Warranty Program Partners, Tulsa, Oklahoma, for an idea. The City of Tulsa was selected as one of one hundred cities to be part of 100 Resilient Cities, pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation (100RC), an organization dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient, in 2014.2

In December 2016, Mayor G.T. Bynum appointed DeVon Douglass to become the city’s new Chief Resilience Officer. That selection follows Tulsa’s ongoing commitment to resiliency. According to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, the discovery of oil in 1901 set in motion events that would tie Tulsa’s future fortunes to the oil industry for many succeeding decades. Over time, however, Tulsa diversified to include telecommunications, finance, and aviation. 100 Resilient Cities notes, “The city has seen significant economic growth, in part due to concerted urban revitalization plans.”2

Given its position in “Tornado Alley,” one area in which Tulsa needs a plan for resiliency is in establishing reliable emergency communications that reach all residents when weather emergencies arise. “Potentially deadly tornadoes and high wind events regularly harm structures and power lines, and do significant financial damage. The city has responded to high flood risks by creating one of the top floodplain management plans in the country, with a particular focus on urban planning and relocation.”2

That is in keeping with Tulsa’s history, too. CRO DeVon Douglass noted as much when she committed to “…building upon a foundation…in disaster resilience.”2

“Tulsa may seem an unlikely spokes-city for flood control, but it is a leader in storm-water management design in the United States,” writes Olivia Stinson, 100RC Associate Director of City Relationships.3 

Catastrophic flooding of waterways such as Mingo Creek in the 1970s and ‘80s led the city to use local, State and Federal resources to “design and build a comprehensive storm-water management system—a dramatic change in the way Tulsa managed its land and infrastructure.” Building on these relationships and the funding made available, the city acquired over 900 private homes and businesses located in flood-prone areas and turned them into green spaces that function as detention ponds and parks, soccer fields and walking paths. The result is “a system that is visually appealing, environmentally sustainable, and perhaps most importantly, provides other benefits in the absence of flooding.” For example, as 100 Resilient Cities reports, Tulsa Centennial Park serves as valuable public space most of the year and provides essential flood water detention when it rains.

According to a case study published by Naturally Resilient Communities, “the construction of this network of landscaped buffers and detention basins provided Tulsa with the critical green space needed to manage flooding during major storms. Since the project’s creation, local property owners and businesses have not had any major property losses due to flooding. And by allowing the city to plan around flooding hazard areas, the plan has reduced any negative economic impacts that flooding in the area could cause, which has led to social and community benefits as well. Because of its successful flood protection approach, Tulsa boasts one of the nation’s best flood insurance policies. Residents have received up to a 35 percent discount from their premiums that are adjusted to reflect their properties’ reduced flood risk.”

As 100 Resilient Cities concludes, “embracing the natural dynamism of the floodplain has made Tulsa more resilient.”


1  2016 Resilient Cities Summit, Solutions for Sustainable Land Use, US Green Buildings Council

2  100 Resilient Cities, Tulsa’s Resilience Challenge,   http://www.100resilientcities.org/cities/tulsa

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Q&A with Cooper Martin

Can you tell us a little bit about what the Sustainable Cities Institute (SCI) at NLC is responsible for?

Our goal is to inform, support, and celebrate city-led sustainability initiatives. The SCI team educates and helps to develop the leadership skills of local elected officials in sustainable energy, water, transportation and other policies. A lot of our time is spent working directly with the officials and their staff that make up the NLC membership.

What are some of the projects in process?

Everything we do is to help cities lead on climate action. NLC helped launch the “We Are Still In” campaign for cities, businesses, universities, and other stakeholders who still uphold the U.S. commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement, and reinforcing that kind of leadership is the most fundamental part of the whole program.

Our two main projects are SolSmart and the Leadership in Community Resilience program. SolSmart provides recognition and assistance to local governments to develop their solar markets and provide cheaper, cleaner energy to citizens. The program covers everything from permitting, construction codes, zoning, financing, utility coordination, and consumer education and has already designated over 100 cities for their efforts.

Our Community Resilience program has established a network of 10 cities and provided them each with grants and technical support to help implement a portion of their local sustainability or climate action plan. This program has been running a little over one year and we hope to invite a new round of communities to participate in 2018.

What are some highlights/recent successes?

At the end of September we celebrated our 100th community to be designated through the SolSmart campaign. I’m confident that we’re making a real impact by reducing the cost and delay of new photovoltaic solar panel installations in communities nationwide and helping the U.S. become a leader in renewable energy.

We also had a very successful Resilient Cities Summit in July. The event is run in partnership with the Urban Land Institute and the US Green Building Council to connect mayors, builders, developers, financiers, planners, and other experts to discuss what each of these sectors needs in order to be truly sustainable in economic, environmental, and social terms.

What is the difference between sustainability and resilience? Can cities be pursuing both at the same time?

This question comes up a lot. I like to say that sustainability is primarily about reducing your impact on the environment, while resilience is about reducing the environment’s impact on you. It’s not perfect, but thinking about it this way allows decision makers to set goals and evaluate trade-offs. For example, if you’re upgrading a building to be safer in earthquake or hurricane zones, can you add some efficiency features and use utility savings to finance the project? Then, are there local policies that help with that kind of holistic approach? I think it’s absolutely necessary to pursue both at the same time because it gives you more complete information to make long-term policy or investment decisions.

What are some ways cities can get more involved/committed to sustainability?

The first thing is to get more involved with the National League of Cities. Elected officials have such a tough job to be educated in so many aspects of running a city and we’re helping make them better leaders all around. After that, sustainability is no different from any other issue. Cities can identify and reach out to local civic associations that are interested in sustainability. Ask them what their top priorities are, what the city can do, and what they can offer in support.


Cooper Martin
Program Director,
Sustainable Cities Institute
National League of Cities