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By Willoughby Mariano April 4, 2011

Water advocate says toilets could save nearly 50 million gallons daily

Despite decades of legal squabbles over the Southeast’s precious water resources, the problem still looms large over Georgia.

But take heart. And look down. Some of the solutions can be found in your toilet, the head of a water conservation group said recently.  

"In three years we could find close to 50 million gallons per day through a toilet replacement program," Sally Bethea, founding director of Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said in a recent article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Can better commodes really flush away that much of the area’s water problem?

Georgia has been battling for years with Florida and Alabama over how to divvy up the region’s water supply. In 2009, a federal judge ruled that if the states fail to reach a water-sharing agreement by mid-July 2012, metro Atlanta can take only the same amount of water it received in the mid-1970s -- when the population was less than a third of what it is today.

Georgia appealed the ruling in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the state has a good shot at victory.

Even if Georgia wins this battle, the available water supply might not meet the region’s long-term needs.

So Bethea has targeted the potty, the modern household’s thirstiest water hog. Nationally and locally, governments have created programs to replace old-fashioned commodes that can use more than 3.5 gallons per flush with low-flow toilets that use as little as 1.28 gallons.  

This is how Riverkeeper came up with its number:

Atlanta is part of the 15-county Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, which includes counties as far north as Hall and as far south as Coweta. She said the planning district estimates that 850,000 homes have old-fashioned plumbing.

The district already has programs in which residents receive rebates if they install low-flow toilets. But Bethea said she envisions a more dramatic change.

In the mid-1990s, New York City ran a successful program that changed out the city’s old toilets with low-flow ones.

Over three years, that effort switched about 1.3 million toilets and saved an estimated 70 million to 80 million gallons per day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Under the privately managed program, which was heavily promoted to apartment building owners and plumbers, property owners received up to $240 per toilet to have them replaced by a licensed professional.  

Experts we interviewed think that New York City-style programs can be more effective than a typical rebate program. They are especially helpful for properties with low- or fixed-income residents who often live in older housing with outdated plumbing.

Using EPA figures, Riverkeeper calculated that 8,120 gallons can be saved per person per year if a resident installs one new high-efficiency toilet, faucet and shower head in his home. If there are 2.5 people in the household, the savings totals 47.3 million gallons per day across the region, the group calculated.  

Bethea described her estimate as "very conservative" because many homes have more than one toilet or 2.5 residents. It doesn’t include savings when the upgraded plumbing fixes leaks, either.

We found that Riverkeeper numbers are optimistic.

The group’s figure for households with old-fashioned plumbing is out of date, according to data from the Water Planning District. Last year, it was about 615,000, or 27 percent less.  

And Bethea’s estimate for the amount of water saved per toilet is high. Her group assumed those toilets would date from the 1980s or earlier. The older the toilet, the more water it uses.

But Atlanta’s housing stock is relatively new. Under an existing rebate program that will last until 2025, the Water Planning District expects the region to save 14 million gallons per day if 57 percent of homeowners use the program.

District figures do not include savings from installing more efficient faucets and shower heads. But since those fixtures combined use thousands of gallons per year less than toilets, we think it’s reasonable to expect that they would not increase the amount of water saved to nearly 50 million gallons per day.  

In addition, the Atlanta region has characteristics that could weaken the impact of a New York City-style program. The Big Apple has far more apartments, which meant persuading a single apartment building owner to change made a dramatic difference. Plus property owners had a big incentive to switch toilets quickly because of changes in how the city billed for water.

To Bethea’s credit, she used careful language. She said the region "could" save 50 million gallons per day, not that it "would."  And while saving nearly 50 million gallons of water per day appears unlikely in light of water district numbers, it isn’t impossible.

The region could have a higher-than-expected participation rate or proportion of very old toilets. The amount of water saved because the new plumbing fixes leaks could boost the total, and changing toilets over three years rather than 14 (under the rebate) does save more water, total.

Therefore Bethea’s fundamental point rings true. A New York-style program "could" save 50 million gallons per day. The amount could easily be much lower, but even more conservative estimates place the savings in the range of tens of millions of gallons per day.

We rate her claim Mostly True.

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Our Sources

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Court to hear Lanier appeal," March 9, 2011

Interview, Sally Bethea, founding director, Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, March 14, 2011

Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, "Filling the Water Gap," March 2011

Interview, Ari M. Michelsen, Ph.D., research director and professor, Natural Resource Economics, Texas A&M University System, March 17, 2011

Interview, Heather Cooley, co-director, Water Program, Pacific Institute, March 18, 2011

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Cases in Water Conservation," July 2002,

The New York Times, "Low Flow, High Overflow," Feb. 2, 1997

E-mail interview, Stephanie Thornton, WaterSense marketing and outreach specialist, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, March 24, 2011

E-mail interview, Farrell Sklerov, spokesman, New York City Department of Environmental Protection, March 24, 2011

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