What’s the plan?

Who decides where fresh water is allocated in your state? The Congress and Supreme Court are a last resort in the U.S. to decide who gets what fresh water. State agreements are the backbone of water rights. Some large agreements, like the Colorado River Compact of 1922, have been built upon for decades. But, the desire to establish newer or more firm regional water rules is growing. Plumbers need to be involved in these new plans.    

Colorado is an especially complicated place for water. Currently, nine other downstream states have agreements with Colorado for supplies of water. To better define how the next 20 years will look for The Centennial State and the states that rely on its water, Colorado put together a water plan in 2015. To build the plan they established multiple public comment periods and ended up hearing from an estimated 30,000 people. It is the first ever, comprehensive guide for what needs to change to keep up with a growing western state population. 

The plan itself is a non-binding framework to conserve water through infrastructure upgrades, potential new policies for agriculture, and lots of end user education. It also includes the opportunity to build more dams in Colorado, which isn’t popular outside of the state. If you live in Las Vegas or Southern California, you don’t want Colorado to store any more water.  

The advantage of building a dam is to have a bigger buffer of fresh water available for nearby cities in the case of a drought. The disadvantage is that a big open body of water doesn’t keep every gallon of water that flows into it.  A United Nations Environment Programme report from 2009 stated that, “more water evaporates from reservoirs than is consumed by humans.” This statistic won’t apply to every reservoir, but it puts things in perspective.  

The ideal reservoir is a narrow, but deep body of water. The issue is finding geography that accommodates that. Some reservoirs end up with a sprawling surface area that facilitates more evaporation. Dams both prevent local drought and can contribute to regional drought because of the evaporation losses.  

On the current trajectory estimate of the Colorado Water Plan, the communities of Colorado will be 560,000 acre-feet of water short of its demand by 2050. Other estimates show a much wider gap in the acre-foot shortage.  For reference, an acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons of water. One acre-foot is enough to cover a football field with one foot of water. The water plan goal is to bring the supply and demand to the same number of acre-feet by 2030.    


The Colorado Water Plan will rely on individual river basins and smaller communities to conserve water. Each area will have different areas of opportunity to save water. Some areas will have more focus on things like efficient irrigation. Some tourism-supported cities may focus on reducing the amount of water hotels use. Across the board, things like rain sensors for sprinkler irrigation systems are no-brainers. A huge, and potentially overlooked, opportunity for water savings is in the residential and commercial plumbing realm. The problem is that a leaky relief valve isn’t seen as a major problem, but a person watering their lawn at noon is; even though the relief valve may be wasting more water.

According to the EPA, “Household leaks can waste more than 1 trillion gallons annually nationwide. That's equal to the annual household water use of more than 11 million homes. Ten percent of homes have leaks that waste 90 gallons or more per day.  Common types of leaks found in the home include worn toilet flappers, dripping faucets, and other leaking valves. All are easily correctable.”  These things are all fixable with the parts you probably have in your truck right now. 

If you are on a service call and see anything in the mechanical room that is leaking, bring it up with the building owner. They may not realize how expensive a slow drip can be, especially in a heating system. The price of a relief valve replacement is probably much less than 90 gallons of water wasted per day. It is definitely less expensive than filling a heat exchanger with scale from a constant supply of fresh water. Even just five drips per minute could introduce 173 gallons of new water into a heating system in a year, according to a USGS calculator.  

Essentially, the readers of this magazine are in the business of moving clean water around efficiently. If every plumber who reads this fixed 10 leaks in the next month, that would be a noticeable reduction in water waste. With or without regional or federal water plans, the plumbing community is a primary stakeholder in this issue.  

For a specific recommendation, turn off the automatic fill valve on heating systems you install or service. Beyond the first day or so of starting up a system, only bad things come from a potential endless supply of water into your boiler. Your heating system should be a tight as a drum. 

After you have had the system up to your highest expected system temperature, turn off the fill valve. If you have a leak, you need to know about it. Fill valves don’t prevent nuisance callbacks, they hide major system problems.  Even a small leak is slowly diluting expensive glycol, if you have it in the system.  

An open fill valve means you could be steadily supplying fresh minerals to the mineral catcher if there is a hidden system leak. The mineral catcher in a system is generally called a boiler. Fire on one side of a piece of metal and cooler water on the other side is a recipe for scale. While new minerals will also cling to other components in a heating system, the boiler is the perfect place to build up scale because of the enormous delta T on either side of the heat exchanger.

The boiler is also the most damaging place for excess mineral build up. Just 1 millimeter of scale on a heat exchanger is enough to rob 10 percent of efficiency. Scale on a heat exchanger drastically reduces the boiler equivalent of miles per gallon of gas from your systems.   

The water infrastructure in our country is a bigger problem than just leaking toilet flappers and dripping valves. Many water supply lines in the U.S. were built after WWII. Bigger cities may be relying on 100-year-old water mains. Because of these aging lines using 50-plus-year-old technology, “There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States.” 

Where do state water plans go from here? My guess is that some areas will end up providing financial incentives to install rain sensing irrigation sensors for your lawn sprinkler or information sheets that are posted in hotel rooms to explain how wasteful daily towel laundry can be. These are helpful things, but they shouldn’t be our only focuses.  

See if your state has a water plan. If not, they should. Even in water rich areas like the Northeast. The plumbing side of the water conservation issue should be a key piece of any water plan. However, we will be underrepresented in planning and upgrade funding if the readers of this magazine don’t participate in the water plan process. 

Max Rohr has worked in the hydronics and solar industry for 10 years in the installation, sales and marketing sectors. Rohr is a LEED Green Associate and is Radiant Professional Alliance’s (RPA) Education Committee chairman. He can be reached at max.rohr@mac.com and @maxjrohr.

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