In this week's episode, we'll continue our conversation on plumbing resiliency with a focus on sustainability and equity. Our guest this week is Ron Jones, co-founder and president of Green Builder Media, who is recognized as one of the fathers of the green building movement, instrumental in establishing guidelines and programs through NAHB, USGBC, and a variety of regional initiatives.
Jones is the charter chairman of the Greenbuilder Coalition, a grassroots nonprofit advocacy group, whose goal is to promote integrity and the building industry and beyond in an effort to return balance and harmony to the relationship between the built environment and the natural one. A recognized author and keynote speaker on four continents, his industry credentials and leadership experience, combined with his inspirational message and take-no-prisoners style, makes him a high-demand presenter for conferences and events of all kinds.
To learn more about Green Builder Media, visit www.greenbuildermedia.com.
Christoph Lohr: Welcome to this week's episode of "The Authority Podcast: Plumbing & Mechanical." I'm Christoph Lohr, your host. Today, we're going to continue this conversation we've been having on plumbing resiliency with a focus on sustainability and equity. This week, joining me as a guest is Ron Jones, co-founder and president of Green Builder Media, who is recognized as one of the fathers of the green building movement, instrumental in establishing guidelines and programs through NAHB, USGBC, and a variety of regional initiatives.
He's the charter chairman of the Greenbuilder Coalition, a grassroots nonprofit advocacy group, whose goal is to promote integrity and the building industry and beyond in an effort to return balance and harmony to the relationship between the built environment and the natural one. A recognized author and keynote speaker on four continents, his industry credentials and leadership experience, combined with his inspirational message and take-no-prisoners style, makes him a high-demand presenter for conferences and events of all kinds.
And we are very fortunate to have you on the podcast today. Thank you, Ron, for joining me.
Ron Jones: Hey, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Christoph Lohr: Before we dive into our questions, Ron, do you want to tell us a little bit about Green Builder and the work that you're doing?
Ron Jones: Well, it's a pretty broad spectrum actually, cause we have a full-service media company and we do a print publication, but most of our information comes out online.
As you might expect these days, a full spectrum of projects that we do, including research and demonstration projects. And of course, lots of editorial. We look at projects around the country that other people are doing, policy issues and then products and systems. So we pretty much cover the spectrum of green building and sustainable development.
Christoph Lohr: That's exciting. You mentioned research, and research, I think, is such a big need right now in plumbing in general and water conservation, I think in many ways, there's so much that seems to be changing in the landscape. Would you agree?
Ron Jones: Yes, I would. And I think that what we've seen over the years is it's gone beyond the notion of water delivery at the faucet or at the plumbing fixture into a much bigger discussion, a much deeper discussion, if you will, of taking ownership of water as a resource at the meter, or at the point where it comes into the building as opposed to individual faucets.
Christoph Lohr: Yeah, definitely. My sense is that plumbing is undergoing a lot of change, and your point about making that shift, it's been so noticed. Well, let's dive into some topics that we kind of had talked about here, leading up to this, and my first item that I want to talk about and then dive into a little bit deeper is the concept of water usage in the U.S. So there was a study done by the federal government several years ago. I think it's kind of an ongoing study; they seem to release new results every few years. And they break down the percentage and usage by various industries in the U.S. as far as freshwater withdrawals, and accounting for right around 80% is thermoelectric power and irrigation, farming, while public usage of fresh water accounted for about 10%.
Some of our listeners may ask, why not focus on thermoelectric and irrigation instead of buildings that have account for 10% or less? What would you say in response to those listeners? What part does commercial residential buildings play in overall water conservation?
Ron Jones: Well, I think the important point is that you can't separate any of those sectors out and not pay attention to them. So if you look at our specialty, which is the built environment, then it's natural for us to be working in that arena. We in no way want to diminish the importance of agriculture, irrigation, that sort of thing, or thermoelectric power production, because they are huge and they have tremendous impact on our water resource.
One thing that comes to mind for me is the fact that a lot of people don't realize it takes 30 gallons of fresh water to produce a kilowatt of electricity. And so if there's a dynamic that occurs there and there's a relationship between those two resources that we cannot overlook. But when we think about the things that we can do in our daily lives and in our practices and in our futures, in the built environment, there are tremendous opportunities for us to look at not only commercial applications and industrial applications, but also residential, because every little bit that we can control is something that is an obligation I feel that we have.
Christoph Lohr: Yeah, I think, I think that's a great point, Ron. I liked your kind of, all-of-the-above approach.
I mean, just because we have an area that accounts for 80%, that doesn't mean that we can't make a big impact with that other 10%. I think you're spot on. My sense is too, that, especially with the way that water is becoming a more and more scarce resource in the U.S. we do have to take an all-of-the-above approach.
I live in Phoenix, Arizona, and I believe you're in Colorado, so both of us deal with Colorado River, looking at that as a resource of fresh water. And now we've been in a 20-year drought; it's no longer drought prevention, it's drought preparation at this point, I think, in the Southwest. What, when it comes to drought — and that's probably the biggest driver from a water sustainability standpoint — what is your sense of what areas are under the most stress in the U.S. currently?
Ron Jones: Well, clearly the Western half of the United States is in the most dire straits, and particularly parts of the West Coast and the desert Southwest. So if we look at those areas that are depicted, like on the U.S.G.S. maps that show a drought across the country, those are severe extreme droughts that have lasted for a decade or more and are not likely to ease up anytime soon. But strangely enough, there are other areas of the country that are maybe not expected. For example, I recently went online and looked at the information that we're discussing and, for the first time ever I saw that there were actually some areas depicted as a moderate drought in Alaska.
So I think that we're seeing changes on a global scale and certainly on a continental scale that we need to be aware of. And then add to that the fact that we've got recent news like the litigation between Florida and Georgia, for example, where I guess the Supreme Court finally had to settle a water dispute between those two states. So there's plenty of drought to go around. And I think that we all need to be cognizant of the possibilities of what it may do to future development. I think it's the number one limiting factor for development in the construction industry as we know it.
Christoph Lohr: No, I think that's a great point. You mentioned Alaska and Georgia and Florida. Living in Phoenix, those are three states I would have never expected to be on that list, which is crazy to think about. Maybe a little bit of a sidebar question here, one of the things that I've been wondering is if the cost of water, right now, my sense is that water costs in the U.S. are very inexpensive in general.
Does the cost of water, or do you anticipate that the cost of water will be increasing in the near future? And then obviously there's this whole related topic of water equity. And if we increase the cost of water, how does all of that kind of work together? So I guess, let me start this question off first with, do you think that the water prices in the U.S. are likely going to go up in the future?
Ron Jones: Well, I think that they will. And I think that traditionally they have been shamefully underpriced because water is undervalued as a resource and as a commodity, frankly. It's amazing to me that people will go into a convenience store and pay two or three bucks for a bottle of water, but they will fall on their sword to prevent any sort of increase in their water rates at their residence or place of business.
Christoph Lohr: That's a great point. So again, my sense, too, is that it's likely that water prices will be increasing in the U.S. So it sounds I think we're both kind of seeing that trend. But then what do we do to make sure that the most impoverished areas in the U.S., and that those that are most in need, aren't adversely affected by this?
What's your, from a water equity standpoint, the Biden administration has obviously called it out in a lot of their executive orders and in the bills that they're proposing. What are some of the steps that you think we might need to take to try to help prevent those that are most in need from being so negatively impacted if those water rates are increasing?
Ron Jones: Well, I think there's a couple of things that I've experienced in my career that sort of befuddled me, that it never made sense that we use our most precious resource as a conduit for dealing with our waste. And that's industrial waste, residential waste, commercial waste, every kind of chemical waste that we can imagine.
We look at pollution streams that invariably end up having huge impacts on the most impoverished areas and the folks that are most challenged with their resources. And so that's one element of it. The other thing is that we have never really taken stock of the availability of water in terms of looking at it a fair way of valuing that and usage.
The thing that amazed me always was that typically, and I think this is beginning to change some, but typically you would see that a water provider, a public utility, if you will, would actually bring down the cost of water per gallon or per hundred thousand gallons or per million gallons or whatever the metric is; the more you use the cheaper it becomes.
There's something wrong with that equation. If you're going to encourage conservation, so that there's enough water to go around, it's necessary to provide reasons for people to do that. And instead you're encouraging more water use. That's counterintuitive to me.
Christoph Lohr: I would agree. I would agree. It's getting all those various variables in harmony. Like in my introduction for you, I like that point about getting a return to balance and harmony. And so it's getting all those variables in harmony with each other rather than competing against each other. And I would agree with you that there's some situations like that that probably are backward.
Continuing on this thread of water equity, I imagine it probably has a part to play in sustainability, but what parts of the U.S. need major infrastructure updates or creation to be able to give them clean water?
Ron Jones: Basically the whole damn country. If we look at, it's amazing to me, the statistic that jumps out is that annually, just our water infrastructure, our public water infrastructure, through leaks and deficiencies and problems that we have with them, we waste over 2 trillion gallons of treated potable water every year in this country. And so if you look at the infrastructure and the collapse of the water systems in many parts of the country, and we could go into a whole litany around things like Flint, Michigan, and other places where water availability and water quality have really come to the front page more recently if we look at, after the winter storms down in the South and for weeks, I'm not even sure they have it resolved yet, but Jackson, Mississippi, people are still having to boil their water or use bottled water for every single household need.
And so it's amazing to me that we don't put a little more emphasis on this particular piece of the infrastructure, because it's not going to repair itself. It's not going to get any better.
Christoph Lohr: No, that's a great point, Ron. And frankly, it's something that I've been wrestling with for the last, probably a year or two, as I've kind of dug into how our systems are put together.
A long time of my career has been focused on plumbing engineering. That is, everything from 5 feet outside the building within the building. And typically the utility was everything, five feet outside of the building and back to the treatment plant in the water reservoir.
But my sense is the more I dig into this that it's really a source-to-tap and tap-to-source problem. And that one of the things that we need to do a better job of here in the U.S. is kind of apply systems thinking and making sure we break down some of those barriers between the fragmented portions of our water and plumbing systems industry.
I think there's a lot of potential for a lot of cooks in the kitchen, and I think that's OK. A lot of cooks is OK, but we want everybody pulling in the same direction. And so I think there's a big need to have people working together and getting out of their silos and having conversations like this one.
One of the articles I remember reading recently, and I had posted on LinkedIn, talked about water treatment and distribution design in Germany and the Netherlands versus where it is here in the U.S. And in Germany, my home country, they focus more on almost like a modular design, getting the water treatment plant closer to the peoples and buildings that they serve and reducing not just the size of the piping, but the overall length of their distribution networks, and have a bigger focus on filtering out and providing cleaner water and reducing the amount of disinfectants and everything else in the water. And it's interesting to compare that to the approach we have here in the U.S. Again, when you're talking about major infrastructure updates, I almost wonder if some of it has been, we just kind of threw it out there and just kind of let it go, and now we're running into some of these issues with water usage, in part, because of the way we've designed. And then obviously that extends all the way into the building, the way that we've been designing and engineering and installing and constructing and maintaining plumbing systems inside buildings.
I think again, we've had a piecemeal approach and we haven't really looked at the whole system holistically from, again, source to tap and tap to source. Is that your sense too? Or do you think I'm missing the mark here?
Ron Jones: No, I think you're right on. I think that what we have is, the big failure in this arena in my mind is not in the technology. It's not in the progress of development of products and systems and application. It's really a problem of public policy. There's an old saying that we measure the things that matter. And if you think about the way water is supplied to multifamily structures, let's say huge apartment complexes or commercial buildings, office buildings, those sorts of things, only recently have we begun to think about individual metering or at least having a way of identifying water use on a case-by-case basis. And so that's an area where I think we need to have tremendous improvement, because if you just are all drinking from this big, vast pond, you don't really have too much concern about water.
It seems like it's infinite, but on the other hand, and I have to think back on an experience that I had with some folks down in the hill country of Texas, where they've really done probably the most extensive residential water harvesting in the country that I'm aware of. And someone that I've worked with in the sustainability arena for many years said to me, the point of all this is that when you become a water harvester, you become a water steward.
And that's what's missing. We have no stewardship, individually or collectively, and certainly not from a national standpoint, with this precious resource step that we're talking about.
Christoph Lohr: So let me follow that question up then. From a big-picture standpoint, when it comes to public policy, what are some of the actions you think we should take to develop more of a stewardship mindset and stewardship policies to make sure that we're looking at these things more holistically?
Ron Jones: Well, talk about topical. Here we have these wastewater ponds, above-ground wastewater reservoirs, in Florida that are threatening to flood subdivisions, entire communities, with wastewater from some sort of chemical plants that were there for, I believe, producing fertilizers and things. And so we have this public policy, which encourages businesses, incentivizes businesses, to come in and provide jobs.
And we look at it in the near term. But then we have public policy that allows these folks to take off when they're finished making the profit that they need to, and leave a mess behind for the taxpayer to clean up. So it's not only the threat to the water resource itself that we're looking at, but the threat to the public coffers.
So what we do is we sort of trip over a dollar to pick up a dime in these situations, we don't hold industry accountable, we don't hold polluters and waste producers accountable, and we don't charge a fair price upfront. What happens is that once those voters are in place, it's very difficult for a local policymaker, decision-maker, to stand up and have the courage to increase water rates. What they would do instead is find some way to augment the needed expansion of the water system to accommodate growth by putting the entire burden on the new user. Because they certainly don't want to have the blowback from their constituents over raising the price of water in order to attract more users.
So on one hand we encourage development because that increases the tax base and it provides jobs and so on and so forth. So you have an economic incentive to do that, but then we sort of use a Band-Aid approach to trying to deal with the long-term outcomes that this produces.
Christoph Lohr: Geez. Well, and then you got a situation like Flint, Michigan, where you have areas where there's little to no development going on, and that revenue can potentially just plummet.
Well, last question on this topic of affordability and equity: Is there an opportunity for philanthropic organizations to help bridge the gaps to get all the parts of the U S. water, and then obviously clean sanitation as well. How can those organizations help out in that way?
Ron Jones: There has to be a myriad of ways for this to happen. But where I would start is I look at the situation with Native American populations. If we look, they were in Arizona and we look at the Navajo Nation, for example, there are many people scattered across a vast area who are 60 miles or more from the nearest source of safe water.
And so I think what we have to do is use our philanthropic capabilities to help and develop on a small scale, on an individual scale, systems that will allow a family group or a compound or a small community to be self-sufficient in terms of its water production and making sure that is a solution that's going to have a longevity to it, and also in dealing with pollution at the source for another layer of surface waters, but our ground waters, and making sure that these populations like the one I discussed are not further disadvantaged because they don't have the financial resources to simply bulldoze the technology.
Christoph Lohr: That's a great point. Actually, I'm glad you mentioned the Navajo Nation and some of the opportunities over there that we're actually going to have a podcast later this season with IWSH, that's The International Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Foundation, which is one of those philanthropic arms out there, it's the philanthropic arm of IAPMO. And we're going to have a conversation with DigDeep, which is an amazing organization that IWSH partnered with to help solve that problem in that area. So to our listeners and to Ron, be on the lookout for that podcast later this season.
So getting towards the tail end here of what we're going to talk about, we talked a lot about how water is being misused in the U.S. and a lot of these issues, but let's finish on a positive note here. Looking at the brighter side here, are there areas in the U.S. where water is being used efficiently, where water resources are being managed smartly, and what steps does the U.S. need to take to use water more efficiently? So let's start with that first one: Where in the U.S. is water being used efficiently?
Ron Jones: That's probably the toughest question that you've posed. The fact of the matter is, if we look at the way water is managed and handled, I think oddly enough, we can look at Las Vegas and look at the methods that they have put in place there to handle various levels of wastewater to treat the water, the way they transport the water, and the way that water is in reuse, the application of xeriscape promotions and incentives. And then beyond that right down to mandates around the residential landscaping and so forth. So that's one example of at least trying to take the problem head on and not to be looked at as a user of the water resource that simply isn't addressing the problem. But I think that there are a number of states, and municipalities in those states, across the country, in the Southeast, in the Northeast and in the Midwest, that are grappling with this problem right now. And it's not just the big cities that you look at, how New York City, for example, sources its water and how they're trying to come to terms with the extreme amount of demand that they have. There's no one simple answer to any of these particular situations; every one of them is local and the solutions have to be local as well. I mentioned to you as we were developing our thoughts for this talk that here in our place in Colorado we have a virgin stream that comes right off the top of the mountain through a ranch holding that we have, and it's a year-round perennial stream and it flows into a larger stream, which then flows into the Colorado River, and the Colorado, of course, supplies 40 million people, I think, the last count, with water across the Southwest.
What's interesting about this is that every drop of water that flows through our little ranch up there finds its way into this bigger flow of water, and that water is taken out of the Colorado system and put back in 12 times before it reaches the West Coast.
Christoph Lohr: Wow.
Ron Jones: And so we have to look at it as our responsibility to be as careful with the water that flows in our little tributary as the final user does, and everybody in between. So, if we think about your situation in Arizona, you think about the growth and rapid increase in development that's taken place over the last few decades and which continues today, and we look at the water resource we realize that not only is it finite, it's actually shrinking in terms of the current climate situation.
So we have to figure out ways to mitigate the overuse and certainly the waste and abuse of the precious water that we have.
Christoph Lohr: Totally agree, Ron. It's interesting. I was sitting there when you were talking about areas that do things well. I think Arizona, I thought of, you mentioned Nevada, and I think a lot of the states here in the Southwest, we've kind of gotten to be better at it, just because of necessity in many ways.
But early on when we were talking about usage by percentage of freshwater withdrawals and I think Phoenix, Arizona, and then the surrounding metro area provides a unique example in one sense, where you can kill two birds with one stone. And then that is the Palo Verde nuclear power plant 50 miles west of the city.
And normally for a nuclear power plant, you'd have it right next to a reservoir. Well, obviously we don't have any big reservoirs out here, so what was done was they made a reservoir, but rather than filling with fresh water, what's been done is the west side of the city has a wastewater treatment plant that pumps that water out 50 miles after it treats the sewage coming from all the homes and businesses on the west side of the city out to Palo Verde out to their reservoir, and then they use that to cool the reactors. So, there's great opportunities to have one sector help the other and various cities and reduce overall water consumption as a result.
So I think you bring up some really good points as far as the areas that are starting to do things well. What are the steps you think that the U.S. needs to take to use water more effectively, whether it's policy, technical developments. What are the steps that you're seeing that the U.S. needs to take to get to that standpoint of just being smarter about their water usage?
Ron Jones: If there's only one thing that I could wish for or one thing that I could wave the magic wand and create, it would be a better understanding, a communication that would allow people to actually realize how important this is, how precious the water resource is, and the fact that each one of us can do our part to help alleviate the problem and to perpetuate a, permanent civilization, because the world is vast; we understand that, but there's only a certain amount of water and we just keep using the same water over and over and over again in different forms. We're not creating any new water — we're not going to — but we have greater demands, greater population, greater issues with pollution, economic impact, in a variety of different ways. And I think that just creating an appreciation for how important water is, and making it more front of mind, whether you're in the agriculture industry and irrigation is an important part of that, whether you're in power production and realizing that water is an input that we have to account for in that, whatever sector you find yourself in.
But here in the built environment, what we need to do is to help create an appreciation and a mindfulness on the part of our clients and our customers to say, "Hey, this matters. We need to pay attention so that there will be a resource for future generations." And so that not only for our own benefit and not only for our own species, but for all of the living creatures that we share the world with.
Christoph Lohr: I totally agree. Well, I think that's a great note to end on. Ron, I want to thank you again. Before we sign off, what's the best way for people to get in touch with you or Green Builder Media folks?
Ron Jones: Well, everybody's welcome to come to our Green Builder Media website, greenbuildermedia.com. I say this with great pride because we have such an astonishing team, but there is a true wealth of information around sustainability, the built environment, water, and other resources on that website, and the archives are almost bottomless there. So please take a look at what we have going on at Green Builder Media.
If you have a comment for me, or want to get in touch, email's the absolute best. I'm firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christoph Lohr: Awesome, Ron, for any of our listeners that want to get in touch with me, you can find me on Twitter @LohrThoughts, or you can connect with me on LinkedIn Christoph Lohr, P.E. Otherwise, I just want to say thank you again, Ron, for a delightful conversation.
I really appreciate your insights, your experience, the expertise and the passion that you bring this conversation. On behalf of IAPMO and "The Authority Podcast: Plumbing & Mechanical," just want to say thanks again for joining us today.
Ron Jones: Well, thank you and thanks for the effort that you're putting in and the care that you're endowing into the subject.
Christoph Lohr: Awesome, thank you. And to our listeners, we'll see you next time on "The Authority Podcast: Plumbing & Mechanical."