Are Our Water Efficiency Standards in Jeopardy?

Last week President Trump announced at a Business Leader Roundtable Meeting  that he has tasked the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to investigate the efficacy of water efficiency standards for toilets, showerheads, and faucets in the United States. This announcement received considerable press coverage, and as a result, the Alliance for Water Efficiency has been fielding numerous information requests since Friday. The water efficiency community is understandably concerned about what might happen.

Are the President’s Concerns Justified?

There are answers for this. The Water Research Foundation's two Residential End Use Studies  (1999 and 2016) specifically did not find statistically significant evidence of multiple toilet flushing. The Maximum Performance Testing Program  (MaP) documents exemplary toilet performance of literally hundreds of models through rigorous and independent toilet testing, offering consumers virtually endless choices towards the selection of a great performing toilet. Lastly, the EPA WaterSense® program  has developed rigorous specifications for toilets, showerheads, and faucets that require independent testing and third party certification to help ensure that the products meet consumer expectations while functioning properly at the flush volumes and flow rates specified. Thus, the new generation of plumbing fixtures have been documented to perform very well, and at a very reasonable cost to the consumer. 

However, it is clear that the President is mining a potential vein of public support. It is an unfortunate fact that some consumers have at one time or another experienced a problem with a plumbing product. (But note for the record that toilet plungers were invented long before efficiency standards were enacted. Even at high flushing volumes, toilets can clog.) 

What is At Risk With the President’s Directive to EPA?

Minimum water efficiency standards for toilets, showerheads, faucets, and urinals were set by the 1992 Federal Energy Policy Act, and changes to these requirements will take an Act of Congress. Even if the EPA produces a report that recommends repeal of these standards, such legislation to implement those recommendations would need congressional action in an already busy legislative agenda in a presidential election year.  

Further, the Uniform Plumbing Code and the International Plumbing code both incorporate the federal water efficiency standards. Repealing the federal standards in Congress doesn’t mean that the water efficiency standards in the codes are automatically repealed too. Changes would have to occur in the next code revision cycles. So water efficiency standards repealed at the federal level would have no immediate effect on any new construction until the codes would be revised.  Also, six states have now enacted their own water efficiency standards (California, Texas, Georgia, Colorado, New York, and Nevada) and even if the federal standards were to be repealed by Congress, these states still would have their own legislated or regulatory standards in place.

However, the voluntary WaterSense labeling program may be at risk, since the WaterSense program labels water-using products that are 20% more efficient than the federal standards. The water efficiency community was successful last year in getting the WaterSense program its much needed official Congressional authorization, but its budget status and future direction of the program nonetheless still remains at the discretion of the EPA Administrator, and thus at risk. 

What Should We Do?

We should first wait to see if this is just a personal presidential complaint or real threat to our hard-won water efficiency standards. It appears at the very least that the President’s directive to EPA may result in a public comment process to seek consumer opinions about efficient product performance.  

Here is our immediate plan of action:

  1. We will carefully track any developments on this issue and will keep you informed.
  2. We will form a coalition of manufacturers, utilities, code and standards groups, and environmental organizations to present a united front opposed to any repeal of the current federal and state water-efficiency laws and standards. We must make a compelling argument through this coalition that any changes proposed to roll back federal standards will have a damaging effect on both American-based industry and the environment.
  3. We will begin identifying and talking with key members of Congress to ensure that they are fully aware of the risks inherent in repealing the current law. This is imperative to start soon, because legislators could be vulnerable to a campaign to “get the government out of our bathrooms,” the same refrain that was used in a previous effort to change the law in 1996.
  4. We will work with the Department of Energy (DOE), which is charged with administering the federal law, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which the President has directed to take action on this issue. It is vital that we understand how the wheels of government are turning and what steps we can take to affect any outcome on this issue.  We will provide whatever technical assistance and support we can.
  5. We are researching the legal issues around reversing the current statutory standards through Executive action rather than Congressional action. While we believe at AWE that any rollback would require a change in the federal statute, we want to be prepared for all contingencies. 
  6. If any changes are officially proposed that would impact the federal standards or the WaterSense program, we will organize a massive grass-roots campaign of e-mails and letter-writing aimed at convincing Congress and the administration that repealing national water-efficiency standards is a very bad idea for the country.

But to do all of this means that we will definitely need your help. Stay tuned. 

Mary Ann Dickinson
President and CEO
Alliance for Water Efficiency