The U.S. freshwater supply is drying up. Well-documented shortages in the West have been spreading east to Atlanta, Florida, and the Carolinas, among other areas, and clean-water advocates and government officials are concerned. Sandra Postel, director of the South Hadley, Mass.-based nonprofit Global Water Policy Project, cites multiple causes for the problem. “In the West, cities have been growing at a rapid rate in areas where water isn't available,” she explains. “We've had rapid growth in the East, too, but it's wetter here, so the [larger] issue is how we manage water.”

In a September 2002 report, “Managing America's Water — Toward a More Modern Approach,” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) painted a gloomy picture. “This country is facing a looming water crisis,” USACE warned. “We are seeing frequent regional droughts, disputes over allocation brought on by growing population demands, and widespread disagreement over competing purposes for water resource use. It is likely that water will generate as much controversy in the 21st century as oil did in the last century. If America doesn't act, there will be more serious water conflicts in the next 20 years.”

the rain-egades

It's unlikely development will cease, but forward-thinking architects and developers have heeded the warnings. Many are taking a more thoughtful water-saving approach when conceiving and building projects, and some are even arguing that on-site rainwater collection should be a central focus of the water debate. San Francisco green developer LORAX Development, for example, believes so strongly in the practice that it fought the city's Department of Building Inspection to gain approval for San Francisco's first residential rooftop rain-catchment system.

Installed atop a 2,600-square-foot Noe Valley home, the system collects up to 20,000 gallons of rain annually, filters it, and stores it in tanks below an exterior deck for toilet, laundry, and irrigation use. “We're always looking at new techniques and teaching ourselves about green features,” says LORAX's Mike Kerwin, who, with his partners, saw the system at a trade show and felt compelled to use it. City officials didn't approve—at least, not initially. “They told us, ‘You can't be your own water plant,'” Kerwin says. “It became an obsession for us.”

Cherokee Investment Partners, a Raleigh, N.C.-based firm that specializes in the sustainable redevelopment of brownfields, also makes water conservation a key component of its projects. “We've always been aware of water shortages,” says senior director Jonathan Philips. “We consider it a critical resource.” The firm even built the Mainstream GreenHome to encourage more people to come to the same realization.

Located in Raleigh, the 4,000-square-foot home uses up to 50 percent less water than a typical house, Philips says. It has automatic faucets, faucet-flow restrictors, dual-flush toilets, instant hot water tanks, and a high-efficiency irrigation system that relies on moisture sensors in the soil. Anchoring the project is an 8,000-gallon rainwater-harvesting system—the first to gain city approval—that retains on site up to 95 percent of all stormwater. That feature alone will prove significant, Cherokee claims, since a 2,000-square-foot home in an area with 41 inches of annual rainfall has the potential to harvest 46,000 gallons of freshwater each year.

Atlanta's Urban Realty Partners took a similar approach with Oakland Park, a 65-unit loft project it co-developed with Savannah, Ga.-based Melaver. Dual-flush toilets, water-efficient appliances, and rain-collecting cisterns will realize efficiency gains of 30 percent to 40 percent over conventional buildings of similar size. Simon J. Tuohy, development associate for Urban Realty Partners, admits that such features cost more to implement, but he's convinced that “more builders should do projects that have them,” if for no other reason than because it's the right thing to do.

Architect Thomas P. Doerr agrees. On his Web site, the principal of Boulder, Colo.-based Doerr Architecture promotes rooftop water-catchment systems, but he also encourages clients to consider recycling gray water from sinks, showers, and washing machines and to choose water-efficient equipment. “Water-conserving toilets, showerheads, and faucet aerators not only reduce water use, they also reduce demand on septic systems or sewage treatment plants,” he writes.

water wise

Until recently, it seemed that Energy Star appliances and standard 1.6-gallons-per-flush toilets could sufficiently mitigate the problem. But rising populations and increased demand have outpaced those measures. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took a step toward more rigorous conservation last October when he signed into law a bill requiring all new construction in California to use even more efficient toilets and urinals. Beginning in 2010, AB 715 will require 50 percent of all toilets sold in California to meet the new flush standards; 100 percent of toilets sold in the state must comply by 2014.

Fortunately, high-efficiency toilets—those that flush with 1.28 gallons of water and dual-flush units that use 0.8 gallons to 1.6 gallons per flush—are now widely available, as are various ultra-low-flow fixtures. Kohler Co., for example, already offers a variety of dual-flush units through its Sterling brand. It also recently introduced the San Raphael Pressure Lite, which uses a mere 1 gallon of water per flush. According to the company, the pressure-assisted toilet could potentially save a household of four 7,000 to 10,000 gallons of water annually, when compared with a standard toilet. “These toilets represent the future of flushing technology,” says Shane Judd, Kohler's product manager for toilets. “The industry is progressing to better technology and improved performance.”