America’s Water Future: Smart, Green, Distributed

By Charlotte Ely

I was raised with the saying, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” To save water, I started making changes in my own home. Following the advice I’ve given to drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities through my work with EPA’s Sustainable Water Infrastructure program, I assessed our use, identified ways we could save water, and made improvements.

I replaced inefficient fixtures and appliances with WaterSense and Energy Star models. I fixed leaks. Most recently, I installed a graywater system. Residential graywater is water from showers, baths, bathroom sinks or washing machines. Graywater can be used instead of drinking water to safely and beneficially irrigate gardens. The graywater system meets much of our outdoor water needs. Since installed, our household consumption has dropped to an average of 19 gallons per person per day — 60% less than the San Francisco average of 49 gallons per day and 80% less than the national average of 100 gallons per day.


The graywater system in Charlotte’s house in San Francisco. Water from one shower and one sink flows into six mulch basins, providing water to a planter bed, four jasmine bushes, a lemon tree and a maple tree.

The graywater system in Charlotte’s house in San Francisco. Water from one shower and one sink flows into six mulch basins, providing water to a planter bed, four jasmine bushes, a lemon tree and a maple tree.


As California enters its fourth year of drought, I’m struck both by the immensity of the challenges ahead, and the incredible potential to re-think how we manage our water resources. Innovative water management practices, such as residential graywater and on-site commercial re-use are examples of the kinds of investments that will help communities adapt to water scarcity. One good example is San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s headquarters building which uses 60% less water than similar sized buildings by reclaiming and treating all of the building’s wastewater on site.

I’m especially encouraged by organizations helping to re-envision our water infrastructure as a smart, green and distributed network:

  • Smart: Uses data analytics to optimize utility management.
  • Green: Use strategic landscaping to capture rainfall for reuse or recharge.
  • Distributed: Has onsite treatment and reuse.

Organizations, like Imagine H2O, are cultivating innovative concepts, technologies and entrepreneurs to help communities adapt—not only to climate change impacts such as drought, but also to an escalating need to invest in our nation’s drinking and clean water infrastructure. This year, Imagine H2O’s annual challenge will honor scalable, cost-effective solutions that improve water and wastewater infrastructure. I’m excited to see what the contestants come up with!

Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” If we could change how we manage water, could we also change the ‘tendency’ of the water? Would it be less scarce? Less polluted? How do you think we can make our water infrastructure smarter, greener and more distributed?

About the author: Charlotte Ely joined EPA’s San Francisco office in 2006. She works for the Sustainable Water Infrastructure program, helping communities throughout the southwest increase the water and energy efficiency of their water, wastewater and storm water infrastructure.


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