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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Purple Pipes

March 8, 2013

and other tales of innovative water conservation in unlikely places

By Charles Fishman

In the rangeland of Australia, sheep get frightfully dirty. They roam the outback among all manner of plants, trees, and scrub; they loll in the dirt; they sleep on the ground; they roll in their own poop. They shower only if it happens to rain.

So when Australian sheep get sheared, the fresh wool is grubby. A specialized industry exists to clean it before it can be woven into everything from haute couture to bedding and carpeting. Wool scouring is as gritty and demanding as the name suggests, and it is a water-intensive business.

Michell Wool has been washing wool in Australia since 1870, and their big scouring plant in Salisbury, a suburb north of Adelaide, uses about 1 million liters of water a day. The machine that cleans the wool is a long line of connected stainless-steel tanks and conveyors, called a scour, which stretches more than half the length of a football field. The raw wool, called greasy wool (in addition to dirt, it is coated with the sheep’s natural protection, lanolin), gets unbaled and dumped into a tank at one end of the scour. It is washed in cold water, lightly agitated, wrung out, and moved up belts into successive tanks. It’s ultimately washed in water that is 150 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to dissolve the lanolin.

It is possible to know exactly how dirty the wool coming into Michell is—weigh it before it’s scoured, weigh it after. On average, the yield from raw wool is 55 percent: 100 pounds of greasy wool yields 55 pounds of usable wool and 45 pounds of dirt, debris, poop, and lanolin. Hence the importance of the water—each pound of wool requires 3.6 gallons of wash water to get clean, almost twice what your home washing machine uses.

Salisbury gets just eighteen inches of rain a year, less than Flagstaff, Arizona, and sits in South Australia, Australia’s driest state. Yet until just a few years ago, Michell was washing all its wool in drinking water—the same water Salisburians were using to shower and cook. When you see how dirty the wool is and how dirty the water gets, it seems absurd to be washing greasy wool in tap water.

“Back in the 1980s, we were using in excess of a giga-liter of mains water a year, and we asked ourselves, ‘Is that a sensible place to be?’” says David Michell, a fifth-generation member of the founding family and now co–managing director of the company. Outside of farms, Michell Wool is one of the largest single users of water in the state of South Australia, and the owners worried about a coming time when water scarcity could become so serious that wool washing would compete with residential water use—in terms of price or adequate supply, or both. “If there is no water,” says Michell, “there is no business for us. Water is a strategic issue. We started looking for a Plan B.”

As it happened, the city of Salisbury was worrying about water, too, but from the other end: how to dispose of storm-water runoff more effectively. The city was collecting this water in drains and culverts and piping it untreated into the ocean six miles west, along a sensitive stretch of coastal mangroves and sea grass.

And so the city of Salisbury started a kind of upstart water utility, and Michell Wool became its biggest customer. In the 1990s, Salisbury started collecting some of its storm water and routing it for filtration into wetlands and reed beds—some natural, some created by the city. Salisbury then injected the water into a limestone aquifer that happens to sit directly below the city. That aquifer serves as a reservoir of reasonably clean water that’s good for all kinds of purposes—watering ball fields, irrigating commercial nurseries, piping into toilets, and—of course—washing wool.

Salisbury now has 53 water-filtering wetlands covering 740 acres and collecting about eight gigaliters of water a year to inject down into the aquifer. With no further treatment, it pumps two gigaliters per year of that water back out through purple pipes. Purple pipes have become the global standard for water that is not potable but is clean enough for other routine use—everything from gardening, landscaping, and toilet flushing to wool scouring. Michell Wool takes 15 percent of Salisbury’s purple-pipe water. Their wool scouring now gets done not in drinking water but in cleaned-up rainwater that once would have polluted the Indian Ocean. “Now our water is about one-third the price it would otherwise be,” says Michell. Moreover, Salisbury makes about A$1.6 million a year by cleaning up polluted water.

The storm-water project has had another remarkable value inside Michell and in the city of Salisbury—perhaps the most important long-term value. It’s creating what Bruce Naumann, Salisbury’s water manager, calls “fit-for-purpose water.” You use water of a quality and a cleanliness that’s good enough for the task at hand. In fact, Salisbury is home to a large residential development called Mawson Lakes, where every one of the 4,500 homes, and every business, has purple-pipe water along with potable water. In Mawson Lakes, the purple-pipe water is used for toilets and for outdoor watering. The hose spigots mounted on people’s outside walls in Mawson Lakes are bright purple. During the depth of the Australian drought, Mawson Lakes residents could still water their outdoor plants and gardens when no one else could.

Upon reflection, it is absurd for drought-ravaged Australia to wash wool in drinking water. In fact, regardless of resources, it’s crazy to use drinking water for things like watering soccer fields or flushing toilets. It’s just what we’ve gotten used to.

A Long, Hot Shower in Vegas

On the other side of the world, in a city even drier than Salisbury, the staff of MGM Resorts International faced an oddly similar problem: how to wash not wool but high-end hotel guests. In designing Aria, one of the signature hotel-casinos of the $8.5 billion Las Vegas development called CityCenter, they went looking for a new kind of shower head. It had to be low-flow—the goal was two gallons per minute or less, down from the typical 2.5 gallons per minute—and also provide the indulgent shower experience that guests in a luxury hotel want. Aria is a soaring, spacious, upscale hotel with 4,004 rooms—built in a desert community that gets just four inches of rain a year. A small change in one design element in a new hotel—how much water per minute the shower head uses—can save millions of gallons of water a year. But the folks at MGM Resorts couldn’t find a shower head that combined the flow they wanted, the shower experience their guests would insist on, and the design flair the Aria’s high-end interiors required.

“I’ve heard it a thousand times,” says Cindy Ortega, MGM Resorts senior vice president for energy and environmental services. “‘If I’m going to pay $400 a night, I should be luxuriating in the shower.’ Yes, I’ve heard exactly that. Along with the plushness of the carpet and the fiber content of the pillows.” CityCenter, as a whole, is designed as an environmentally sensitive development, and the goal of Aria, says Ortega, is in part “to dispel the notion that there is a trade-off between luxury and environmental impact. We thought we could get past the idea that luxury means big crown moldings and plush-plushy carpet.”

So, working with Delta Faucet Company through months of prototype shower heads tested in other MGM Resorts hotels, such as the Bellagio, and in the homes of MGM Resorts managers, Ortega and the Aria’s staff designed their own shower head. Their creation was bolder than anyone had expected at the start: a square, flat-faced, mirrored shower head with just four holes. And it had a flow rate of not two gallons per minute but 1.5 gallons per minute. The Aria shower head could easily save the hotel, and the residents of Las Vegas, 2,000 gallons of water an hour, 24 hours a day—enough water saved every day to supply all the needs of 140 homes in Las Vegas.

Less Ice (Cubes) at Sea

Cruise ships are fascinating water laboratories because, while floating on an unlimited cushion of water, they must be water self-sufficient, either tanking up on potable water in port or using fuel to run onboard desalination and purification systems. Every toilet flush, every cup of coffee, every shower, every ice cube uses water that has to be ordered and accounted for. One of the great symbols of indulgence on cruise ships is the dining—and nothing captures the onboard culinary culture quite like those prodigious buffet lines offering dozens and dozens of items, often available 14 hours each day to provide anytime dining. The buffet displays require literally tons of ice on each ship, each day. To provide this ice, water must be made or loaded onboard, ice makers must run nonstop, ice beds must be laid out and replenished, and meltwater must be drained into the ship’s water-treatment system, where energy must be used to clean it before it’s released back into the ocean.

In 2008, the vice president of culinary operations for Royal Caribbean’s high-end Celebrity ships, Jacques Van Staden, suggested substituting superchilled river rock for ice on the buffet lines. Van Staden had come to Celebrity from Las Vegas, and he thought that, in addition to saving water, the river rock would look better. It had a high-fashion flair—distinctive black rock instead of prosaic clear ice.

“This was the heyday of super-high fuel prices,” says Scott Steenrod, director of food and beverage operations for Celebrity. “As Jacques and I talked about it, we knew this would save a lot of energy as well. We tried it on one ship. We knew immediately that [the rock] was equally effective at keeping the food chilled. And people liked it—it looks good.”

In fact, testing showed that the smooth, black river rock actually held cold longer than ice. Now, on all nine of Celebrity’s megaships, the river rock has replaced ice for cold food on the main buffet line at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Each ship has two sets of 1,500 pounds of rock—one set clean and being chilled, one out on the buffet line. The rock is easily sanitized—kitchen staff take it from the buffet line and run it right through the standard dishwashers on sheet trays. The rock is chilled belowdecks in cold rooms that are already in use, then wheeled out to support the buffets as easily as ice.

Each Celebrity ship used to make 7,500 pounds of ice a day just to support that one buffet line. So each of the nine ships is saving 2.7 million pounds of ice-making a year, ice that requires 330,000 gallons of water to be made, frozen, and then treated and pumped back overboard.

From one perspective, on a ship using more than a million gallons of water a week, the rocks-for-ice swap is trivial. It comes to saving about two gallons of water per passenger per cruise.

On the other hand, it is a small stroke of genius. Royal Caribbean has eliminated an entire category of water use, reducing its costs while improving both the environment and the cruise experience the company is trying to offer. “We were able to turn off one ice machine completely on each ship,” says Steenrod. “We literally put a sign on it that says, ‘Not in Use.’ It’s off at the circuit breaker.” And of course, on a cruise ship every bit of electricity has to be generated by burning fuel—so unplugging an ice maker that used to run 24 hours a day saves real fuel and smokestack emissions, however modest.

More than that, the rocks-for-ice swap represents exactly the kind of mind-flip that a smart-water culture requires. Not just: How can we use less water? but: What are we using water for? Water, it turns out, has the capacity to inspire creativity about how we use it.

IBM’s Smart Water Dashboard

IBM wants to do for water what Apple’s iTunes has done for music. At the simplest level, iTunes is a “dashboard” for managing your music. You can see what you’ve got, what’s out there, how much it costs, what you’ve bought, and even what other people are buying. iTunes is a music ecosystem. Apple doesn’t know anything in particular about music except how you might want to use it, display it, arrange it, and analyze it. iTunes offers you a “smart music” system. That’s exactly what IBM wants to offer for water users.

Their prototype for a “smart water” system is already in full swing at the IBM microchip plant in Burlington, Vermont. The plant uses 2.2 million gallons of water each day, and most of it must be turned into “ultra-pure water”—water so clean it can be used to wash microchips. Ultra-pure water is 12 filtration steps cleaner than water that has been put through reverse osmosis. To monitor and gather data about its water use, IBM Burlington created an internal nervous system. The plant’s pumps, tanks, and pipes are wired with 5,000 electronic sensors, which each gather about one data point a second. The water staff at IBM Burlington gather 400 million data points about the factory’s water every single day—that’s a stream of 300,000 data points a minute.

The daily water bill at IBM Burlington, including energy and chemicals, is $10,959. Most of the water used each day becomes the ultra-pure water necessary to produce semiconductors, and most of that cost—$9,300 a day—goes to the expensive process of making ultra-pure water. That’s the big target for the water staff. Not much point in worrying about how much water the toilets use, when 85 percent of each day’s cost is in the ultra-pure water.

That, in fact, is the first lesson from IBM Burlington. Smart water use is not about saving water per se—it’s about understanding how you use water: where the costs are and reducing them, where the value is and preserving that.

In that sense, IBM Burlington’s water factory is just like a Celebrity cruise-ship buffet line or the shower of a Las Vegas hotel—you want to rethink your use of ice without leaving the chicken salad lukewarm, and you want to reduce water in the hotel bathroom while preserving an indulgent shower experience. Whereas Royal Caribbean and MGM Resorts are working with an inspired idea and good instincts about their customers, IBM Burlington is working from the analytics. That, in fact, is part of IBM’s business: teaching people to sift huge quantities of data for important insight and then selling them the computers and the software to do it themselves.

In the ultra-pure water factory, though, as on the buffet line, it’s the mind-flip about water that gets you started. You have to take a step back and look at the water cycle as a whole. “One of the most innovative things we’ve done,” says Janette Bombardier, site operations manager in Burlington, “is [to] take the energy the water inherently has in it, and . . . use it for other purposes.” Or, as her deputy Eric Berliner put it, everywhere you see water flowing in pipes, think dollar signs.

Water comes into IBM Burlington cold from Lake Champlain and the Champlain Water District. It’s so cold, in fact, that it has to be warmed up before it can be turned into ultra-pure water. Meanwhile, the factory has 13 massive, two-story-tall chillers using huge quantities of electricity to produce cold water, even in winter.

It seems stunningly obvious to connect these two problems. There was coldness in the incoming water that, for most of its 50 years, IBM Burlington wasn’t quite smart enough to use. In fact, the coldness was undesirable: IBM spent money getting rid of it. In another part of the 750-acre campus, water had heat in it that was undesirable, and IBM spent money getting rid of that. In most companies, there wouldn’t be much of a pipeline connecting the specialty department that creates ultra-pure water with the everyday engineering department that is running the air-conditioning systems.

What IBM Burlington’s engineers have done isn’t nearly as glamorous, or as comprehensible, as substituting cold river rock for ice. But it is, in fact, exactly the same concept. In a plant that already has something like 18 plumbing systems—from steam to a segregated fire-sprinkler system—they’ve created three fresh loops of water to capture cold or heat where it is and use it where it’s needed. The cold incoming water, for instance, is routed to areas that need chilling. It provides “free” cold and, in the process, gets warmed up—also for “free”—so it’s ready to be ultra-purified.

And the result? Between 2000 and 2009, IBM Bur-lington cut its water use 29 percent. That saved the factory $740,000 a year in water bills. But here’s where the magic of water really kicks in. Cutting water use by $740,000 is saving $600,000 in chemical and filtration costs each year. It is saving $2.3 million in electricity and energy costs. A thousand gallons of water in 2009 produced 80 percent more chips than a thousand gallons of water in 2000.

What IBM has discovered is that measuring alone creates an imperative for curiosity and innovation—and for changing behavior. When you keep track of every calorie you eat, you start cutting back. When there’s a real-time miles-per-gallon number on a car’s dashboard, you can’t help but drive in such a way as to keep that number high.

Water consciousness has a kind of infectious quality, an upward spiral in which better water management spins off all kinds of benefits. Now IBM wants to do for its customers—for companies, for cities, for utilities, for entire natural ecosystems—what it has done at IBM Burlington.

IBM’s leap seems bemusing on the face of it. Why would the world’s legendary computer company go into the water business? The answer is really both simple and brilliant. In most places, water is not smart. Traffic signals have intelligence, highways have intelligence, the electric grid has intelligence, the cell phone network, the cable TV network—heck, even Walmart’s long-haul trucks are connected on an intelligent network. Water’s network typically moves only water, not any information about the water. Even at the simplest level, for instance, most water meters are still read not automatically but manually, with someone striding along and popping open your water-meter cover.

Like Apple’s iTunes, IBM wants to offer a “dashboard” of water intelligence, a way of grasping your whole water ecosystem. That’s what it has created with its 5,000 sensors and its 400 million data points a day in Burlington: smart water. Not just the kind of information that lets it use less water here and there, but the kind of information that lets it take the qualities inherent in the water it is using and shift those qualities around to where it needs them.

Many of the biggest companies in the world are also seeing money in their pipes. On the websites of Coca-Cola, Intel, GE, and IBM, you can find out how much water each of those companies uses each year, often in stunning detail. Intel lists not only total water use but also water use broken down by each of the company’s manufacturing plants around the world, including what each factory’s source of water is—the names of the rivers and aquifers Intel is tapping.

You can easily figure that Intel isn’t doing that well on its water goals, either in the big picture or based on water productivity. In 2009, the most recent year for which Intel has provided detailed numbers, the company used 19 percent more water than it did in 2005; however, Intel’s revenue actually fell ten percent in that time, in part because of the recession.

So one gallon of water used by Intel in 2005 generated $5.74 in revenue and $1.29 in profit; in 2009, a gallon of water generated only $4.37 in revenue and 55 cents in profit. In terms of water, Intel’s profitability fell 57 percent per gallon used. That’s a measure you don’t see very often, even on a Bloomberg terminal.

Coca-Cola, whose reputation has been doubly stung by controversy over its withdrawals of groundwater in India and by a backlash against its growing Dasani and Glacéau bottled–vitamin water business, has vowed, in the words of CEO Muhtar Kent, that by 2020 Coke will become “the first major global corporation where we will be water neutral.”

Almost all of Coke’s products end up as pee—Coke’s customers don’t need more than a few hours to close the loop in the water cycle on the soft drinks and water they consume—and it’s not quite clear what a “water neutral” Coca-Cola will look like. But the company is gathering, analyzing, and revealing cascades of water data.

Coke says that every liter of beverage it manufactures and sells requires 2.16 liters of water—one liter for the drink and an additional 1.16 liters of manufacturing, cleaning, and process water. The good news is that, unlike Intel, this represents a 19 percent improvement over 2004. Between 2004 and 2012, Coke cut the amount of process water per liter of drink by 17 ounces. When you multiply that by Coke’s relentless popularity—the company serves up 67 million drinks per hour—it has a dramatic impact. Coke’s improved water efficiency saved 17 billion gallons of water in 2012.

This kind of water reporting is amazing because it’s totally voluntary; it’s all new; and it is, quite literally, a window on the future.

In Coke’s 2002 annual report, there is a typical section on Coke’s business operations. Under the heading “Raw Materials,” the first sentence is: “The principal raw material used by our Company’s business . . . is high-fructose corn syrup, a form of sugar.” In Coke’s 2009 annual 10-K filing, the “Raw Materials” section begins this way: “Water is a main ingredient in substantially all our products . . . and our Company recognizes water availability, quality, and the sustainability of that natural resource for both our operations and also the communities where we operate as one of the key challenges facing our business.”

This water focus isn’t trendy green consciousness or corporate altruism, although in the case of Coke, it is vitally important PR. It’s business. And in this instance, business is actually ahead of politics and ahead of popular awareness. When four such different businesses, in such different geographies and lines of work, all agree that a major shift is under way in something as basic as our relationship to water; when they don’t just agree, but change their behavior: that’s something the rest of us should pay attention to.

Charles Fishman ( is a reporter and author who spent three years traveling the world to write The Big Thirst, which has become the best-selling water book in 25 years.

Adapted from: The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman. Copyright ©2011 by Charles Fishman. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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