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A Watery-blue Stimulus Idea

As Brad noted yesterday, Obama seems to be listening to the growing chorus of people calling on him to green the economic-stimulus bill. His big speech yesterday contained proposals for improving energy efficiency and increasing renewable-energy generation. But why stop at using the stimulus to tackle energy problems? There are a number of ways to spend money to improve water efficiency in America's homes and offices, with many projects perfectly "shovel-ready" (or, more accurately, plumber ready). The number of people in the nation's dry regions continues to rise, and the amount of water available to these regions will likely fall due to global warming, which means that putting money into water efficiency could be a wise long-term investment.

Water projects have a history of serving as economic stimulus that goes back to the Depression, when big dam projects helped put people to work establishing electric and irrigation infrastructure that's still around today, for better or worse. The era of big dam building is over, but the federal government could start investing in water-recycling plants, as Bay-area Congressman George Miller suggested in a column yesterday.

Immediate stimulus could also come via rebates to homeowners who install water-saving appliances and bathroom fixtures. According to a report from the Pacific Institute, the average low-flow toilet (the kind that uses just 1.6 gallons per flush and is standard in new construction) costs about $180. Replacing old toilets (which use about six gallons per flush) could save a whole lot of water, given that more than one-quarter of the average household's water use goes toward flushing toilets. Switching to low-flow showerheads would be even cheaper (about $25 per shower) and could save roughly 4,000 gallons per person per year, along with conserving the energy that would have gone to heating all that hot water. Upgrading to water-saving dishwashers and washing machines woudl cost even more, but may still make sense in areas with serious water shortages.

A program of incentives for switching toilets and showerheads could put money in the pockets of America's homeowners, hardware stores, and contractors. If that's not Main Street, then what is? And that's why, as they're gearing up for various stimulus-package fights, lawmakers really should agree that it's time to bail out the plumbers.

--Rob Inglis