Amy Vickers takes Julia Maurus through the journey that led her to write the United States’ water efficiency bible.
‘I always felt a strong affinity for water,’ Amy Vickers says of her decision to build a career in water planning. ‘In my childhood I loved it when my family went to the ocean.’
She distinctly remembers driving down to the seashore with her mother when she was eight or nine years old and becoming concerned about the health and safety of the environment and water when they passed through a heavily polluted area. Encouraged by her mother, she wrote an impassioned letter to the governor of her state.
After high school, Vickers studied philosophy and later gained a master’s degree in engineering. She took a job as the director of New York City Council’s Environmental Protection Committee and later went on to work with the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s Capital Engineering Department (MWRA). Then came one of her proudest accomplishments.
The MWRA was under a court order to invest in a wide range of conventional and innovative water conservation strategies rather than building a new dam to increase water supplies. Vickers was part of the team focused on helping the MWRA meet its mandate to drive down water demand.
‘I don’t know exactly where I got the idea, but while working for the NYC Council I was aware that flushing toilets represented one of the biggest uses of water in homes and cities.’ At that point, the average toilet used three to five gallons of water per flush— a whopping 11.4–18.9 litres— but one small town in the state of Arizona had adopted a 1.6-gallon-per-flush regulation.
So in 1988, while working for the MWRA, Vickers wrote an amendment to the Massachusetts Plumbing Code, successfully lobbying to change the Code to require 1.6-gallon-per-flush (6.1-litre-per-flush) toilets. Word got around, and within a few years 16 other states followed suit. In the meantime, aware of the need for national water efficiency standards for the major plumbing fixtures (toilets, urinals, showerheads, and faucets), between 1988 and 1992 Vickers researched and wrote the federal water efficiency standards for plumbing fixtures which were adopted under the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 1992.
She puts her lobbying success down to extensive technical and policy research and ‘the element of surprise’: ‘Who else was talking about how much water is used and wasted by toilets?’
As Vickers promised in her proposal over 25 years ago, with this national standard in place the United States is currently saving seven billion gallons (26.5 billion litres) of water a day. New York City currently uses one billion gallons (3.8 billion litres) a day.
This and other significant contributions she has made to water efficiency and planning were recognised when the Alliance for Water Efficiency awarded her the coveted Water Star Award at the Water Smart Innovations Conference in Las Vegas in October 2014.
As an active public speaker from the early days of her career, Vickers started being approached by book publishers many years ago. Surprised that there were not many practical books on water conservation, Vickers set herself the task of ‘putting it all together in a practical, technical reference handbook’, devoting many weekends and weeknights to research and writing while continuing her work as a consultant.
Although she started with a technical publishing house, she eventually steered her Handbook of Water Use and Conservation: Homes, Landscapes, Businesses, Industries, Farms on a less conventional route.
‘I had a publisher but was unhappy with the quality of editing that they brought to my manuscript. I tried working with them to rectify their problems, but eventually realised that was a futile effort and so I sought to break the contract. The publisher fought me because they really wanted the book—it had advance sales of over 800 copies. So I got legal assistance and parted ways with that publisher.’
When pressed, she admits that her experience with the original publisher was ‘a nightmare’.
‘I’d finished my manuscript in 1999 and sent it to the publisher. They sent the manuscript back edited and the editor had introduced errors. One of the things the editor did which was especially confounding to me was that she kept misspelling the name of the town I live in: Amherst, a very well-known town in American literature. That was just the beginning of the problems I had.’
Even though she received offers from two other publishers, including a major publisher, she was disillusioned about the quality of production behind the scenes.
‘I went to those publishers and asked, “Who’s going to edit my book, what are their qualifications and what are the ground rules for editing?” They said that they freelanced out their editing. They were first and foremost concerned with marketing. All they cared about was selling the book. I thought, “Let’s first make the book good.”
‘It just convinced me that I had to take control of my book’s fate if I wanted a successful outcome in all respects.’
So she founded WaterPlow Press and hired two editors (with whom she had previously worked on articles published by the Journal of the American Water Works Association) and her own design team. Vickers has had great feedback, with sales continuing over a decade later.
Library Journal called the Handbook of Water Use and Conservation ‘the definitive work on the topic’; according to the American Water Works Association it is ‘a gold mine of resources’; and it was awarded the Benjamin Franklin Award (Technical/Professional). It is used in at least a dozen university courses and a Chinese translation is to be released this year .
Vickers is close to finishing her second book, which is a second-edition, updated version of the water-saver’s ‘must-have’. She now runs an independent consulting practice in Amherst, Massachusetts, advising on water conservation and integrated resources management.
One of the biggest threats to water conservation in the United States, she says, is outdoor residential water use.
‘We’ve made great advances in indoor water use efficiency, but we have scandalously high outdoor water use [e.g. watering lawns] in many towns and cities. It’s so excessive and so abused. My personal water use is relatively low by American standards, averaging 42 gallons per day (159 litres). The only time my lawn is watered is when it rains. When I moved to New England none of my neighbours watered their lawns. Now most of them have irrigation systems. It’s ridiculous for the average home to water their lawn. Very dry states shouldn’t be watering lawns at all in most cases.’
Despite current efficiency efforts, she reveals, a huge amount of water is still wasted due to ‘old problems like infrastructure leakage, which is embarrassingly high in industrialised countries like the US. Many water suppliers are still doing a poor job of reducing leakage.
‘A lot of the big multinational corporations and private interests are shaking the fear rattle about water scarcity, pushing for supply-side solutions (desalination plants, dams, expanding ground wells) instead of going back to tried-and-true water-saving solutions that are very cost-effective.’
She also believes it is important to think about water quality. ‘There’s a saying that “We’re drinking our lawns and landscapes.” Agricultural and landscape chemicals, they’re all getting into our drinking water.’
Vickers is impressed by the huge water savings achieved in Australia during drought (through Melbourne’s ‘Target 155’ campaign, for example). Compare this to California last summer, where in some places mandatory water restrictions were only imposed near the end of the drought and still allowed lawn-watering two or three times a week.
‘Logic would suggest that a severe drought necessitates a strong response. Clearly logic does not always prevail. Nature has a water budget, and why shouldn’t we?’
You can find out more about Amy Vickers at <amyvickers.com> or <waterplowpress.com>.
The original version of this article was published as ‘Writer at Work: Amy Vickers’ in The Australian Writer issue 387 (March–May 2015).