5-Mar-09 9:00 PM CST
Facing Long-Term Drought
Drought… It’s universal. Although not altogether correct, the American West is known for it. Yet, every time it comes around, people tend to act surprised, even in the West. Phoenix, AZ, is in its thirteenth year. For Los Angeles (L.A.), CA, 2007 was the driest year on record. Ditto the state of North Carolina, where chicken processors trucked in water. And in Atlanta, GA, the mayor held a prayer meeting and asked school children for suggestions on how to cope. “Communities have to invest in reducing their demand on a permanent basis,” says Mary Ann Dickinson, executive director of Chicago, IL-based Alliance for Water Efficiency.
Photo: Denver Water Community Relations
|A Denver Water billboard, saying “Be Responsible. Use only what you need,” is in place to remind citizens to conserve water.|
Doug Bennett, conservation manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) agrees. “Drought is no longer the fundamental reason for the water efficiency measures we have in place. We’re here for the long haul, and these are practical measures our customers can all take, that don’t diminish their quality of life.” He thinks that, in fact, there’s nothing better than drought to wake people up. “Drought is a great opportunity for utilities to get a strong foothold. And, the longer the drought runs, the greater the opportunity to make drought responses accepted community practices.”
SNWA, which includes Las Vegas, NV, the fastest-growing city in the country, achieved a 13% reduction in water use, with its water efficiency strategies during the three years between January 2003 and December 2005, despite extending service to a quarter million new residents. Not dissimilarly, water conservation programs accommodated a 33% growth in L.A., between 1975–2005 (one million new arrivals) without an increase in total water use.
The Costs to Water Efficiency
Although long-time water conservation managers make a distinction between ongoing programs designed to encourage efficient use of water, and temporary curtailment responses that ask customers to make sacrifices and undergo hardships, many utilities are beginning to see the value in turning drought into an opportunity to develop what Phoenix water managers call a low water-use lifestyle. “The first thing you need [is] to plan,” says Dan Strub, water conservation coordinator for the City of Austin. “You have to have plans in place which direct you, so that when you get ‘x’ condition, you need to go to ‘y’ restrictions. What this means is that you increase your conservation efforts even when you haven’t actually reached the trigger point.”
Al Dietemann, acting resource conservation manager for Seattle Public Utilities, and manager of the regional water efficiency program under the Saving Water Partnership, gives his opinion. “What we think of as drought response is asking customers to make short-term sacrifices to get through a period of hardship,” he says. “But, the question is, has the utility done an adequate job of risk management and long-term water supply planning? Or are they using curtailment as a crutch?
“Drought is a naturally occurring event that you can’t change,” he adds. “What you can do is manage your water supply and mitigate for extreme circumstances through demand management. This means, planning for variations in weather patterns within the normal planning processes. In Seattle, we’ve found that investing in resource efficiency is our least-costly supply option, and that investing in conservation reduces the risk associated with unusual weather.” According to Dietemann, although water efficiency may come at a higher price for some water utilities, “it’s cheaper for society to invest in long-term efficiency than imposing costs on people during shortages.”
Photo: Denver Water Community Relations
|Liz Gardener, of Denver Water, says conservation is the combination of education, attitude change, and practices.|
On a similar note, Bennett says, “One of the criticisms of long-term water efficiencies, is they encumber a community’s ability to succeed economically. But, we’ve found it to be just the opposite. This is because we’ve focused on programs that are actually going to make us more economically resilient. In doing so, we have gone from 320 gallons per capital per day to the 270s in just two years.”
To solve the problem, Dickinson recommends capitalizing conservation, to which Dietemann agrees. “In Seattle,” Dietemann says, “we’ve been producing water savings at a little less than half the cost of new sources of supply, and approximately three quarters of our annual $5 million water conservation program is capitalized, meaning that we sell long-term bonds to pay for our conservation activities. This spreads the cost of water efficiency out over future ratepayers the same way we’d do if we were going to go out and drill some wells. Debt financing also helps conservation escape some of the fluctuations associated with annual operating income.”
In Cary, NC, just west of Raleigh, Water Conservation Coordinator Mary Cefalo has taken a page from The Book of the West. “One of the benefits of having an established comprehensive conservation program, is that if we have to quickly change our demand because of drought, we already have the staff, the ordinances, the infrastructure, and a very responsive citizenry,” she says. “All of which means we don’t have to turn the ship on a dime.”
Bennett also shares what’s being done in southern Nevada, “Ninety percent of the water consumed in southern Nevada comes from the Colorado River under an agreement that allows us to borrow river water for indoor use,” he says. “We use it, clean it, and return it to the river. So, our focus has been on consumptive uses such as water features, landscaping, and swimming pools.
“The fact is, we are pretty efficient indoors, because Las Vegas has grown so quickly that two-thirds of our community has been built since water efficiency standards were implemented in the 1990s. So, outdoor water use is a target, and, far from damaging the landscaping industry, it has invigorated it. We have put millions of dollars in incentive money into the programs that heighten people’s awareness that their 30-year-old landscaping is obsolete and needs to be replaced.”
Photo: Colehour & Cohen
|Benjamin H. Grumbles, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Water, and Al Dietemann, stand in front of a WaterSense-labeled toilet.|
Without a doubt, landscaping is a target throughout the West. SNWA allows customers to choose their watering days during summer months, but restricts watering to three days a week in the fall when people tend to over-water (a leftover from summer habits), one day a week during winter, and back to three days a week in the spring. SNWA envisions making these regulations permanent, and has issued a request for proposals for an electronic apparatus that would attach to irrigation controllers and automatically enforce the annual schedule.
All water use regulations are spelled out in service rules. Penalties for noncompliance are added to water bills, which must be paid for service to continue. Enforcement is swift and efficient—every inspection that results in a negative outcome results in a follow-up. First time offenses are $40, and then double for each reoccurring violation. “You have to enforce any ordinance you pass,” Bennett says; “your credibility is at stake.”
Campaigns Produce Awareness
The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility has targeted long-term water efficiency of 150 gallons per person per day, by 2014. Last year, customers used 165 gallons per capita, a substantial drop from 240 gallons when the program began in 1995. According to Water Conservation Officer Katherine Yuhas, elements of Albuquerque’s successful conservation program include education, aggressive rebate and water waste programs, and effective media campaigns. Albuquerque currently takes all its supply from groundwater, but is looking forward to completion of the Rio Grande Project, which will supply 30 billion of the 32 billions of gallons the utility needs annually. “We project this is a sustainable supply for 40-50 years, even taking into account growth,” Yuhas says. “But, we absolutely need to continue to conserve. Irrigation is approximately 40 percent of our water use each year, and I look at it that, if we were to have a severe drought, that’s 40 percent we could cut.”
Albuquerque has implemented two successful rebate programs that target outdoor use, a xeriscape rebate, for customers who swap out water guzzling yards for a drought-tolerant landscape, and a hardware rebate, to purchase equipment that facilitates water efficiency including rain barrels, MP rotator sprinkler heads, pressure reduction valves, and even soil amendments. The xeriscape rebate has resulted in almost 5.5 million square feet of grass being converted to drought-efficient landscape over the pat 10 years, at a cost to the utility of just under $2 million. The rebates are paid out of the sustainable water fund customers pay into, based on water use. “Albuquerque gets, on average, eight inches of rain a year, so we’re always in a situation of not really having enough,” Yuhas says.
“Two years ago, in 2006, we enacted drought restrictions on top of our regular conservation program for the first time. Fines for wasting water doubled. The way our rates are structured, customers can use up to three times their winter use during summer months. After that, they incur a surcharge. Enforcement is with water cops, who typically respond to tips called in through our hotline—a strategy that helps make the enforcement program more focused and efficient.”
“Over the past ten years, we’ve found it’s very important to give people a message they can act on,” Yuhas says, “such as, ‘change your toilet; decrease your irrigation time; buy this kind of washer.’ This is much more efficient than: ‘Conserve water, because it’s a good idea.’ Everybody thinks they conserve. In 2008, the utility plans to spend half-a-million dollars on an irrigation campaign, and, again the message will be simple: ‘This is March, water once a week for 20 minutes;’ ‘It’s April, water twice a week for 15 minutes;’ etc.”
Customers who take the department’s monthly water-wise gardening workshops get a $20 credit on their water bill. And, like the pioneering Irvine Ranch Water District, Albuquerque has established water budgets. Customers with large turf areas, such as playing fields, receive an annual water budget based on the amount of square feet they’re irrigating. They can use the water anyway they chose, but if, at the end of the year, they’ve exceeded their budget, they incur a surcharge. “This has had a big impact,” Yuhas says. “A surcharge spread out on a monthly basis may not get your attention. But, a customer who sees a surcharge of $2,000 on their February or March bill for over-use of water in the previous year takes notice.”
Strub’s own city, Austin, experiences an annual rainfall of about 36 inches, along with outdoor use that runs 60% of total consumption during peak months. “One of our human frailties is that we don’t plan for the worst-case crisis,” he says. “But, the fact is, we certainly need to step beyond the traditional replacing toilets here, and recommending better ways to water there. We have to get people to think about what they’re going to do if they can’t water at all.
“To achieve long-term behavior change, you need a sustained effort and a program with multiple elements,” Strub adds. “You want to offer incentives. You want to do public education. You want to impose mandatory requirements where you have a history that incentives aren’t working. And you have to be prepared to raise the cost of water.”
According to Gardener, “Conservation is the long-term sustainable combination of education and attitude change, and practices. Drought response is more intensive. But, neither the traditional conservation measures, nor drought response measures will be adequate if the worst-case predictions evolve. A lot of water planners understand this, and are grappling with coming up with something in between—something they can sell to government and the politicians.”
And, as she points out, not every drought-response strategy has to be onerous. Like Albuquerque, Denver relies on surface water to serve its 275,000 customers (1.2 million people). When the city faced a sudden drought in 2002–03, it implemented an extensive toilet and high-efficiency rebate program. “Having a toilet that uses less water doesn’t require much of a lifestyle change,” Gardener comments. “And, it’s also something that any utility can do pretty darn quickly.”
Partly under pressure from landscapers, who felt they had been unfairly treated by irrigation restrictions, Denver also encouraged commercial accounts to investigate water efficiency, with the provision that the utility would buy back any water savings.
In Denver, some organizations and people, have taken it upon themselves to help the city with its water efficiency. “The Pepsi bottling plant came to us with one incentive proposal after another,” Gardener says. Excel Energy developed a chilled water plant to provide air conditioning services piped underground to buildings downtown. The Denver Zoo was involved, by rethinking its practice of providing potable water to animals that weren’t used to having it in the wild. Also, newly elected mayor John Hickenlooper jumped onboard, insisting the water department provide a liaison to work on water efficiency in city and county offices, such as replacing outdated toilets in urinals in
“Our city has to be a role model,” Gardener says. “Otherwise our customers are not going to take us seriously. That’s a huge lesson whether it’s drought or long-term conservation.”
Bennett says that there are people and organizations that help out in Nevada, as well. “There are people who earn their living helping other people achieve efficiencies—a manufacturing plant for example,” he says. “There’s a lot of equipment, which can make an industrial facility more efficient, that I may offer rebates on, which means now you’ve got a new business out there pitching their products. The manufacturer gets more efficient. This cuts down on their utility overhead and makes them more profitable, and the money I put into the process boosts the economy.
“One case in point is the Ocean Spray bottling plant, which switched from washing bottles to a process that uses ionized air," he adds. “It works better and saves them an enormous amount of water and energy, and we’re saving millions and millions of gallons of water. In another arena, converting golf course turf to drought- resistant vegetation in non-playing areas has removed the equivalent of five full courses. More than 20-million square feet of turf has been converted to desert plants at no loss of rounds.”
Phoenix’s Educational Program
Although nobody is saying it directly, much of what is successful in water efficiency boils down to common sense. In Phoenix, Ray Quay, one of the assistant directors in the city’s Water Services Department, describes the city’s philosophy as, “assuring that the water supply we have today is used wisely, but in a manner that supports the economy we’re building here, the quality of life that people want to live here, and the environment we want to maintain. We’re not encouraging people to put in turf, but if they want turf in their yard and they manage it very wisely, we feel it’s part of their quality of life and we can meet that demand,” he adds.
In other areas, practicality reigns—like fountains, for example. Quay points out that fountains are particularly welcome in desert landscapes, “but, if you have a fountain whose purpose is cooling, you don’t need to run it during winter,” he says. “If it’s windy and rainy, you don’t need to run it. Put a timer on it so it only runs at certain times of day and install a weather station.”
The city did exactly that with the fountain in front of city hall, and the improvements have worked so well, that it’s considering formalizing these guidelines into code, Quay says. “In the past, our water conservation program had been focused on education, improving attitude, and getting information out to people through TV, media, and advertising, but we’re reconsidering this, in light of information that about 20 percent of our residential customers use 40 percent of our water.”
Another reason Quay says the department will continue its education program, is because of the challenge “to be sustainable through drought,” which he acknowledges how research tells them that the drought may last 20–30 years. “Phoenix is in an unusual position, in that, because we’ve done a very good job of planning our water resources, under normal conditions we have adequate supplies to meet existing and future demand,” he says. “If we can’t deliver water to meet the needs of a growing economy during times of long-term drought, then we will have failed to maintain a sustainable community. Attitude is the number one factor in drought response, and, maintaining attitude during normal times is very important when you have to start doing a drought response. Number two is planning. We tell people [that] drought is going to happen. If we’re not in a 20–30 years cycle right now, 10 years from now we may be. Eventually, it’s going to happen and we need to be prepared.
“We tell them there are things they can do today within their homes and businesses to help minimize the impact that will occur when we tell them they have to go into a drought response,” he says. “We tell them to design their irrigation system with the needs of individual plant types in mind. We’re not going to ask them to let their trees die, and they won’t if you have a separate way of watering them from turf—and, by the way, a tree that took 20 years to grow has a lot more value than turf you can easily replace if it goes brown. If you don’t have some type of cushion within your community, you’re in real trouble when drought hits.”
Seattle’s Program Success
Of Seattle's program, Dietemann remarks that, although the population has grown, the city still supplies the same amount of water that they have been for the past 10 years. “Our managers and elected officials look at our efficiency program as a good deal for our customers,” he says. “The average bill is not increasing significantly, and, although our rates do increase, this is balanced out by the fact our customers are using a little bit less water. It’s a zero-footprint philosophy in that adding one-and-a-half percent more people does not translate to greater water demands from our sources of supply. And, this is not only for people, but, also because we have a large responsibility for in-stream flow below our reservoirs for fish and aquatic life.”
The city of Seattle is committed to review their systems, and stay updated on the best methods. “Previously, water managers overbuilt and then sat back and didn’t worry,” Dietemann says. “Today, when our modelers tell us there’s a small chance we might have a problem in six months, we step up our regular efficiency programs, which means, not only customer demand efficiency measures—such as rebates and incentives and educational efforts—but also leak detection and repair work within the utility and how we use water to maintain our system—such as hydric flushing and reservoir overflows for water quality purposes.”
He goes on to discuss their water conservation plan. “As the modelers take a look at rainfall patterns, future snow pack, future rainfall conditions, and likely demands, we continue to make adjustments. If the situation improves, we back off. If the situation intensifies, we intensify our efforts.” By saving water when there is plenty, the city is able to “stock up,” for in the case of drought or dry months, he adds. “We get a lot a rain in the winter and chances are we’ll never get a shortage in winter, but we need to store that water to meet our demands in the late summer and fall.”
Dietemann comments on how the city must prioritize their plan. “If we feel that we need to move into our drought curtailment plan,” he says, “we start with voluntary suggestions and water efficiency tips, and then move into mild mandatory requests. If the situation then gets bad enough, we impose mandatory curtailments, most of which revolve around outdoor water use. For any of this to be successful, your populace has to believe the water system is being managed responsibly, and they’re not being picked upon or asked to make sacrifices because decision-makers haven’t done their job,” he remarks. “This kind of relationship is not something you can just turn off-and-on instantaneously; you build it over the years.”
Dietemann also responds once again to extra pricing. “We find people are fairly responsive to price, and, if you send them the proper price signal, they’ll make a responsible decision without somebody telling them what day of the week they can water,” he says. “We have tiered rates, but I’m talking about here about surcharges. It’s important that people understand the dynamics of the system. Usually a price surcharge will get a significant amount of water demand reduction right away, and this often forestalls the need to go into the more drastic mandatory measures. But, it needs to be significant enough to get people’s attention. It isn’t necessarily the dollar amount, but the concept that they’re going to have to pay 20 percent more. If folks are frugal, they won’t really see much of a change in their bill, but the people who use lots of water will. We try to be fair and equitable, and, after the event has passed, we settle up with people who have special circumstances.
Dietemann acknowledges that the key to the public's respect is to treat them fairly and being honest with them. “Rather than an army of policemen running around writing citations for people who are watering incorrectly, you invest the surcharge money into efficiency measures, such as for people to change out their toilet or change their business process. The beauty of raising the rates before you start building a big tab up doing all this other stuff, is that you are collecting some resources to enable you to get to that next step, which is media.”
Seattle also has developed a large financial incentive program with its commercial and industrial customers, where the utility actually cost shares up to 50% of the total installed expense for a business to change out to a more efficient technology. To facilitate this required convincing state legislature to remove the constitutional restriction that, as a public agency, a utility can’t loan credit or provide financial incentives to private businesses.
“It took educating our elected representatives to understand the philosophy of demand management and efficiency, to the point that it makes sense, to avoid the really significant environmental and dollar costs of new sources of supply, by investing that money to free up water and make it available for future customers—and, so it remains in the rivers for our environmental needs,” Dietemann says.
Cary’s Tier-rate System
How much of the western experience has been transported east? Cary, NC also has established a tier-rate system, so the customers who use the most water pay the most. Customers who want to install irrigation systems (a troublesome, new challenge now that in-ground systems, which used to be a luxury, are being included in new home development) must have their design approved by the city inspection and permit department. In addition to tier pricing, Cary has also imposed water budgets on their commercial accountants and large residential properties. Regulations also require that customers with in-ground irrigation systems must also have separate meters, so the city can track irrigation use. The town hosts waterwise gardening workshops, that emphasize the use of warm season turf for people who value lawns.
“The reason for our success,” says Cefalo, echoing remarks from her western counterparts, “is that we’ve established a steady base. No mater where you turn, you see something about water conservation. We have a well-established program that has created a water efficiency culture in our community."
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Source: Penelope B. Grenoble
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