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Conservation Conversation: Changes in Attitude

By Joshua Zaffos

When Kevin Reidy began his job at Aurora Water in July 2002, his hiring doubled the agency's water conservation staff. The two-person department was in charge of a ‘pretty typical’ city conservation program, Reidy said, based around watering restrictions and a water-wasting ordinance. ‘But to be honest, they were not being enforced,’ he added.

The summer of 2002 brought severe drought to most of Colorado. Many utilities already recognized the state's scarce water resources, but the low snowpack, high temperatures and dry conditions in the first years of the 21st century overwhelmed some providers.

Denver Water's storage was more than half empty after summer 2003, said Melissa Elliott, the utility's water conservation manager. The intensity of the drought brought a realization that a new level of conservation and efficiency measures was necessary for the near and not-so-near future.

‘I think the drought was a big wakeup call,’ added Ruth Quade, the Greeley water conservation coordinator.

The alarm rang especially loud in the South Platte Basin, where roughly 3 million people live; that's about 70 percent of the state's total population. Providers had to stretch dwindling supplies, and they recognized the challenge of preparing for projected growth. According to the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, or SWSI, a report completed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2004, communities of the South Platte will add another 1.9 million people, or a 65 percent increase, by 2030.

‘It got us thinking we need to include drought response and conservation in our long-term planning,’ Elliott said.

Reaching Out
Today, Aurora Water spends $1.6 million a year on conservation programs and Reidy is among 10 full-time employees in the department. The organization was already stepping up its efforts when dry times hit, but Reidy referred to the ‘drought momentum’ that led Aurora and its citizens to take existing measures more seriously and to institute new incentives and restrictions to meet present and future water needs. ‘We were able to really capitalize and to allow that to slingshot us forward,’ Reidy said.

Measures have included higher water rates and a more rigid block-rate structure, where higher rates are assessed once users exceed set thresholds. Aurora Water also instituted drought-time penalties for excessive use. In 2009 and 2010, the agency will increase rates again, mostly to help finance its Prairie Waters Project, which will expand Aurora's water supply 20 percent through a major water pipeline and purification facility.

Aurora Water increased its distribution of rebates for efficient toilets, washing machines and other appliances. Through six years, Reidy said the utility has awarded rebates for almost 6,400 toilets and nearly 5,900 high-efficiency washers, and saved approximately 475 acre feet of water. An acre foot, on average along the Front Range, can meet the needs of two to three urban families. The savings, then, could translate to a supply for as many as 1,425 homes.
Along the Front Range, Denver Water has also led the way in implementing water conservation. The agency, which serves 1.2 million users, pioneered the practice of xeriscaping two decades ago. Its conservation staff has grown to 40 people and Denver water continues to seek ways to stretch water supplies, using tiered water rates, restrictions and rebates. Originally, Denver Water planned to reduce consumption by 22 percent by 2056. After the drought, Elliott said the utility ramped up. Including any new growth, the utility plans to reach the goal by 2016, slashing 40 years from its original plan.

One initiative has meant reaching out to low-income homes, installing more efficient toilets and washers, which not only saves water but also lowers bills. The service is provided free from Denver Water and the Mile High Youth Corps through the Low Income Energy Assistance Program. About 2,000 homes qualified for efficiency upgrades in 2008.
Denver Water also targeted irrigators—such as schools, city parks and homeowner associations—to replace turf or switch to high-efficiency sprinklers. The program saves an acre foot of water for about $4,500, compared to new storage projects, which cost roughly $10,000 per acre foot.

Tracy Bouvette, of the Great Western Institute, a water-conservation education and policy group, said Denver Water and Aurora Water are ‘kicking butt’ with their measures and approaches, which trickles down to other communities. Denver Water's Elliott said her organization serves as an incubator for demonstration programs that smaller providers might eventually consider.

'A double-edged sword'
The larger providers' progress underscores a gap in action taken by many smaller ones. Through all of Colorado, communities spend $11 million on water conservation efforts, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Denver Water accounts for $8 million, or roughly 70 percent of the total, and Aurora Water spends $1.5 million, or 15 percent. Greeley Water budgets $500,000 per year for water conservation, or slightly more than 6 percent. The median conservation program budget, reported the CWCB, is $25,000.

Size matters, said utility managers: Small communities have small budgets and small staffs. Managers sometimes claim conservation means less revenue and, potentially, less available water during drought.

‘It's kind of a double-edged sword. The more we save because of our debt load, the lower the revenues,’ said Gary Dreessen, the director of wet utilities in Fort Morgan. ‘When the public used less water, we had less money and we had to raise the rates.’

After switching its supply from wells to Colorado-Big Thompson Project water, Fort Morgan took on a debt that it has to repay with revenue. The city dedicates $9,000 a year to conservation programs, mostly for education, leak surveys and repairs, and efficiency kits for toilets and showerheads. The city did set up more stringent rules during the drought, but today it does not use a block-rate structure. Dreessen said tiered rates don't do much for Fort Morgan, because it lacks storage to save conserved water.

Conservation educators say reluctance by some providers can be a combination of fiscal pragmatism and foot dragging.

For instance, demand hardening—the theory that long-term conservation strategies such as more efficient irrigation or restricted residential use—means communities are already taking significant conservation action and have fewer steps to implement during dry times—is frequently cited as a reason to defer tighter measures.

‘There's a lot of mythology surrounding demand hardening,’ said Paul Lander, executive director of the Colorado WaterWise Council. ‘Demand hardening is part of reliability planning, but it should be the beginning of the conversation, not the end.’

With demand hardening, residents may increase efficiency by xeriscaping or installing low-flow household fixtures and appliances. But, the changes make conservation more difficult during a drought or shortage.

Smaller communities do have a legitimate point: Rebate programs and restriction ordinances are ‘easy, technically,’ Lander said, ‘but very few of these things can get done without [financial] resources.’

Just as Denver Water and others have served as trailblazers in practice, the state put up money to encourage smaller providers. The Water Conservation Act of 2004 set new guidelines for water-conservation plans, which providers must develop to qualify for grants. Bouvette said the law, which also expanded the state's drought-mitigation planning, created some minor but critical requirements for conservation plans. Providers must show they are tracking water use and savings, and outlining actions for future conservation.

Utilities can apply for the grants through the Colorado Water Conservation Board to implement programs. Ben Wade, the program assistant for the board's Water Conservation and Drought Planning Section, said 24 communities have approved plans. Fort Morgan is among them. The money has paid for irrigation audits, educational workshops and how-to-Xeriscape DVDs for homeowners.

The new rules support the second phase of SWSI, specifically goals to boost water efficiency and conservation and allow communities to meet the projected demands of 2030. The state estimates a 20 percent gap in available water. Conservation, along with new development and storage, will be a key component in meeting the needs.

A technical roundtable outlined measures and implementation strategies, and various financial, legal and institutional roadblocks for providers to consider. Under development by the Colorado WaterWise Council are best management practices, which the organization hopes to complete by 2010. The intent is to further guide communities through steps toward greater conservation.

Lander believes community leadership is essential to prepare for more customers and more dry times, but along with other conservation managers and educators, he said that providers can't be the only ones responsible for the changes.

‘We want people to go from being water customers to being water stewards,’ said Aurora's Reidy.

Lasting changes
A February 2008 study, based on Aurora's conservation practices since 2000, shows watering restrictions influence customer use, especially when combined with pricing measures, like tiered rates. In both cases, the measures affect water users where they feel it most—their wallets—and can trigger lasting changes.

Higher utility bills are a quick way to get customers' attention and change behavior, said Greeley's Quade, but other measures can support that mission and also ease the financial burden from rate hikes.

Greeley has had water restrictions on the books since 1907, said Quade. In addition to tightening those controls during the drought, Greeley issued rebates for toilets and washing machines, which became a permanent program. The city also hired two full-time auditors who work with commercial water users and irrigators to conduct efficiency surveys.

More recently, Greeley began exploring customized household water budgets. Through a pilot project launched in 2001, the city is studying water use and efficiency targets set for individual residences based on lot sizes, precipitation and other factors. Boulder and a few other communities use similar systems that tailor water rates to customers.

Under Greeley's draft conservation plan, written in compliance with the state's guidelines, the program could be fully implemented in the future. ‘It will be relatively costly,’ Quade admitted, because it requires a whole new administrative system for billing, appeals and customer service. The pilot project will help determine if the progressive measure is worth the cost in the long run, and whether water budgeting is one way to empower customers to be water stewards.

Lander points out that few families are aware of how much water they use, which means they probably have a diminished sense of how to increase household water efficiency through separate acts. He likens water conservation to saving gas: People keep their tanks full by not driving, keeping their tires inflated and using other small measures that ultimately lead to big savings.

Automated meter reading, another innovation which Aurora Water has used since the mid 1990s, allows a utility to use electronic readers to get an accurate assessment of water use. Again, the program required a substantial investment, but it allows households to be aware of real-time water consumption.

‘On the residential side, we're trying to make it so water waste is totally unacceptable,’ said Denver's Elliott. That's meant education and marketing on top of incentives, regulations, rebates and innovations. There are plenty more avenues to explore, Elliott said, mentioning that in Melbourne, Australia, wasteful neighborhoods get listed and ostracized in local newspapers as a means of discouragement.

Citizens in the South Platte Basin, in addition to their water providers, seem to be getting it. Just as people have generally limited their drive time as gas prices rose and dropped, customers who altered water consumption during drought maintained prudent use; for Denver Water, that amounted to a 20 percent reduction that held through somewhat wetter years.

Said Great Western's Bouvette: ‘Water conservation is as much a behavioral change as it is an engineering, nuts-and-bolts change."

Water Conservation and Efficiency: SWSI Phase 2

The second phase of the Statewide Water Supply Initiative led to the formation of four technical roundtables to foster an ongoing dialogue on how Colorado water suppliers can understand and implement measures for planning and meeting future needs. A Water Conservation and Efficiency Roundtable—stakeholders, technical advisers, municipal providers, and agricultural, environmental and recreation representatives—was formed to develop ‘a deeper understanding and greater consensus’ on conservation and efficiency. The goal is to help providers reach projected water demands for 2030, while also protecting the environment and recreation.

The roundtable identified various levels of conservation and potential water savings from a range of programs—rated as basic, moderate and aggressive measures—with consideration for associated benefits and impacts to different entities among the state's river basins. The subsequent report produced by the group identifies technical, legal, political and financial obstacles to implementation of conservation and efficiency strategies, serving as a valuable starting point for providers to craft and implement conservation plans.

More information on the Water Conservation and Efficiency Roundtable and its work is available online at http://cwcb.state.co.us/IWMD/SWSITechnicalResources/TRTs/WaterEfficiency/WaterEfficiency.htm.

HWSPMultimedia Extras

 Scott Hummer

View photos and listen to Water Commissioners Scott Hummer and Brent Schantz describe their work.

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