Tapping into water shortage solutions
Five weeks before the beginning of summer 2000, the headline on the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution announces, “Dryness chokes Georgia.” Entering its third year of diminished rainfall, the state is facing conditions that could equal those of its worst droughts, in 1986 and 1988. The reporter warns readers of impending crop shortages, fire hazards and impaired recreation, and he explains the water restrictions being implemented throughout metro Atlanta.
It is an increasingly common tale: Because of weather changes and growing urban populations, cities that once were unaccustomed to water shortages are now confronting them. As a result, there is a growing urgency for drought management planning, water conservation and supply augmentation nationwide.
Is it dry … or what?
A quick look at the U.S. Drought Monitor, issued by the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, shows that nearly half the country is experiencing conditions from abnormal dryness to extreme drought. The National Weather Service attributes much of the dryness to La Nina, and it predicts that the conditions could worsen and/or persist in many areas throughout the summer.
Although drought has historically been regarded as a problem only for the western states, that perception is unfounded, says Don Wilhite, director of NDMC. “Really, drought is a normal part of all climates, although its characteristics may differ from one part of the country to another,” he explains. “In the West, droughts tend to be of longer duration than in the East, but you can have very intense droughts in the East, as we’ve experienced to a considerable extent over the last five to 10 years.”
The fact that many cities are being caught off-guard is as much a function of population as it is of weather, Wilhite says. “We’ve got a society that is moving rapidly into urban areas, and, as a result, we’re experiencing more and more water shortage problems,” he notes. “We’re seeing vulnerability (to drought) increasing because sup-ply hasn’t kept up with the growth factor.”
The problem is exacerbated in good economic times, says Susan Munves, resource efficiency coordinator for Santa Monica, Calif. “The economy is in a boom cycle, so we have a lot of economic activity, which means increased water consumption (as more people travel, eat in restaurants, enjoy recreational pursuits),” she explains.
Once thought to be primarily an agricultural problem, drought has now become a concern within city limits. “There’s a lot more interest in drought than there was 10 years ago because the impacts are coming at us pretty fast, and they’re very complex,” Wilhite says. “Droughts affect things like transportation, tourism and recreation, and they have big-time impacts on urban water supply.”
There is a shift in the way cities are looking at dry weather and water shortages, Wilhite adds. “States are looking more seriously at drought planning, whereas, in the past, they haven’t done it. Or they’ve done it, but it’s been more on the response side than on the mitigation or preparedness side,” he says. “More state drought plans are now requiring communities to develop their own drought contingency or water shortage plans. They want people to anticipate problems; look at supply and demand curves; identify their vulnerabilities; and look at solutions.” The solutions, he says, will include implementation of conservation measures and expansion of water supplies.
Slowing the stream of demand
Whether voluntary or mandatory, conservation is the first line of defense against water shortage. Cities are using a variety of techniques to reduce water usage, typically employing a combination of the following:
* Restricting outdoor water usage (e.g., by limiting water usage to certain times; encouraging drip irrigation and the use of nozzles on hoses; discouraging hosing of sidewalks and driveways).
* Advocating more efficient use of indoor water (e.g., by encouraging the installation of low-flow toilets, water-saving shower heads and faucet aerators; by encouraging the repair of plumbing leaks; and by encouraging behavioral changes, such as turning water off while brushing teeth, shaving, etc.; operating washing machines only when the units are full; and refraining from using the toilet as a wastebasket).
* Requiring water-dependent businesses, such as car washes, to use recycled water.
* Advancing the use of drought-resistant plants and trees, as well as the use of moisture-retaining materials, such as mulch, in landscaping.
Not surprisingly, Santa Monica employs all of those measures. Like all California cities, it is vigilant when it comes to water conservation. “In California, we’re finding that our water supply is decreasing,” Munves says. “We’re dependent on Northern California and the Colorado River for our water supply, … and [those are finite resources]. So we do water management not just with drought in mind but 365 days a year.”
In the mid-’80s, Santa Monica suffered a seven-year drought that reached its peak in 1989-1990. A year prior to the peak, the city updated its Water Conservation Ordinance to include:
* restrictions on watering days and watering hours, and prohibition of water-wasting behavior, including the use of free-flowing hoses and surface washing. Additionally, it required all owners of car washes and fountains to use recycled water.
* new plumbing standards. All new construction must have ultra-low-flush toilets, low-flow shower heads and faucet aerators. Furthermore, when an older property is sold, the seller must certify that all plumbing has been updated to new construction standards.
* landscaping standards. The city requires that grassy areas be limited to 20 percent of the entire square footage of the property, and it requires the installation of low-volume irrigation systems (e.g., drip irrigation and high-efficiency sprinkler heads). Incidentally, what is good for the public is good for the government; Santa Monica recently installed a central irrigation controller that is programmed to irrigate the city’s parks and large greenspaces at maximum efficiency, based on the evapotranspiration rate at each site.
With implementation and enforcement of the conservation ordinance, Santa Monica reduced its daily water consumption from 15 million gallons prior to the drought to 10.8 million gallons at the drought’s peak. In particular, the plumbing standards have had a dramatic impact on water consumption; 75 percent of the city’s households have replaced their toilets and shower heads, producing a 13 to 15 percent drop in water use.
Rallying the team
The success of any water conservation effort depends on the level of participation, which in turn depends on education. Cities and counties have a responsibility to help water customers understand how their behavior contributes to shortages and what they can do mitigate the problem, Munves says.
The first order of business is to convince people that there is a problem. Unless a water shortage has reached crisis proportions, that can be a difficult task. “When there is no climatic drought, and the crisis has passed and gone from people’s minds, they go back to their water-wasting habits,” Munves notes. “They think, ‘Well, what drought?'” Water shortages can occur with drought or no drought, she adds, and education programs should emphasize year-round conservation.
To keep conservation uppermost in people’s minds, Santa Monica has established an education program that includes bilingual printed materials, school programs and workshops. The program targets outdoor water usage, which far exceeds interior usage (the level of which typically remains constant) and therefore presents more opportunity for savings.
“The printed materials have lots of information on how to plant drought-tolerant gardens, which we call sustainable gardens,” Munves says. “They cover the use of drought-tolerant plants, low-volume irrigation systems, organic materials — the full gamut of environmental issues.”
In the schools, Santa Monica has developed a water conservation curriculum, and it funds projects in all public schools, in which students plant gardens and learn how to maintain them in the Southern California climate. For the general public, the city offers an annual garden workshop and tours of sustainable gardens. “Every year, we select three homes that have changed from your standard garden look to a more sustainable landscape,” Munves explains. “We have a landscape architect who gives the public a guided tour through the gardens and explains how it’s done and what they’re looking at. We do it six times a year — in April, May and June — and get about 300 people a year.”
Unlike Santa Monica, which has honed its education program over many years, Greensboro, N.C., instituted most of its education measures last year, following a severe water shortage. With lower-than-normal precipitation in the spring, the region settled into a moderate drought. Greensboro residents and businesses increased their irrigation, and, as the dryness persisted, so did their watering. At its worst, Greensboro’s normal six-month supply of water dropped to 78 days. At that point, the city passed a drought management ordinance prohibiting irrigation, and, ultimately, it locked public and private irrigation meters.
“We were putting messages in the newspaper, telling people how many days’ supply we had left, and that’s something we thought would cause urgency,” says Kristine Williams, water conservation program coordinator for Greensboro. “But it really wasn’t taken seriously until the city went out and locked those meters.”
To ease the shortage, the city purchased water from nearby Winston-Salem and High Point. Then, to ensure that it would never be surprised again, it mounted a full-scale education campaign.
“Our water conservation budget has increased dramatically,” Williams says, adding that the city has doubled its advertising budget (to $300,000 a year). “We’re on television, radio and billboards, and in the newspaper — everywhere you can imagine — reminding people that we need to conserve water; that we still don’t have any additional water; and that, if a moderate drought were to hit us again, we could still have [a serious water shortage].”
In addition to expanding its advertising campaign, the city has produced materials explaining how its water system works; what it is doing to expand supply; and what residents can do to reduce demand. The information is distributed via brochure in the local newspaper, and via posters and videos in local schools.
The city also has produced conservation handbooks: the Water Handbook for use as part of the middle school curriculum; and the Partners in Water Efficiency Guide for commercial, industrial and institutional water customers. Additionally, it sends a newsletter to its irrigation customers, giving them tips on improving water-use efficiency.
Rounding out its program, Greensboro has established a speaker’s bureau for its water conservation program and has begun offering landscaping workshops with the help of the city’s Cooperative Extension Service. It also has implemented the WaterWise hotline, staffed by a city employee who answers callers’ questions about conservation measures.
The carrot and the stick
Once the public is aware of the steps necessary to conserve water, cities can enhance participation further by offering incentives. Those may take the form of positive reinforcement through monetary rebates and awards, or they may come as negative reinforcement through raised water rates or even fines.
Like Santa Monica, Greensboro has, for many years, encouraged its water customers to upgrade plumbing. In fact, the city purchases the hardware and gives it to customers free. Additionally, it has instituted the WaterWise Business awards, which recognize businesses that exhibit substantial water savings, based on their usage history. However, the city has found that the most significant incentive for conservation has been the implementation of a new water rate structure.
Historically, Greensboro has used a flat rate for residential water use and a decreasing block rate for large non-residential users. That changed last year, when the city instituted an increasing block rate for residential users and began phasing out the decreasing block rate for others. (The phase-out has increased some companies’ bills by 50 percent or more.)
The change has produced significant savings, particularly among Greensboro’s industrial customers. “We’re finding that our top 25 customers have cut back, on average, 15 to 20 percent (on water consumption),” Williams says.
In Albuquerque, N.M., voluntary conservation is driven by monetary rewards rather than penalties. The city’s Water Conservation Office has instituted rebate programs, including:
* Operation Low Flow, which provides rebates on water bills for installation of low-flow toilets. A single-family residential customer receives a $100 rebate for installation of one toilet, $75 for a second and $50 for a third. Multi-family and non-residential customers receive a $75 rebate per toilet, although the non-residential limit is 100 toilets per calendar year. Also, customers can replace their shower heads for an $8 credit on their water bills.
* Xeriscape retrofit incentives, which offer water bill credits to participants who meet requirements for plant selection, irrigation, plant cover and mulch. Residents must convert at least 500 square feet of their landscape to qualify, and they receive a credit of 15 cents for every square foot of converted landscape, up to 1,667 square feet.
Identifying new sources
Although a large part of drought management involves reducing water demand, the process also must include supply augmentation, Wilhite says. “Larger cities are less vulnerable (to severe water shortage) because they probably have multiple sources,” he notes. “They may be pulling from streams or rivers, from groundwater or from reservoirs. But smaller communities may be dependent on just a very few wells or on stream flow, and their risk is greater.”
Wilhite suggests that some communities may only need to expand their wellfields or reservoirs to keep up with demand, while others may need to tap new sources. “They may not be sources you want to use all the time,” he says. “[For example], you may be totally dependent on stream flow, and maybe you can augment that with groundwater sources to help you in times of peak demand. Or you might have two municipalities that are 20 miles apart, one with a more reliable water source and more supply capability than the other; they might look at the feasibility of interconnecting those systems.”
That was the case in Greensboro, where the city purchased water from nearby communities to supplement its supply during last year’s drought. Since then, Greensboro has entered into a formal four-year agreement in which nearby Reidsville will supply the city with up to 9 million gallons of water per day. Greensboro has installed the pipeline necessary for the transfer, and the operation will get under way next month. (Thirty years ago, plans were initiated for a dam that would provide regional water supply. The project, which would provide Greensboro with up 28 million gallons of water per day, is pending.)
Municipalities in Lancaster County, Pa., also have connected systems for additional supply. Last year, the county (containing 60 municipalities) suffered its third — and most severe — drought in a decade, and that, coupled with growth, has prompted some interconnection. “We’ve had some of the smaller authorities tie in lines with some of the larger authorities that had extra capacity,” says Randy Gockley, emergency management coordinator for the county. Additionally, the county has identified several defunct quarries from which farmers can draw water for irrigation, should that become necessary.
A changing mindset
Even though cities are struggling with the water shortages more often than they did 10 years ago, the outlook for managing those shortages is improving, Wilhite says. “Preparedness and mitigation are really becoming the cornerstones of [the U.S. approach to drought management], as opposed to five years ago, when there wasn’t much planning going on,” he says.
Still, there are many communities that have not begun to address the problem. “I think a lot of communities — particularly smaller ones — need to look at their supply and demand relationships in what-if scenarios,” Wilhite advises. “What if you were to have a six-month severe drought or a one-year or two-year severe drought? What would that do to your water supply?” Once they have the answers to those questions, they can begin to formulate plans for conservation and water supply expansion.
Wilhite also sees increasing interest in the use of graywater as a means of expanding water supplies. Already, Santa Monica is building a plant that will capture runoff from the city’s largest storm drain and recycle the water for use in irrigation. The graywater also will be used for toilet flushing in the city’s new public safety facility, which is being equipped with dual plumbing for treated and partially treated water.
“Conservation is really the cheapest source of supply,” Munves says. “It needs to start being seen that way, as opposed to a behavior to be used in times of shortage. That’s the mind shift that needs to happen in this country.”