Reducing Drought Damage Through Water Conservation and Institutional Change

Water conservation needs to happen everywhere.

The summer of 2015 may very well be known as the season people began to take droughts seriously. (At least that’s what we’re hoping.) Because while major droughts are common, they’re becoming increasingly more severe; so we thought it would be wise to list a few not-so-common ways people (and states) are embracing water conservation.

While you’ve probably heard plenty about people spray painting their lawns and planting drought tolerant landscaping, ABC News is reporting that some creative, drought-stricken Californians are replacing their pools with gardens, or are filling their pools with dirt. And some Californians are even taking water conservation a step further: installing hybrid sink-toilets. These toilets allow the user to wash their hands over the toilet tank, thus reusing the sink water. Another incredibly simple way that people everywhere can support water conservation is by buying produce that comes from hydroponic or aquaponic farms. These farms are incredibly water efficient.

Another important part of water conservation is what happens at the policy level. We reached out to Sharon B. Megdal, director of University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center, and C.W. and Modene Neely Endowed professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, to find out how the state, and the people, of Arizona are conserving water.

Organic Authority: What institutional changes need to be made to achieve wide-spread water conservation? How do you think the public will react to these types of changes?

Sharon B. Megdal: I think that the situation related to water conservation depends on the community and even the individual. Arizona has long required conservation programs for what are classified as large municipal water providers, whether publicly or privately owned, in the Active Management Areas (AMAs) of Arizona. Many communities and water systems outside AMAs have also made water conservation a high priority. For many, a large proportion of water use is for outdoor watering. So, one of the most significant things we can do is work with communities, water companies, and individuals to publicize and encourage ways of saving water outdoors while still having attractive landscaping and some shade.

Another thing we can do is discuss the rate structures of water providers. It is interesting because water companies’ revenues depend on water sales. Rates are set to cover costs of service. While it is true that costs will go down as water deliveries go down, a significant portion of a water providers costs are fixed. Consider meter reading and billing. The costs associated with these services do not depend on water sales. This is true of the administrative and infrastructure associated with a water company’s readiness to serve customers. They have to have the pipes in place regardless of the water use.

There are actions individuals can take to conserve water overall and/or match the quality of water with the use. Rainwater harvesting, whether through rain gutters, cisterns, or landscaping, can provide water for outdoor use. This reduces the need to use water provided through the potable water systems for outdoor use. Grey water systems, such as those that divert washing machine water from the house’s sewer outflow, is another way of reducing the use of potable quality water for outdoor use. Another way of conserving water is through replacement of indoor equipment, such as toilet or washing machine replacement.

OA: Is there anything people can do at the public level to help move this type of change along?

SM: There are many programs already in place to help, including rebate programs of utilities or other program, such as the Cochise Water Project in Sierra Vista. They include established permitting programs, such as the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s permitting program for household grey water systems. They also include community-based programs for rainwater harvesting, such as those run by the Water Management Group, which is based in Tucson. And they include water education programs, including those focusing on teachers and their students. A great program is Arizona Project WET (Water Education for Teachers), which is based at the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center and led by Extension Specialist Kerry Schwartz. Other conservation programs are also connected with Cooperative Extension.

OA: Do you see any future policy changes that could make an impact?

SM: I think Arizona has some very good policies regarding conservation and water use. What I would really like is for water users to know where their water comes from – and I do not mean the tap. Know the source of your water. If groundwater, it would be good for people to think about whether groundwater is being used at a faster rate than it is replenished. If surface water, such as Colorado River water delivered through the Central Arizona Project (CAP), understand that the Colorado River watershed is in the 15th year of drought. Shortage may be declared sometime in the next few years. The shortage trigger is linked to water levels in Lake Mead, which is behind Hoover Dam. Although declaration of a shortage by the Secretary of the Interior is not expected to impact water deliveries to cities, such as Tucson, it will result in higher charges for CAP water. I would like to see a billboard campaign that focuses on water savings and water information. It could encourage people to think regularly about water use and question if the water use can be reduced.

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Water conservation image via Shutterstock