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The Way Forward - Part I

by Doug Pushard

Santa Fe is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in recorded history and city officials have announced that they're considering new water conservation measures. The above-normal precipitation we experienced in recent decades does not seem likely to return any time soon. So where do we go from here?

Santa Fe water officials and folks living here have already done a splendid job reducing the gallons used per capita per day (GPCD). This number when we first started recording it back in 1998 was 168 and it is now around 109, a stunning decrease of over 35 percent.

Historically, Santa Fe has maintained a low GPCD that other cities have struggled to achieve (e.g., Las Vegas 222, Phoenix 185 and Tucson 177 GPCD). Our historically low GPCD is most likely due to a culture of water conservation that discourages lush landscapes in our high desert environment. We also don’t have much agriculture or industries that require a lot of water within the city limits that would drive up our water consumption numbers.

Albuquerque in comparison was at a whopping 251 GPCD in 1995 when the city started its water conservation efforts. They are now at 150, a 39 percent decrease.

Santa Fe has used many methods to achieve our enviable results including education, rebates, regulations, and pricing. Of these, regulations have played an especially important role. Many feel that the role of ordinances and regulations are overly burdensome and intrusive. However, the data shows that they are one of the primary reasons we are where we are without experiencing noticeable lifestyle impacts.

These conservation ordinances touch almost every aspect of life in Santa Fe, though not many people have an awareness of them. Ordinances include residential and commercial building codes (e.g., requiring EPA Water Sense-approved appliances and other products), landscaping ordinances (e.g., limiting the type and amount of cool season grasses), business regulations (e.g., restaurants cannot serve drinking water without request and hotels must limit sheet washing to four times a week), and development codes (e.g., requiring large developments to obtain water rights).

One of the most successful programs has been the toilet retrofit program. Over the life of this program Santa Fe residents and those in the construction trade swapped out tens of thousands of inefficient toilets (3.5+ gallons per flush) for higher efficiency toilets (1.8 gallons per flush).

This one program has saved millions of gallons of water since it was implemented. But just as importantly, this program demonstrates that we can save water and yet not reduce our quality of life or diminish Santa Fe’s beauty. By using the latest water-conserving technologies and through selective ordinances we have saved literally lakes of water.

One argument could be that we didn't need to mandate these measures, that we could have done it through rebates and education. However, through the use of regulations we were able to reduce our water use in a rapid and fair manner, and the entire community benefited from the savings.

What were those benefits? We probably can all agree that through rebates and education alone we would not have saved all of this water. We would have saved a smaller percentage and therefore we would have needed to find additional water (e.g., by purchasing additional water rights). The regulations have also simulated our economy by creating jobs and a market for low-flush toilets.

Our city officials have also used pricing to incentivize water conservation. However this tool as it is currently implemented has probably been tapped out as an effective incentive. Over the last five years the local water rates have increased by over 40% and yet water usage has increased.

Rebates have been in use in Santa Fe since 2004. Thousands of rain barrels have been installed and hundreds of clothes washing machines and toilets have been swapped out resulting in the savings of millions of gallons of water to date as well as many more in the future.

Lastly, education and outreach programs have been a staple of our water conservation efforts. These wonderful long-term programs (e.g., the Children’s Water Fiesta, Children’s Calendar contest, website, etc.) build ongoing awareness about water conservation.

While we are fortunate to live in a city that is uniquely beautiful, we are highly dependent upon a secure source of water. Without water our tourism would suffer, our local economy would be dramatically impacted and of course the value of our homes would decline. We should all care about this precious commodity that for the most part we all take for granted.

To maintain our lifestyle in this wondrous location we need to continue to move forward on all water conservation fronts. We have already implemented many of the easy solutions. To become even better conservers of water we must plan, think creatively, and engage the community.

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