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The Way Forward - Part II

by Doug Pushard

In a recent article, I discussed how Santa Fe has achieved an outstanding low water consumption number compared to other cities. However, over the last few years this downward trend has begun to reverse. With continued drought and growth, we need to refocus and get our gallons user per capita per day (GPCD) moving down again. This article explores possible alternatives we could employ to keep moving forward.

Santa Fe’s past efforts have proven that it is quite possible to reduce our water use without impacting our quality of life. As we look ahead, however, it’s important to realize that all the actions we’ve taken have been easier to implement. Reducing our water use further is going to be a little tougher. Fortunately, technologies have progressed and it is possible to continue to drive down our water use without hurting our economy or impacting our lifestyle.

The City is currently updating its Long Range Water Plan and will release it next year. Past versions of this report have highlighted water conservation as the single most cost-effective way to ensure a secure water supply. Other cities have also found this to be the case and water conservation initiatives are now widespread across the country and around the world.

Gallons per capita per day for a few cities

It is easily possible to continue to drive down our water usage. As is clear from the chart above using Gallons per Person per Day (GPCD) there may be lessons to be learned from other cities that are doing better than we are.

Like our previous water saving efforts, our future approach must to be multi-faceted and include education and outreach, rebates, pricing and regulations. Each of these plays an important role.

Education help inform what is important and why. These types of programs take time and repetition to be successful and yet are essential to creating lasting change. Conversely, incentives can create short-term spikes in behavior and are effective in getting folks to act quickly (e.g., swapping out an inefficient washing machine for a water-saving one). When used effectively, rebate programs can have a long-term impact on a community’s water use. On the other hand, they can be costly, plus they only target individuals who can afford to make a change. For this reason, the impact of rebate programs isn’t as far-reaching as that of regulations. Regulations and ordinances shape the behavior of the entire community. Lastly, pricing shares the positive aspects of the other tool, but its power diminishes over time unless pushed ever upward.

A few water conserving alternatives not yet tried, include: a credit on the water bill for attending a water conservation workshop, changing our rebate program to be seasonal in nature (i.e. inside rebates in the cold months and outside rebates in the summer months), updating our pricing to reward very low water users and adding a new, higher tier to penalizes the very, very high water users, and lastly put greywater stubouts in every new home.

While the above is not an exhaustive list, it illustrates some of the simple, low-cost approaches to water conservation that could be implemented without adversely impacting our community. Let’s move forward and keep Santa Fe at the forefront of water conservation. It is a most precious resource for our community. It is our future. It is our water. Let’s start moving forward.

Santa Fe has gotten to where it is today by putting all of these tools to use, and we must continue to do so going forward. Education and outreach is an extremely important component of our overall program. An approach adopted by several cities is to give a credit on the water bill for attending a water conservation workshop. Albuquerque does this, but Santa Fe does not. In fact, it was at a workshop like this in Austin, Texas some years ago that I became interested in conserving water and energy. Santa Fe could implement this program and involve local businesses that supply water conservation devices. This latter approach would support local businesses, educate folks interested in water conservation devices, and potentially help fund these workshops through business sponsorships.

Updating our rebate program is critical as we move forward. Rebate offers need to be big enough to incentivize action, otherwise they are just paperwork without impact. How could Santa Fe improve its rebate program? Currently, Santa Fe offers a broad array of incentives for small amounts of money. Alternatively, we could offer larger, seasonal rebates. In the summertime, rebates could target reducing outdoor irrigation; in the winter, rebates could target indoor water conservation efforts. Rebate dollars should reflect both the life of the device and overall savings, but in determining savings, we should consider the cost of acquiring future water rights and other costly alternatives to conservation (i.e., the device’s true value to the city) and not just current water costs. This philosophic change would more accurately reflect the true valve of the conservation measure and would support the implementation of larger rebates.

We also need to look at pricing of water as we move forward. Santa Fe, like other cities, has a few water users who consume large amounts of water and who are not deterred by the current top-tier pricing. For these few, the city should create a new top tier (e.g., 25,000 gallons a month) and double the current top tier rate. Additionally, a Water Saver category should be created for those using less than 5,000 gallons a month in the summer. These folks would see a halving of their current lower tier rate. This expanded tier structure would reward the savers — we want more of these — and further promote water conservation to the water hogs — we want less of these.

Regulations and building code changes have proven to be highly effective in the Santa Fe water conservation arsenal and should be used selectively to help decrease our long-term water use. Simple examples include: Updating our building codes to incorporate the latest and greatest water-saving devices; requiring smart irrigation controllers equipped with rain detector devices when new irrigation systems are installed; requiring gray water stub outs in new construction, similar to the rules in Tucson, Arizona; and lastly, updating the Santa Fe plumbing codes to allow the use of recycled tap water or rainwater to be used to flush toilets, as other cities have enacted. Regulations should be fair, enforceable, easy to adopt, and proactive in nature. They should be focused on what I call the “invisible infrastructure” (i.e. changes like the toilet retrofit program, they are installed once and don’t require behavioral changes) and be forward looking.

Finally, a tool that I had not mentioned before is enforcement. A very, very large majority of folks are going to abide by the rules. However, there's always going to be a small minority who believes the rules don’t apply to them. For this set of folks an effective enforcement of regulations is required. Otherwise, law-abiding folks will quit caring if they know their actions don’t matter. Enforcement programs should wield big enough fines to discourage the few.

While the above is not an exhaustive list of ideas and approaches, it illustrates some of the simple, low-cost approaches to water conservation that could be implemented without adversely impacting our community. We live in city full of former executives, former scientists, and former engineers. Let’s move forward by engaging our best and brightest to come up with water saving ideas that will keep Santa Fe and the surrounding communities at the forefront of water conservation. It is a most precious resource for our community. It is our future. It is our water. Let’s move forward. pproach.

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