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Local Heroes: City of Olympia Water Conservation Program Covers All Bases
by Doug Pushard

Olympia, capital of Washington State, located at the tip of the Puget Sound and on the edge of the beautiful Olympic Mountains may seem an odd place for a water conservation program, but the city has had one since 1997 and has expanded in scope every year since its inception.

Why would an area that gets over 50 inches of rain a year, has very mild weather and seemingly ready access to unlimited water need such a program?

Answer: Growth and drought - the state capital is growing and with growth comes increasing demand on all the natural resources, including water. Olympia receives plenty of rain most of the year; however, in July and August it gets only 2 inches of rain. This period coincides with the biggest water use months of the year. This lack of rain during peak season and population growth has led the city to create a multi-faceted program. The program is inclusive of other agencies and departments and some of its key aspects include:

· Annual rain barrel sales at a subsidized price
· Free rain gauges and rain sensors
· Free irrigation checkups for high water user customers
· Low water-use washing machine rebates
· Education seminars and information

Are the programs working? Yes, according to locals and to support this claim they point to two very different and compelling facts: 1) overall water use has declined since the program started even though the population has grown and the area is in the midst of a drought and 2) more and more households are letting their yards go brown during the peak summer months.

"You would have almost never seen a brown lawn prior to the program," says Tikva Breuer, Water Conservation Program specialist for the city. "Now you can see several houses in a row with dominant lawns with a few having Sleeping Lawn signs and this would have not been the case just a few years ago." The Sleeping Lawn program is used to educate and encourage residents not to water their lawns during the summer months.

Although the city can fine for over use of water it has an innovative program to encourage compliance instead of using fines. Through the use of night-time drive arounds as well as examination of water billing records the city attempts to find the largest water users and then inform them of the various programs available to assist them in lowering their water bills. Most customers opt to find out more and in fact reduce their water consumption between 17-20% by following the actions recommended by city conservation specialists.

The city programs are not limited to just residential users but also include programs designed specifically to reduce water use at new and existing commercial and government buildings. With the Water Smart Technology program, businesses and government offices can receive rebates when they install approved water-efficient fixtures. For example, through this program, Olympia businesses have received rebates for replacing water-cooled ice machines with air-cooled models, collectively saving over 2 million gallons of water every year.

Through education programs like the Sleeping Lawn program, the annual rain barrel sale event, the commercially-oriented Water Smart Technology program and partnering with local businesses and volunteers to build one water wise garden a year at a local school - the city is building broad awareness of the need for water conservation.

With Washington state's new "green building law" requiring schools, universities and other public buildings to be built to meet energy efficiency, water conservation and other environmental standards approved in March 2005, the city will continue to investigate new ways and programs to broaden both its reach and effectiveness of their water conservation efforts.

Water conservation is viewed as a must in order to insure a high-quality water supply will be available for Olympia residents in the near and distant future, as well as protect local freshwater habitats and the fish and wildlife that depend on them.

Lessons Learned

For other cities interested in building a broad, inclusive program the lessons learned from Olympia can be applied whether just starting a program or building on an existing program:

1) Repeat rationale for conservation over and over in as many different venues as possible. Changing behavior is hard, especially behavior learned over a lifetime.
2) Target different programs to different audiences. One size fits all will not work with conservation programs. Tailor different programs for businesses versus residential consumers.
3) Partner with others in the community that share your vision.

Olympia Key Facts (5/2005)
Area Population: ~42,000
Altitude: ~ 0 ft/m
Low - High Temp: 32F/76F - 0C/24C
Avg. Rainfall: 50 in/127cm
Conservation Program Inception: 1997
Key Contacts:
Water Conservation Program
City of Olympia
PO Box 1967
Olympia, WA 98507-1967
Key Programs:
Rainbarrel Rebate: No, subsidized sale
Rainwater Harvesting Rebate: Yes, pilot
Low Flush Toilet Rebate: Commercial
Xeriscape Rebate: No
Low Flow Washing Machine Rebate: Yes
Low Flow Dish Washer Rebate: Yes
Watering Restrictions: Yes
Education Program: Yes
Commercial Programs: Yes
Fines: Yes
Sales Tax Exemption: No
Property Tax Exemption: No

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