The case for adopting water conservation strategies

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At a recent meeting of the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, a panel of experts highlighted the complex economic, ecological, agricultural and water supply challenges created by the current drought. Bob Pavlowsky of MSU reminded us that the region has always experienced droughts, but with global warming and climate change, scientists are predicting more frequent extreme events, including bigger storms and extended cycles of drought. The urgency of preparing for that possibility is becoming acute.

Mike Kromrey, Director of the Watershed Committee, suggested that the reach of drought is difficult for many people to comprehend. Widely published concerns have led some locals to remark, "At least I don’t have a problem—I’m on a well." These folks are seemingly oblivious to the fact that drought invariably shrinks groundwater reserves at the same time that surface sources are drying up. Just as troubling, this attitude reflects a disconnect with the fact that ground and surface waters are tightly connected. During dry times, groundwater provides most of the base flow to streams and springs, supporting aquatic life and recreation as well as sustaining water supplies.

For guidance, we can look to places which have dealt with water scarcity for a long time. The city of Tucson, for example, now requires that at least 50 percent of the landscape watering needs of new development be supplied by harvested rainwater—saving precious drinking water for more critical uses and making xeriscaping (using locally adapted, drought tolerant species) more appealing. The state of Texas provides financial incentivizes for rainwater harvesting by eliminating sales tax on harvesting equipment and excluding such improvements from property taxes. The state even encourages water providers to incorporate harvested rainwater into their source portfolios, at least for non-drinking purposes. In Seattle, during an aggressive conservation campaign following a major drought, the public came to view bright green yards as objects of shame rather than badges of pride.

There are good reasons for Missourians to adopt at least some of these conservation strategies. In Springfield, summertime uses such as turf irrigation can increase water demand by up to 50 percent. This heavy use comes at a time when water sources are typically at their lowest (and often of less than desirable quality). In addition, hard-working, overheated equipment is more prone to breakage. Thus, shaving peak demand with water conserving practices benefits water utilities by decreasing supply and treatment deficiencies, as well as potentially delaying the need for larger mains or storage tanks or expanded treatment facilities.

For agricultural operations (big roofs on barns, chicken houses, etc.), the potential for collecting and storing large volumes of rainwater is especially promising. In the Midwest, a large share of federal agricultural drought relief goes toward drilling more wells—more straws in the common cup, further depleting groundwater reserves. Why not help farmers install rainwater harvesting systems to be used as back-up supplies when ponds go dry, with large rainwater tanks refilled with groundwater only as a last resort?

In urban areas, widespread harvesting of rainwater could relieve at least some storm water runoff problems. More frequent extreme weather events means times of way too much water, as well as times of not enough. Harvesting on a large scale could help "even out" an ever more erratic hydrologic cycle, as well as keeping a portion of runoff from contacting contaminated urban surfaces. Ideally, first flushes diverted from harvesting systems would be treated in onsite rain gardens or biofilters, further reducing polluted runoff.

Encouraging conservation in southwest Missouri is made more difficult because tap water is cheap, even during a drought. Water prices often don’t reflect the true infrastructure upkeep and environmental costs of producing it. Current price signals simply provide little financial incentive for people to conserve. The best solution is not necessarily to drastically jack up water rates (although that would certainly promote wider conservation), but it probably is time to re-examine our approach to both pricing and conservation incentives.

As it stands now, a down side for utilities with increasing numbers of customers conserving water is loss of operating revenue. The utility has fixed costs in maintaining infrastructure and ensuring the capacity to deliver sufficient quantities of clean, safe water, whether the customer actually uses it or not. To a certain extent, this "capacity fee" is already figured into the water bill. But the idea of the utility’s continuing fiscal responsibilities regardless of usage could be presented more explicitly and transparently to the customer, perhaps right on the bill. In fact, maybe fixed capacity fees, based on the size of service lines, should cover most if not all of the basic system operating costs. The price of water actually used could then be based on a lower "conservation rate" for reasonable amounts of use, but slide to a much higher rate for excessive or non-essential uses, without jeopardizing necessary operating revenue.

Water suppliers could also reconsider the nature of the service they provide. Water, after all, unlike gasoline, is essential to life. We should be thinking of the provision of water more as a service, and less as a commodity. Instead of aspiring to a goal of delivering only drinking quality water to customers through a pipe, providers could adopt a broader philosophy of simply "helping people get the water they need," whatever the source. Under such a "fee for service" scenario, providers could assist businesses in installing large scale rainwater harvesting systems, for example, providing technical assistance, rebates on equipment (as they already do on low-flow toilets), or even helping owners routinely maintain their systems as part of the service fee.

For us, scenarios of population growth in tandem with potential water scarcity play out under dark, menacing clouds. But these clouds have silver linings. At the very least, we may wake up to the fact that there is plenty of room for improvement—decreased water waste and increased efficiency. Even though per capita water use in the U.S. has declined since the 1980s, we still use much more water per person than almost any other country in the world. Here in Missouri, we have had it good for a long time. It may be a reason for complacency, but it is no excuse for failing to plan for an increasingly likely future. It has often been said that people in our region are good at working together to solve common problems. Now, with serious threats facing our beautiful, high quality, critically important water resources, we must demonstrate the will to do so.

Loring Bullard

Loring Bullard

Loring Bullard is the retired director of the Water shed Committee of the Ozarks, a post he held for 23 years. He is a graduate of Central Missouri State University in 1974 with a degree in biology.

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