Arizonans using less water

When Jimmy Wells of Tucson bought an old house in 2011, upgrading to water-efficient fixtures was his top priority.

He bought a front-loader washing machine, an energy and water efficient appliance. He transformed the backyard into a thriving space with trees and shrubs through desert landscaping. He saved himself money, and he, like millions of other Arizonans, is saving the region water.

“We live in the desert,” Wells said. “Water is precious.”

Average single-family household water use is on the decline in Maricopa and Pima counties’ urban centers, according to the Arizona Water Resources Department. From 2000 to 2013, the average annual household water has decreased by about 25 percent.

The trend is largely caused by improvements in technology and changes in landscape preferences.

The data should be interpreted with caution as it is self-reported and there is some margin for error, said Ray Quay a researcher in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. In some instances, the meter measuring the water pumped from the water plant is inaccurate. Additionally, the water companies have to estimate the population numbers annually and may apply rapid growth rate while the number of residents is decreasing.

However, research supports the findings. A study published in 2011 in the American Water Works Association Journal found the average household’s water consumption is in decline nationally.  According to data collected from utilities across the country, a house in 2008 used around 11,000 gallons less annually than the same one 30 years ago.

Water efficiency

The Energy Policy Act of 1992 mandated federal standards to make water fixtures and appliances more efficient, decreasing indoor water usage, Quay said. For example, the law decreased the maximum water used per flush for toilets from 3.5 gallons to 1.6.

As people buy efficient technology, the water consumption decreases without affecting consumers’ lifestyles, Quay said. Homes built after 1994 included the efficient water fixtures and appliances.

The majority of appliances and water fixtures on the market save more water than mandated by the Energy Policy Act because they meet voluntary standards, Quay said.

New housing units tend to install highly efficient water fixtures and appliances, which reduces water usage per day by 55 water gallons compared to the old ones, said Adam Miller of the Phoenix City Water Services Department.

As residents replace their old fixtures and appliances, they are likely to buy efficient ones, said Gary Woodard, a staff member in Montgomery and Associates, a consulting agency that specializes in developing water supply management plans. This means water savings occur without any intervention.

“It does not matter if they know or care about water conservation,” Woodard said. “They can’t buy anything that is as inefficient as what they are throwing away.”

People are less likely to build swimming pools, and the newly built swimming pools tend to be smaller, which in turn are more water efficient than the old designs, Woodard said.

“People’s love affair with turf and backyard pools is over.” Woodard said. “That is good.”

Another factor is water-efficient landscaping, Quay said. With economic distress, low-income communities stop watering their landscapes as they prioritize their spending, Quay said. This can reduce a house’s water usage by 30 to 40 percent, he said.

New homes also devote more space to patios, two or three car garages and driveways, compared to the older ones, Miller said, so that means less space for watering plants.

Junardi Armstrong removes unwanted plants from her garden, Monday, March 23, 2015, in Tucson, Ariz. Desert landscaping requires less maintenance than lawns while being water efficient. (Photo by Alamri/ Arizona Sonora News Service)
Junardi Armstrong removes unwanted plants from her garden, Monday, March 23, 2015, in Tucson, Ariz. Desert landscaping requires less maintenance than lawns while being water efficient. (Photo by Alamri/ Arizona Sonora News Service)

Desert landscaping is becoming more popular as fewer people have grass in their backyards, said Carol Ward-Morris, interim-director of Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, which is a nonprofit organization that represents 10 cities and towns. Ten percent of Phoenix single family houses have turf, according to a preliminary study conducted by the city, she said.

Some people like to bring the state’s natural environment into their backyards through desert landscaping, said Bob Turcotte master gardener in the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. Another advantage is that desert landscaping requires less maintenance than lawns.

“Once established and thriving its own” Turcotte said. “You can pretty much sit back and watch it,” he said.

Junardi Armstrong of Tucson likes to watch butterflies and hummingbirds in her desert backyard garden. Maintaining the garden includes repairing the drip system and weeding, she said.  

“It is average maintenance,” Armstrong said. “Compared to lawns, it is night and day.”

Guidelines and Laws

Plumbing manufacturers collaborated with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop WaterSense certification for water fixtures in 2006, said Barbara Higgens, CEO of Plumbing Manufacturers International, a trade association in Chicago that represents U.S- based plumbing manufacturers.

Certified products, including showerheads and toilets, use 20 percent less water than the federal requirements.

WaterSense certified toilets use 1.28 gallons per flush compared to the federal standard of 1.6 gallons, saving 2,000 gallons per year, according to Plumbing Manufacturers International.

In 2007, California passed the Laird Bill, which requires that water fixtures sold in the state meet similar standards to the WaterSense certification, Higgens said.

The states of Texas, Georgia and Colorado passed similar laws to the Laird Bill, said Bill Christiansen, a program manager with Efficiency Water Alliance, a Chicago-based group that advocates for the wise use of water.

The 1.28 gallons per flush toilet is the industry standard for developers and construction companies, said Athena Roelfler, marketing coordinator for Benjamin Supply, a plumbing supply store based in Tucson. People can still buy 1.6 gallons per flush toilets which are less common in the market.

Arizona city councils supported incentive programs to enable people to install water efficient house fixtures, said Carol Ward-Morris, interim director of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, a nonprofit that represents 10 cities and towns. In 1986, Glendale was the first city in the U.S. to launch a toilet rebate program.

Some cities have launched rebate programs to encourage home owners to buy efficient appliances, said Daniel Ransom, conservation program manager for the Tucson Water.

The rebate program assisted Wells with the cost of installing a water harvesting system in his backyard. He was reimbursed for the supplies, and he installed the system himself.

The Department of Energy set energy standards for appliances to increase efficiency of washing machines, Woodard said. Old washing machines use 40 gallons per load, and the new ones, especially the front loaders, utilize around 25 gallons per load, he said.

As some consumers use less water overall, it is likely overall water bills will remain the same, or actually go up.

Woodard said 70 percent of water companies’ costs are fixed – the infrastructure doesn’t change, regardless how much water is flowing. So if less water is consumed, the companies could increase rates to keep the infrastructure intact. However, as consumer use less, and utilities cut their variable cost, the total water bill may stay the same, he said.

The water companies can lower costs by delaying projects that are unnecessary because of the decline in demand, said Janice Beecher, director of the Institute of Public Utilities at Michigan State University. This can be done through forecasting future demand.

“Utilities should embrace this trend,” Beecher said.

Water Still Precious

There is a high probability that a shortage of “priority 1” will be declared on the Colorado River in 2017, Basefsky said. This will affect Center Arizona Project water allocation to farmers, and cities cannot purchase water beyond their allocations.

Water from the Central Arizona Project will become more expensive, said Mitch Basefsky, communication representative from the Central Arizona Project. The rates which municipalities pay for CAP water may increase by about 10 percent, depending on different factors, such as the cost of energy.

“We are in a situation that is becoming very serious,” Basefsky said. “We do not know when that is going to end.”

Conservation can help with the water challenges in Arizona, but does not solve the water problem on the Colorado River, Basefsky said.

“Water efficiency is the most important thing that individuals can do,” Basefsky said. “For every drop you do not use, that is a drop that can either be stored for the future, or can stay in the environment.”

The reduced water demand in Phoenix has allowed more surface water to be stored underground which can be pumped in case of future shortages, said Miller of the Phoenix water system.

Short-term solutions for the CAP problem include some water companies and farmers leaving their water allocation in Lake Mead, possibly keeping the water above the shortage declaration height, Basefsky said. This may delay water shortages in the short term.

In the long term, CAP is funding a cloud seeding project in Wyoming and Colorado to increase the mountain snowpack, the main water supply for CAP. Additionally, CAP is working with Mexican farmers to increase irrigation efficiency that might result in Mexico not taking its water allocation.

Unlike California, many central Arizona communities are not using their full CAP and Verde-Salt River water allocations, so they can absorb possible reductions in those two supply sources.

Tucson is recharging the majority of its CAP water allocation for future use, said Wally Wilson Chief Hydrologist in Tucson Water.

In the case the CAP water is unavailable, some cities have enough ground water to compensate for the loss, Quay said. The duration of these reserves varies from one city to another. Some cities have enough water for decades, and others for a few years. Completely depending on ground water is a short term solution because pumping water will eventual depleting the reserves.

It is very unlikely that the federal government will stop CAP water deliveries to cities or Indian tribes, Basefsky said.

“We will find ways to keep water in the canal,” Basefsky said.

Musherf Alamri is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at alamri@email.arizona.edu.

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