Everyday conservation

Drought: Through incentives and education, Denver has made conserving water part of daily life.

August 28, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

DENVER -- It's raining again in Maryland. And soon drought-weary residents will be shouting for the right to water their lawns again to their former emerald squishiness.

It's been raining here in Denver, too -- twice the normal summer rainfall. But water conservation efforts continue uninterrupted. Water authorities argue that conservation cuts consumers' bills, and avoids millions in spending on new dams, pipelines, pumping and treatment to slake the thirst of a growing population.

"Most people who live in this part of the world understand it [water] is a scarce commodity," says Robert Nagle, an engineer with Denver Water, which serves more than a million people.

Yet on the semi-arid high plains, where the skies typically deliver barely a third of Baltimore's average annual rainfall, there are no mandatory watering restrictions. Denver's lawns and fairways are green. Sprinklers hiss and sputter everywhere, and restaurants serve tall tumblers of water without being asked.

Conservation here takes another form. It's permanent, and it's voluntary, encouraged by financial incentives. And therein may lie some lessons for East Coast communities now chafing under mandatory watering bans.

Denver was pushed into its conservation programs by a severe drought in the 1970s, the federal rejection of a big new dam-and-reservoir project, and a court order issued after a losing fight over a new treatment plant. The programs are now entrenched at Denver Water, with a $2 million annual budget.

And it seems to be working. As the population served has climbed from 850,000 in 1980 to more than a million today, total water consumption has remained steady.

Among Denver's strategies:

Water rates that encourage conservation by charging more per gallon as consumption rises. In Baltimore, the more you use, the less you pay per gallon.

Water bills that reflect water's true costs. A typical Baltimore City family pays about $98 a quarter for water. But a Baltimore County family drinking water from the same system may pay less than $25 a quarter because sewer service and other water-related charges are buried in their annual tax bills.

Free, voluntary water audits. Denver Water has visited 13,000 homes -- 10 percent of the total it serves -- installing free low-flow shower heads and faucet aerators and inspecting lawn sprinkler systems. Inspectors show residents how to cut consumption and save money indoors and out.

Free repairs. Low-income families can have their leaks fixed and toilets replaced with free low-flow models.

Financial incentives. Commercial and industrial customers can get one-time cash rebates up to $20,000 for conservation measures that produce permanent water savings.

Education. Denver Water promotes water-stingy "xeriscape" landscaping with literature, advertisements and seminars for homeowners, landscapers, nursery operators and sprinkler contractors.

Long-term conservation in Baltimore, of course, would not look like Denver's. Baltimore averages 40 inches of rain a year compared with Denver's 13. Its reservoir system is normally robust, and property owners use far less water per capita than in Denver, where a quarter of every gallon is sprinkled on grass.

Reason to conserve

But the current drought has shown the Baltimore region is not invulnerable. Its population is growing, its reservoirs are losing capacity because of silt, and it is costly to pump and treat Susquehanna River water in a crisis. And no one knows whether the hot, dry weather of recent years is a passing cycle or long-term trend.

Maryland politicians can take a pass after the rains return, Nagle says. But "at some point in time they're going to have to bite the bullet, and the bullet becomes a very expensive one."

Conservation, by comparison, is a relatively cheap, immediate source of water that may avert the next emergency.

Denver Water took its first steps toward conservation in 1990, when it abandoned its old, unmetered flat-rate system, which billed residents for water based on the square footage of their property and the number of baths and bedrooms they had. "It didn't matter if you'd gone for a month with the hose running all day and all night," says Denver Water's conservation manager, Elizabeth V. Gardener.

The new rate structure charged residential customers higher rates for consumption above a "lifeline minimum" of 22,000 gallons during each two-month billing period. Today, Denver residents pay $1.36 per 1,000 gallons, a rate comparable to Baltimore's.

But after the first 22,000 gallons used during Denver's two-month billing period, the rate jumps to $1.63 per thousand. In Baltimore, after the first 37,400 gallons per quarter, the rate drops to $0.84 per thousand. Industrial water consumers get even deeper discounts for volume, so there is no incentive to conserve.

Financial incentive

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