News Column

Twin Cities Look to Santa Fe for Lessons in Water Conservation

March 19, 2013

Bob Shaw, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

Melissa McDonald is living the dry life.

She washes her car annually, bathes weekly, flushes occasionally and saves every last drop of water when she washes vegetables for dinner.

And for a once-a-year treat, she lets her kids have a water-balloon war.

"It's just a way of life," said McDonald, an expert water-saver. "I am not suffering."

McDonald consumes one-fourth as much water as an average American. Her city -- Santa Fe, N.M. -- is the nation's champion at conserving water.

In that way, New Mexico's capital city could be Minnesota's future.

Minnesota's aquifers are being drawn down. To preserve them, one Metropolitan Council scenario suggests some surburbs should consider giving up their aquifer water for more plentiful river water. Another model would have new water users consuming less than half the water that current customers now do.

How do we do that? Ask Santa Fe.

In a desert climate that receives a third of the precipitation that Minnesota does, one could assume homeowners would use far more water.

Wrong. Santa Fe uses 21 percent less per person than the Twin Cities.

Santa Fe's water-saving crusade was launched after a severe drought in 1996. From 1995 to 2011, the city slashed its consumption by 38 percent to 105 gallons per capita per day.

They did it by making water conservation central to every aspect of life, becoming a model that other cities look to.

In Santa Fe, the newspaper annually prints the names of the heaviest

users of water, which has the effect of a public shaming.

"We have a big transparency effort," said Laurie Trevizo, the city's water conservation specialist.

Swimming pools must be covered when not in use. Cleaning almost anything outdoors with water is prohibited. Long-term hotel guests may have their sheets washed no more than every fourth night.

"We think of how water follows you around," Trevizo said. That means being aware of every drop used in workplaces, restaurants, parks, homes

and parks.

"Our land-use code is somewhat water-centric," said Trevizo.

Buyers of new homes must offset their future water use -- by paying for low-flow toilets across the city. Since the program began, the owners of new homes have paid for 40,000 such toilets.

The city subsidizes water-saving appliances for residents -- with a $480 rebate for a low-water clothes washer and $504 for low-flow toilets.

It will pay $630 for a waterless urinal, which has a layer of oil floating atop the water to seal off smells.

The most effective tactic has been the simplest -- raising water rates.

The 9,000 gallons used in a month by a typical American family of four would cost $121 in Santa Fe. That's more than 10 times what is charged in many Minnesota cities. Woodbury, for example, charges $9 a month for the same amount of water.

"You will find ways to save water when rates are that high," said Trevizo.

The higher cost meant the color of the city changed from green to brown.

Many golf courses have become "target courses," in which all the areas except the tees and greens are a sun-baked tan.

In Santa Fe, a new home may have only 20 percent of its landscaped area covered with a lawn.

McDonald and her husband, Nate Downey, have no lawn. Instead they have a patch of plastic, similar to AstroTurf, around one of their trees. Real grass in that climate requires about 76 gallons annually for a single square foot.

Santa Fe discovered another advantage of saving water -- reduction of sprawl. Large Minnesota-style lawns depend on inexpensive water. When it isn't cheap, the size of lawns and yards tends to shrink.

It's common in the Southwest to build homes on one-eighth of an acre -- about half the size of lots in a typical Minnesota suburb. Having more people on less land cuts the cost of city services and transportation, said Drew Beckwith, the water policy manager of the water conservation group Western Resource Advocates.

"The more dense the houses, the less water they use," he said.

In their home, McDonald and Downey pinch every pint.

The family has a 10,000-gallon cistern to collect rainwater, which they use to water outdoor plants. The plants also get the "grey water" from showers, baths and the laundry room, flowing from separate pipes into a tank outside.

The result is a home that an aquifer would love.

In summer months, the family uses plenty of water on the family landscaping business. But in winter, they use about 23 gallons per day per person, compared with about 90 gallons for the national average.

"Pretty soon everyone in the country is going to have to think about this stuff," McDonald said.



Source: (c)2013 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) Distributed by MCT Information Services


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