Outdoor Water Use Is Where the Action Is

Surface water from rivers and lakes provide the majority of drinking water supplies for communities across the West. As our communities grow and pull ever more water out of rivers and lakes, our precious water resources are put under increasing strain. Effective water conservation efforts can reduce that strain, and there is an interesting shift currently underway in the focus of water conservation efforts.

The future of urban water conservation efforts will increasingly be focused on outdoor water use. All that treated drinking water used to irrigate our front lawns is going to come under increasing scrutiny as our water-strapped region seeks to balance growing populations in our cities with the needs of our world-class rivers.

The indoor side of water conservation has recently seen advances with changes to state law and local plumbing codes. Several Western states, including California and Colorado, have recently adopted new laws that limit the sale of indoor fixtures (think toilets, faucets, and showerheads) to only those that are EPA WaterSense® certified – which use 20% less water than currently required by federal regulations. And several communities on the local level in Arizona, and in other states, have adopted similar regulations that apply to all new development, too. So while more certainly needs to be done to expedite the replacement of old fixtures, the good news is that all new fixture options are more water efficient.

The other good news on the indoor side is that most all indoor water use goes down into the sewers and back to a treatment plant, where it has the potential to be put to use again! That water can be recycled to irrigate landscapes, or used for industrial cooling, or perhaps treated to the highest possible standards and used to supplement drinking water supplies – something called potable reuse. All to say that indoor water use stays in “the system” and can be put to other purposes. So reducing indoor use in a system that is fully recycling all its wastewater has the potential for diminishing returns on investment.

By contrast, outdoor water use does not go back to the local river system…it gets used up by plants and evaporated into the air. Wasteful outdoor use is often visible (who hasn’t seen sprinklers watering the sidewalk!?) but can also be often invisible too, like through over-watering landscapes in the spring and fall. Hence the need to prioritize, in particular, on outdoor water conservation efforts.

This isn’t a new focus for some communities – Southern California spent $350 million dollars replacing turf grass with more water-smart landscaping during the drought these past few years; Las Vegas will pay you $2 per square foot to rip out turf grass; and communities across Colorado offer discounts for homebuilders who plant water-smart landscapes for new residents.

And I’m not the only one who thinks prioritizing outdoor water use reductions is important. I recently had an interview with John Fleck. Fleck is the Director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program. Prior to that he was a reporter for over 25 years with the Albuquerque Journal focusing on the interface between science, politics, and policy. Most recently, he authored “Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West.” In this interview, Fleck shared:

Beckwith: Do you have a hunch on whether additional savings are going to be more from indoor, outdoor, business, or behavioral water conservation actions?

Fleck: I think the most important piece is outdoor because that’s where the consumptive use (water that ‘leaves’ the system) is. If you’re being clever, and all these cities are, your indoor water use goes down the sewer pipe to a sewage treatment plant, and then that water is available for re-use. With wastewater reuse, indoor conservation is going to be less important. Indoor conservation is going to keep happening partly because the technology keeps getting better. The toilets use less and less water. The showerheads use less and less water.

But outdoor conservation, that consumptive fraction on the garden, is really where the action is. You see this evolution, especially in a place like Albuquerque and water-stressed communities in Southern California, where movement toward a much more xeric landscape is inevitable. That’s where your biggest savings are and that is, in significant part, a cultural shift and a change in people’s attitudes towards their water supply. There is a realization that we do live in a desert and we don’t need a Kentucky bluegrass lawn and tons of trees in our yard. We are going to shift in that direction. There’s still a lot of room to go.

In this conversation, Fleck also had a lot of other interesting things to say about water use in Arizona and the challenges facing the Colorado River. The full transcript of our discussion together is an interesting read for all those wanting to dive a little deeper on water, available here.

But getting back to the outdoor topic at hand, this transition to using less water outdoors will not necessarily be an easy one. Outdoor water use is much more about changing people’s behavior – e.g., how long to run your irrigation system – and physical changes to landscapes are much more expensive than replacing a showerhead. But the fact remains that most of the West is a semi-arid (if not straight up arid) place, and we will all need to adjust our expectations about what is most appropriate and sustainable for water use in an area that has so little to begin with.

So, consider giving your landscape a makeover, put in a nice patio, take up your water provider on their rebate program, get a garden in a box…do something to use a little less water outdoors. The rivers that supply our water, and are suffering from low water levels, will thank you.