Straight to the People

Water conservation education pays big dividends in helping the City of Durham, N.C., get through two severe droughts.
Straight to the People
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In a region considered rich in water resources, two droughts in the first decade of the new century helped drive home the importance of water conservation in Durham, N.C.

Vicki Westbrook, assistant director of administration and operations at the Durham Department of Water Management, says the water conservation program sprang from the work of an early 1990s citizens committee studying a bond program to finance expansion of wastewater treatment facilities.

One item that came out of that study was a recommendation to focus on controlling the growth of demand for treatment capacity. The committee wanted to make sure that if the bond was approved, the city would not have to come back for another expansion for a long time.

"So when we developed the conservation program, it was based on a need to educate customers on best practices in water conservation and water efficiency," says Westbrook.

Fixture fixation

Westbrook, who joined the city as a conservation specialist, says one of the first measures involved free in-home water use assessments. Audits were usually conducted when customers called to question their bills or usage levels. A conservation staff member would offer to perform a leak test. "That would give us entry into the home and give us access to all the fixtures — the water heater, the toilets, the showerheads and faucets," Westbrook says.

The city still offers the assessments and also offers to exchange deluxe water-conserving (1.5 gpm) showerheads for older, higher-flow fixtures. Employees will also replace faucet aerators with high-efficiency models.

Although the assessments for homes and small businesses started as a free service, the department eventually added a $10 fee tacked on to the customers' bills. The fee has not been a deterrent, and the department still offers free phone assessments for customers who do not want someone to come into their home.

Being visible

Besides educating customers in their homes, the staff sought opportunities to talk to more people. "We began looking at being part of public events," Westbrook says. The utility joined the lineup at the annual Centerfest, an arts fair that also offers nonprofit and civic groups a chance to share their messages with the large crowds in downtown Durham for one weekend each September. The conservation team also takes its message to Earth Day activities.

Showerhead exchanges are offered at the events and at the department's office. The exchange requires participants to turn in old showerheads, making sure the new low-flow heads will be installed. Water customers who don't have old showerheads to exchange can buy up to three of the city's shower heads for $3 each.

In 2008, Durham began offering water customers a $100 rebate for installing high-efficiency toilets (1.6 gallons per flush). Customers who document the installation get the rebate as a credit on their bills. The department also provides incentives for owners of facilities such as schools, county buildings and apartment complexes to install the water-saving fixtures.

Droughts strike

Although the conservation program began with the wish to reduce demands on water reclamation plants, droughts in 2001-02 and 2006-07 forced the region to deal with significant water shortages. In December 2007, levels at the utility's two water supply lakes were so low that Durham had to import water from two neighboring counties.

City officials met with large water customers to discuss the situation, and officials at Duke University, the city's largest water user, wondered if they might have to delay resumption of classes after the Christmas holiday break.

That wasn't necessary, but the community's eyes were opened. Duke took a variety of steps and, despite an expansion of its campus over the past five years, its overall water usage has decreased. Soon, the school will begin drawing water for its chillers from retention ponds that will store reclaimed water from the city's wastewater treatment plants. That alone will reduce Duke's potable water consumption by more than 100 million gallons per year.

Rate incentives

In July 2008, the water department introduced its first tiered rate plan, offering the lowest residential rates to customers who keep water usage in check. Before putting the new rate plan in effect, "We implemented a campaign to educate customers what the tiered rate looked like, how it worked and why we needed to do it," Westbrook says.

An advertising campaign, public service announcements, news releases and a dedicated page online all informed customers about the plan. The staff also did public presentations at local events and for civic groups.

At every opportunity, Westbrook and the staff tried to guide customers to the new website: There, users can calculate their water bills based on different usage levels, pay water bills, and learn how to use less water. They can also report waterline breaks, check on construction projects, and learn about purchasing rain barrels to store water for flowerbeds and gardens.

Durham's water conservation efforts have proven effective. The water system, which serves 250,000 people in the city and Durham County, reached its peak water usage in 1999 at 32 mgd. In 2011, the daily average was down nearly 16 percent, to 27 mgd, while the county's population increased almost 20 percent.


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