Drop by Drop

A mascot, tours, public displays and rebate programs combine to help the City of Durham make big inroads on conservation.
Drop by Drop
The Durham Conservation Department’s educational displays help explain how water moves through the environment and the importance of water conservation.

The City of Durham’s Water Management Water Conservation and Efficiency program is every bit as well-rounded as the department’s water education resources.

“Our groundwater model, which looks a little like an ant farm, shows how natural filtration occurs as water moves through the earth, and that water flow and usage is really a continuous, circular process,” says Albert Nelson, conservation coordinator. The display is only one of several tools in Durham’s comprehensive conservation education program.

Policy and education

In the early 1990s, Durham began evaluating its water supply and distribution system, including the need to expand, upgrade and repair its facilities. The conclusion was that conservation had to be part of any water system maximization. So the city established a water conservation program within the Water Management utility, using both policy and public education as key components.

“Because of the city’s commitment to water conservation and education, and because we’ve been able to grow as a program in both staffing and resources, the conservation program has always had an adequate budget for marketing and education, including videos, booklets, posters and more,” Nelson says.

Durham’s water comes from two reservoirs the city constructed and largely controls, although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. EPA and state Department of Natural Resources have some say in their operation. Property owners line both reservoirs, which allow public boating (non-powerboat) and fishing. The city owns buffer zones along the shoreline in many areas that serve to filter pesticides from yard runoff.

Water is treated at two plants. One, built in 1917, can treat up to 22 mgd, while the second plant, completed in the 1980s, is rated for 39 mgd. The newer plant is being upgraded to handle all the city’s needs in case the older facility ever needs to be shut down.

Nelson’s office handles requests for tours of the water and wastewater treatment plants. Tour groups usually include students in grade 8 and older, although colleges, such as Duke University, often send engineering students to learn about the treatment processes. Adult citizen groups also tour the plants occasionally. “Overall, we get 300 to 500 people a year in groups and individuals touring our plants,” says Nelson.

A ‘drop’ goes a long way

Another of Nelson’s educational tools is Wayne Drop, a mascot shaped like a large drop of water who appears at events and in parades. Wayne Drop doesn’t speak but “helps to draw attention to our message and what else we have going on at any given event,” Nelson says. He also appears in a poster holding a showerhead with the phrase: “Saving water is a way of life for Wayne. Make it part of yours!”

Besides taking Wayne Drop to environmental events and fairs, the department ties in its earth/water filtration cutaway groundwater model with a tabletop water/wastewater model. Starting with source water, the model combines water with food coloring, gelatin and other “contaminants” to show how water is treated for drinking, and then how the wastewater is treated and discharged. “The model helps us demonstrate the circular way water moves, from use to treatment and to the environment again,” Nelson says.

After the release of stricter water treatment regulations and new federal guidelines, Durham’s building council adopted low-flow plumbing fixture requirements and approved the creation of a conservation position in 1993. The city adopted even stricter water efficiency ordinances and policies after a drought in 2007-08. The city later expanded the conservation staff from two to three to enforce the water efficiency ordinance and add support to the program.

Besides leak detection and in-home water use assessments, Nelson’s department manages Durham’s high-efficiency toilet rebate program. Water-saving toilets installed to replace older toilets in homes or businesses are eligible for a $100-per-unit credit, applied to the water bill.

“We educate the community about the toilet rebate in various ways, including on the city website, at events, with press releases tied to observances such as Drinking Water Week, and through messages printed on water bills, retailer education and TV and radio commercials,” says Nelson. “From the city council to the city manager, everyone sees the importance of our water conservation and education efforts. We provide the community with a well-rounded service.”

Water savings

After nearly six years as a water conservationist, Nelson is proud of the program’s accomplishments. “When we attend national conferences, we realize how strong a conservation program we have,” he says. “We’re doing some things much larger cities aren’t even doing.”

Continuous auditing shows that the department’s efforts have had major impacts on reducing water usage. “We analyze the data, and we continue to see per capita usage come down,” says Nelson. Since 2000, the annual average gallons per day per capita (residential and multifamily) has declined from a high of almost 80 gallons per day to 58.7 gallons in 2011. A small spike in usage occurred during a drought in 2012. The U.S. average per capita usage during the same time period was 72.6 gallons per day.


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