‘Conserve? We Have Plenty’

In some localities, water shortages are nonexistent and unimaginable. In such cases, how can a utility make the case for conservation?

In dry areas, it’s easy to convince people to conserve water. When there’s a real prospect of not having water for lawn irrigation or car washing, or of someday having no water coming out of the tap, people respond to conservation programs.

But what if you’re the water utility in Two Rivers, Wis., where I  grew up? Two Rivers is a city of 13,000 on a point in Lake Michigan. How vast is that resource? Well, a few years ago my brother brought his two young boys for a visit and I told them about the big lake. As we drove the four-mile lakefront highway, one of the boys, looking out the window, kept saying, “It’s still going.”

In places like that it’s impossible to imagine running out of water. Back in high school, around the very first Earth Day, a friend of mine tried to promote water savings as part of a “save the earth” initiative. He almost got laughed out of school. Cruel and unfair, yes, but the other kids could see that lake.

What to do?

So if you’re the utility in a place of water abundance, how do you line people up behind a conservation initiative? This issue of WSO tells how one utility does it. For the Medford (Ore.) Water Commission, conserving was all about delaying the major expense of expanding its water plant. So the staff rallied residents around a pocketbook issue: If you help us save water, we’ll be able to keep your rates down.

But what if you don’t have even that incentive to call on? What if you have a nearly infinite water source and a plant with excess capacity, and your community isn’t growing? That gets difficult, especially when conservation may mean the opposite of lower rates.

Many utility costs are fixed and unrelated to plant flow (salaries, building operation and maintenance, fleet costs, distribution system upkeep). So less water sold means fewer gallons on which to spread the costs. Customers are “rewarded” for conservation by seeing their rates rise. And the higher rates no doubt offset some of the savings from the gallons conserved.

For this reason, some utilities (though their executives might not freely admit it) are not the least bit interested in conservation. For them, all conservation seemingly does is constrict their revenue — and funds are scarce to begin with.

Do it anyway?

And yet, my old hometown water utility, which has a new water plant with ample capacity, bravely lists water conservation tips for homeowners on its website. So does Manitowoc Public Utilities, serving the city on the opposite end of that lakefront drive.

Why do it? Why ask people to conserve when all the water in the world is outside the utility office windows? There are a number of good reasons, though perhaps none of them easy to sell to a customer base with numerous other priorities.

For one, conservation is good. Efficiency matters. Waste not, want not is always a good rule to live by. Doesn’t a public ethic that accepts needless waste ultimately creep over into other areas of public service?

Then there is still the question of cost. In the long run, wasting water can’t be good. Pumping more than necessary means things wear out faster. Maintenance, repair and replacement costs go up. Sooner or later, someone has to pay for it.

Energy connection

And of course there’s the question of energy. In a place of water abundance, conservation is largely about energy. Pumping and treating water, and then treating the wastewater that comes back from the homes, takes a great deal of energy. Water and wastewater operations account for a major share of the energy it takes to run a city. Again, someone has to pay for that. Why use more than necessary?

And speaking of energy, where does it come from? Mainly electricity, generated mostly by coal and natural gas. That means emission of air pollutants and use of finite resources (though what with the shale gas boom, natural gas looks less finite than ever). So using water wisely means keeping the air clean and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Admittedly those arguments aren’t as compelling as the threat of an outright water shortage. But they make sense and they are messages worth delivering. If you operate a utility where water is abundant, how do you address conservation? We’d be glad to share your story with others in the industry. Send me a note to editor@wsomag.com.


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