How 10 Western Cities Are Dealing with Water Scarcity and Drought
This summer, much of the American West is in drought. And climate change in the American West is expected to bring longer droughts, increased wildfire risk, and diminished water supplies. The region is also one of the fastest-growing in the nation.
As the region looks at a future of growing population and shrinking supplies, many cities are trying to adapt. We decided to take a look at ten of them, including several in Texas.
A few caveats: many of the cities listed here share similar water conservation programs, such as outdoor watering restrictions or pricing systems that charge heavy water users more per gallon. And the programs described here do not reflect all the water programs that exist in each city.
1. Denver, Colorado:
- The Water Campaign. The Denver Water Utility launched a humorous ad campaign to popularize conservation. “Dirt: The Official Slip n’ Slide of 2013” reads one sign posted on the back of a Denver bus. A roadside billboard promotes the “Official Dishwasher of 2013”: a floppy-eared bulldog with its tongue hanging out. Pictures of the comical ads from Denver’s “Use Even Less” campaign can be viewed here.
- The Drought Patrol. In 12 orange and white Toyota Versas purchased by Denver Water, members of the Drought Patrol drive around the city looking for violations of the city’s drought restrictions. Rather than immediately issuing a citation, however, the Drought Patrol first tries to educate water wasters and have a friendly, “face-to-face interaction” that encourages them to change their watering habits, according to Travis Thompson, Denver Water’s media coordinator. The Drought Patrol even gives away water-efficient hose nozzles, which cost the city about $4 each. Noticed your neighbor watering at noon, in violation of the city ordinance that bans watering from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.? If you live in Denver, you can call the Drought Patrol, and they will show up at that person’s door to have a heart-to-heart about saving water. (Repeat offenders, however, will receive citations on their water bills.)
- Reclaiming Reservoirs. After devastating forest fires, Denver Water and the U.S. Forest Service spent millions cleaning up a mountain reservoir. Their “Forests to Faucets” project involved removing debris and sediment and treating the water. Like Santa Fe (read about them in a bit), the Denver “Forests to Faucet” project also thins trees to prevent wildfires from spreading quickly. (Denver has also proposed the expansion of another reservoir, the Gross Reservoir, to increase its water supply.)
- Pipelines from Missouri? In 2012, the federal Bureau of Reclamation released a water plan that proposed building a 600-mile pipeline from Missouri to Denver. The pipeline would carry up to 600,000 acre-feet of water to the Colorado River Basin every year, which is enough water for about one million single-family homes. But will it ever be built? The project would cost billions of dollars, and residents of the Missouri River Basin are likely to bitterly oppose it, making the proposal politically unpalatable as well.
2. Orange County, California:
- Toilet-to-Tap. Orange County’s sewage water may actually be cleaner than the water that comes out of your tap—after a treatment process that involves microfiltration, reverse osmosis, and exposure to ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide, that is. Why? After all that cleaning, it is devoid of the low concentrations of pharmaceuticals and personal care products that are sometimes found in municipal water supplies. Even so, the idea of drinking recycled wastewater didn’t initially sit well with residents—and so the water is injected back into the local aquifer, where it flows through layers of rock and gravel before flowing back into Orange County taps. (These infusions of water also help prevent saltwater from intruding into the coastal aquifer.) The water recycling plant was built to reduce Orange County’s reliance on imported water, including from the Colorado River, which is predicted to decline by 5 to 20 percent over the next 40 years. (Texans may know that this is not the same Colorado River that flows through the Lone Star State.) As of August 2013, the plant has produced over 115 billion gallons of water.
3. Las Vegas, Nevada:
- No More Fountains—Except on the Strip. In 2006, when Las Vegas’ reservoirs were down to 64 percent of capacity (about the current statewide average for Texas lakes and reservoirs), the city banned all ornamental fountains that do not recirculate water. Why are the Strip’s towering fountains and water features allowed to remain? As the general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District told NPR, “the entire Las Vegas Strip uses three percent of our water resources. And they are the economic driver in the state of Nevada, bar none.” (The Treasure Island hotel-casino actually installed a reverse-osmosis facility that cleans the sink and shower water from its 3,000 rooms, and then pipes it to the “sea” where its evening pirate show takes place.)
- The High-Tech Golf Course. Las Vegas’s Angel Park golf course has a computer-controlled irrigation system and a network of weather sensors that allow its staff to monitor exactly how much water the course needs. Angel Park also replaced about 70 acres of turf with desert landscaping in out-of-play areas. Like other Las Vegas golf courses, it is irrigated with recycled water. However, playing golf in Vegas still generally requires a lot of water. The author Charles Fishman calculates that preparing an 18-hole Las Vegas golf course for four golfers to play a single round requires as much water as a typical American family uses in a month.
- Cash for the Grass. The Southern Nevada Water Authority pays its customers $1 to $1.50 for every square foot of grass that they replace with desert landscaping. Residents can receive up to $300,000 per year for converting their property back to desert.
4. San Antonio, Texas:
- Free Toilet Giveaways. The San Antonio Water System (SAWS) will give away up to two free water-efficient toilets to residents with toilets built before 1993. The residential program will end this December—but businesses, schools, universities, government facilities, and some nonprofits will still be able to receive free toilets through the commercial toilet rebate program. “Nonprofits”—that is, public schools, state universities, government facilities, and nonprofit housing and medical centers—can also qualify to have the toilets installed for free.
- The More You Use, the More You Pay. The SAWS business model is to “convince customers to buy less” of their product. To accomplish that, SAWS charges heavy water users significantly more per gallon. Similar strategies have been adopted by many other Western cities, including Austin, Dallas, and Los Angeles.
- We Recycle. San Antonio uses recycled water to meet about 16 percent of its water demand, including the industrial needs of major companies such as Toyota and Microsoft. San Antonio also partnered with the energy company Ameresco, Inc., to harness the biogas (methane) produced during the wastewater treatment process, and receives about $200,000 in annual royalties from biogas sales.
5. Santa Fe, New Mexico:
- No Water, No Growth. Developers have to provide the city of Santa Fe with estimates of how much water new residential or commercial buildings will require. “Allowable growth is tied directly to the amount of water available” in Santa Fe, according to a 2012 report from the Texas comptroller’s office.
- Protect Reservoirs by Preventing Forest Fires. Santa Fe conducted forest thinning and controlled burning projects to prevent forest fires that could contaminate reservoirs. How can fire ruin water supplies? Forest fires leave behind ash, debris, and above-average concentrations of toxic metals, like arsenic, that can then be washed into bodies of water during rainstorms. Soil can also erode into reservoirs if fire burns away the vegetation that once held it down, and that soil can clog water intake pipes, damage treatment equipment, and fill in part of a reservoir, thus shrinking its storage capacity.
- Harvesting the Rain. Santa Fe stores excess rainfall and surface water in an underground aquifer—where it will not evaporate in the dry desert air.
6. El Paso, Texas:
- Desalination in the Desert. Building a desalination plant allows El Paso to tap underground supplies of brackish water. To prevent the plant’s briny effluent from contaminating the groundwater, El Paso injects it into wells as deep as four thousand feet at the base of the Hueco Mountains, about 22 miles from the city. Last year, the plant supplied 4 percent of El Paso’s water. However, the process is pricey. Producing desalinated water costs 2.1 times more than fresh groundwater, and 70 percent more than surface water.
- Have Options. In addition to building the desal plant, El Paso has reduced its reliance on groundwater by using treated wastewater for crop and landscape irrigation, as well as industrial purposes. The city’s drinking water comes from groundwater and the Rio Grande.
7. Santa Cruz, California:
- Drinking from the Sea? Santa Cruz is conducting a review to determine how an ocean desalination plant would affect the local environment. (Farther south, San Diego also has plans to build an ocean desalination plant.) If the Santa Cruz plant is built, it would produce 2.5 million gallons of water per day. Why is Santa Cruz considering desalination? The city needs extra water to meet its customers’ needs during severe droughts, and to protect the habitats of endangered fish in nearby rivers and streams. Also, there are early signs of seawater intrusion in a groundwater basin that serves as the only water source for one of Santa Cruz County’s water districts. What’s the drawback to desalinating water from the Pacific Ocean? Both the technology and the sheer amount of energy required are still very expensive. In fact, desalinating ocean water generally costs twice as much as desalinating brackish groundwater, because the ocean is significantly saltier.
8. Tucson, Arizona:
- Desert Lawns. Tucson requires all new homes and commercial buildings to use xeriscaping, which involves planting native, water-efficient plants rather than traditional, water-intensive green lawns. The xeriscaped lawns also have an apparent edge on Arizona’s once-popular green gravel yards: they do not absorb heat, and so they do not make Southwestern summer days even hotter.
- Gray Water, Green Golf Courses. Reclaimed water irrigates most of Tucson’s golf courses, parks, schools, and some commercial green spaces, as a result of a city ordinance that requires half of all commercial irrigation to be supplied by “gray water.”
- Rebates for Saving Water. Tucson offers rebates for xeriscaping, water-efficient appliances, and rainwater and gray water harvesting. Tucson also offers incentives for installing rainwater harvesting systems, according to Dr. Gregg Garfin, the deputy director of the University of Arizona’s Institute for the Environment. These can include landscape features such as tree wells or retention basins that help recharge the aquifer.
9. Phoenix, Arizona:
- Water in the Bank. Phoenix draws water from two aquifer storage systems: its own system, which stores about 20,000 acre-feet of water, and the state of Arizona’s water bank, which can store more than 3 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River. (Phoenix uses about 25,000 acre-feet of that water every year. According to Garfin, Arizona also banks water for Nevada.)
- The Water Police. Phoenix has “water cops” that can enforce city water restrictions, according to a report by the Texas comptroller.
- Water for Power Plants. Phoenix uses treated wastewater to irrigate its golf courses, cool a nuclear power station, and water a manmade wetland complex called Tres Rios.
- Green Grass in the Desert? Despite these water solutions, Phoenix residents still use more water per capita (108 gallons per day) than their counterparts in Los Angeles, who use an average 85 gallons per day. As the New York Times reported in June, while new developments around the Phoenix area tend to be as dry and rocky as the rest of the Sonoran Desert, some Phoenix neighborhoods are still lushly green. Phoenix has chosen not to offer rebates for grass replacement or water-efficient toilets because doing so would require tax or rate increases, according to the city’s website. In contrast, the nearby cities of Mesa and Scottsdale pay residents handsomely for removing their turf. Scottsdale offers residents $125 for taking out 500 square feet of grass, and Mesa offers $500 for the same amount.
10. Los Angeles, California:
- Drinking Stormwater, Cleaning Beaches. Storms in Los Angeles regularly wash animal waste, pesticides, cigarettes, soda cans, and other pollutants into the Pacific Ocean. As a result, LA residents have to stay out of the surf—or risk getting sick—after heavy rains. Now, LA is considering a program that would capture and filter the rain. The collected stormwater could supplement the city’s groundwater supplies, and less storm runoff would help maintain cleaner beaches. To pay for the program, however, LA County supervisors recommended setting a fee that would collect a total of $290 million a year from county property owners. This raised the ire of major landowners, including school districts, that would have to pay millions if the fee is approved.
- Go Native. Like Las Vegas and some other Western cities, LA is paying residents to remove their grass and replace it with native plants. In Southern California, this includes live oaks, sycamore trees, and California redbud shrubs. The city will also offer rebates for weather-based irrigation systems and water-efficient sprinklerheads.
For more examples of how Southwestern cities are coping with drought, read StateImpact Texas’ 2012 article, “Living with Drought and Thirst: Examples for Texas to Follow.”