Changing Water Policies in the Dry Southwest

Water is taught by thirst.

-- Emily Dickinson

Most of us in this country haven't had to think about water very much. We turn on the tap, and out it comes, clean and cheap. What more do we need to know?

Or so we thought. Then last year there was an unusual convergence of events -- an on-going, severe drought in the West, an unexpected, severe drought in the South, combined with the break-through realization that climate change is no longer a debate but a fact. All of a sudden water was making national headlines. Lots of places, not just farms and not just the West, were facing water shortages. And people were hearing that, thanks to climate change, things might get even worse.

How did our civic leaders respond to the challenge? The transcendent message from Las Vegas to Georgia was some variation of the old theme, "We need new water; we can't conserve our way out of this." Cities in the Southwest have been struggling with water scarcity for years. The lesson of their experiences is that a strategy of smart water use, with conservation as its centerpiece, not only works but can meet growing water needs even in a desert environment. What it takes, though, is wide public support resulting in a changed water culture.

My father was a physician, and when our family would ask him how much medicine to take, he'd say, "Enough, but not too much." Conservation isn't about showering with a friend or stripping all the plants from your yard. The lesson of the Southwest is that conservation is about an intelligent strategy that uses water efficiently (enough, but not too much) and in a manner appropriate to need and the regional environment.


Tucson has a strong desert aesthetic -- houses are surrounded not by grass but by cacti. It wasn't always that way. Until the 1970s, Tucson was a city of lawns. Then there was a crisis: not enough water during periods of peak demand. Rather than call for more water, in 1977 Tucson's water department decided to create a highly visible "Beat the Peak" campaign, encouraging residents to do their outside watering during off-peak periods. The agency raised water rates across the board, and created a new rate structure that made water more costly as consumers used more of it.

The combination of approaches proved to be highly effective. Residents changed their habits, and by the early 1980s desert landscaping and a conservation ethic were firmly established. Residents now thoroughly embrace the idea that they inhabit a desert and should live accordingly. And their outdoor water conservation spurred a consciousness that led to indoor water conservation as well.

The effect has lasted for decades. According to a 2006 report by Western Resource Advocates, the average person in a single family residence in Tucson uses 114 gallons of water per day -- one of the lowest usage rates in the Southwest. And water conservation remains popular. It's seen as a benefit to community members, rather than as an individual deprivation. Fernando Molina, Tucson Water's conservation program manager, says, "Residents here want more water conservation, so much so we can't keep up with the demand. Our approach here has been to squeeze aggregate demand down before going for more water elsewhere."


Albuquerque's population grew from 200,000 in 1960 to 525,000 in 2005. Most of the city's water comes from groundwater, which city officials and the public believed to be continually replenished by water from the Rio Grande. The city got a rude awakening in 1993 when the United States Geological Survey reported that water was not replenishing nearly as quickly as people had thought. Water levels in the aquifer had dropped about 160 feet since the 1960s. Water quality was also diminishing as water was taken from deeper wells.

The city government moved rapidly to change residents' perceptions from a sense of bountiful water to an understanding of water scarcity. In 1994, the city initiated a process that included extensive citizen participation to develop a comprehensive water policy. The plan aimed for a 30 percent reduction of per capita water use. In the next eight years Albuquerque reduced water consumption by 33 percent, moving itself from one of the highest per capita users of water in the Southwest to one of the lowest. The city was able to accomplish this without residents feeling that their quality of life had declined.


Looking down from an airplane, the parched landscape and the pronounced bathtub ring of Lake Mead are visible signs that Las Vegas receives barely four inches of rain a year. Yet on the famous Strip the streets are lined with massive palm trees; the blocks are punctuated with impressive water displays; and people relax outside in 100-degree heat thanks to overhead misters cooling the air.

Nine-tenths of Las Vegas' water comes from Lake Mead, which is fed by water from the Colorado River. The water level of Lake Mead is falling precipitously, due to the drought of the past several years. But that's not the whole story. Colorado River water was apportioned in the 1920s when Nevada's population was small; Las Vegas' portion is only 300,000 acre feet per year.

Despite the limited water resources, Las Vegans have historically used a lot of water per person. In 1994, single family residences used 264 gallons of water per person per day. The water profligacy of those days is gone, but Las Vegans still use substantially more water per day than residents of many other Western cities. Albuquerque has been able to curb consumption in single family residences to an average of 110 gallons per person per day. Las Vegans, by comparison, use 165 gallons.

Why? A central reason is that Las Vegas is still behind the curve in its adoption of a culture of water conservation and efficiency. To be fair, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), which manages the water resources for the Las Vegas Valley, has promoted water conservation, particularly during the drought years of 2002-2004. The SNWA has been especially effective at convincing homeowners to replace turf with desert landscaping -- important because 70 percent of water is used outdoors.

Much more can be done. A 2007 report by the Pacific Institute and Western Resource Advocates concludes that if Las Vegas comprehensively adopted readily available water-efficiency measures inside and out, it could reduce demand by an additional 86,000 acre feet per year -- close to a third of its annual allocation from Lake Mead.

Las Vegans receive conflicting messages, however, about water conservation and efficiency. They are told their city is in a water crisis and people need to conserve. But waterfalls, lakes, water displays, verdant golf courses, and lawns abound. Even if a fair percentage of the population knows water for these purposes is recycled, it's hard for residents to adopt a strong conservation culture when they feel they're being asked to be parsimonious so that others can live lavishly.

Rather than wholeheartedly promoting a changed culture of water use, the SNWA is promoting a multibillion dollar pipeline system whose cost is unknown and whose threat to water resources and the environment in the rural source areas is incalculable. Massive amounts of groundwater would be extracted from the delicate high-desert environment and then shipped via the pipeline to Las Vegas. Residents in the affected rural areas, many of them cattle ranchers, fear parts of central Nevada and Utah would become a dust bowl.

Las Vegans are told that the city cannot continue to grow without the pipeline project. Yet simply bringing per capita water use down to the 110- to 114-gallon level of Albuquerque and Tucson would make the pipeline unnecessary. Such a decrease would require a rate of reduction less than Las Vegas has already achieved in recent decades, and is still entirely feasible.

The time to act is now. Climate models predict that Southwest temperatures are going to rise and periods of drought will be longer and more severe, affecting both surface and groundwater. Cities and communities throughout the region need to rethink their water strategies, and that includes taking an honest look at the wisdom of current growth patterns in the face of shrinking water supplies.

Ample evidence from cities not only in the West but all over the country shows that smart water use, including conservation, efficiency, and behavioral changes, is the most cost-effective, least destructive, and most enduring approach to handling diminishing water supplies. This is good news to all of us as we face the impacts of climate change and the possibility of water shortages from east to west, north to south. So the next time you hear someone say, "We can't conserve our way out of this," you can honestly answer: "Sure we can, if we use enough, but not too much."