Key to making water conservation successful in Wichita is to involve community, city officials say

04/13/2013 1:46 PM

08/06/2014 8:41 AM

The water conservation battle that Wichita is joining this summer isn’t unique to Kansas.

Nor is it unwinnable, say officials and national water experts.

One key, according to those experts: Use more carrot than stick — a lot more carrot than stick — to help residents embrace conservation as a lifestyle.

Public meetings begin Tuesday as the city and its water customers try to craft a long-term water strategy. City officials say Cheney Lake, source of 60 percent of the city’s water, will cease providing water for Wichita in August 2015 unless the drought abates.

About two-thirds of the country is dealing with drought problems, said David LaFrance, executive director of the National Water Works Association. “It’s just incredible what’s happening to the United States.”

Wichita can’t follow one core philosophy suggested by cities that have succeeded in water conservation. They recommend conserving water to avoid a shortage, not to deal with one already occurring. It’s too late for that.

But LaFrance said Wichita officials are right to take the problem to the public.

“What a utility does to manage a drought is figure out successful ways to partner with their customers,” he said. “Under normal operations, the key to providing successful, safe drinking water lies with the utility staff and board. But when it comes to the most precious resource on Earth, the utility needs to look to their customers to manage the demand.”

Every conservation and restriction option is on the table, Wichita City Manager Robert Layton said. Among them: raising rates for excessive water users by at least 50 percent and, in some cases, more than 100 percent; possible rebates for water-efficient appliance purchases; and discounts for users who meet conservation benchmarks.

Santa Fe: A lot of carrot

Longtime Santa Fe residents can empathize with Wichitans. Their own water supply was jeopardized in the early 2000s by a six-year drought.

So city officials embarked on an ambitious plan: Engage residents and work hard on conserving water. Then, generate new water supplies.

Today, the city has two new significant water supplies, for a total of four, and a citizenry that has bought in to the prudent use of water, said Laurie Trevizo, Santa Fe’s water conservation manager.

“We’ve moved out of mandatory drought restrictions,” Trevizo said. “Conservation has become a way of life here.”

Santa Fe’s road back to a good water supply began with a mandatory retrofit of toilets: 8,000 toilets down to 1.6 gallons of water per flush. The move saved the city 325,000 gallons of water a day, or about an acre-foot.

The city launched a huge rainwater harvesting push for residents, driven by the presence of infrequent cloudbursts in the summer and winter, with the idea that rainwater for growing was a better alternative than further depleting the city’s water supply. The city initially gave rainbarrels away, but backed off when retailers objected.

“We had to,” Trevizo said. “Storage is essential to watering plants here.”

Then the carrot really came out for water users: The city launched an appliance rebate program. New toilets flushing only 1.28 gallons of water a flush earned a $175 rebate on the water bill. Replacing a top-loading clothes washer with a front-loading one that met water efficiency standards was good for a $350 rebate. Motels and hotels were rewarded for more efficient toilets. Rebates were tied to a city formula calculating the approximate water savings of the changeouts.

The rebates have been a huge success, Trevizo said — so much so that the city is working on a plan to reward businesses that make similar moves.

Santa Fe residents have jumped on board, Trevizo said.

“Many people let their lawns go,” she said. “People have transferred over to xeriscaping (a low-water style of landscaping), more native plantings.”

But here’s the stick in Santa Fe: The city also has successfully used an idea initially greeted with jeers in Wichita — punitive pricing to discourage heavy residential water use.

“Water bills are the best incentive, we feel, to conserve water,” Trevizo said. “People in town now have a huge awareness about water conservation.”

Santa Fe charges for water from a two-tiered system that Trevizo calls a “conservation rate structure.” On the first tier, users are billed in the winter for up to 7,000 gallons of water. In the summer, the limit is 10,000 gallons. Exceed either, and the price jumps by $21 per extra thousand gallons of water.

Highland Park, Texas: A good neighbor

There’s no water shortage in Highland Park, Texas, an upscale Dallas suburb. And if Brad Boganwright, manager of town services, has his way, there never will be.

More important, Highland Park is not going to overuse the region’s water supply.

“There isn’t a pressure from a water shortage here,” Boganwright said. “It’s a perception, because Highland Park is a community with high-end homes. Other communities might say, ‘We can’t water, but Highland is watering in the summer.’ We’re not going to get to that point. We want to be a good partner to the metroplex.”

Highland Park, a community of 9,000, has implemented several measures to encourage residents wealthy enough to pay any size water bill to conserve. Boganwright said city officials are happy with the results and have turned their attention to the city.

“We want credibility,” he said. “We want to be an example to the community, so what we’ve started this year is cleaning up our own yard.”

The city is using more water-friendly plants in its own landscaping, more native plants and mulches. It is transitioning all of its park irrigation systems to smart controllers, replacing nozzles on irrigation systems to regulate water pressure.

The city also will supply materials for education programs in schools and is working with the school district to design a conservation website.

Highland Park also uses a passive “drought police” approach with residents, built around door hangers for notification. The city prohibits irrigation between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. from April 1 through Oct. 31.

“If there’s runoff, say, more than 20 feet off the property line, we issue a notification,” Boganwright said. “We ask the resident to call in, the resident calls, and we talk to them about their irrigation situation. It could be a leak. It could be watering too much.”

Boganwright advises Wichita: Take your message to conserve water directly to the public, and work hard over time to engage consumers so water conservation becomes a lifestyle.

“The residents control what we do,” he said. “Get them aware of when and how they can save water.”

How Wichita goes into the public meetings

Layton doesn’t buy the idea that the city is late to the water conservation effort.

The city’s three-tiered water rate structure already sets up clear financial penalties for homeowners who go through a lot of water.

“Our rates, though, don’t drive people to quit watering lawns or filling pools,” he said. “They are a penalty for those who use more household water than normal.”

Layton does want City Hall to scrutinize its own water use. The city used about 464 million gallons in 2012 and provided 20.1 billion gallons to its customers, public works officials said. The city accounted for about 2.3 percent of water use last year.

He said the city is already implementing many of the changes used in Santa Fe.

“We’re going to reduce our irrigation,” he said. “And as we go forward, there will be a lot more focus on xeriscaping and other landscaping alternatives.

“We may have to put up with some brown turf for awhile, but over time we’ll work to replace fescue with more drought-tolerant grasses. It’s a balancing act, because we have a substantial investment in our existing landscaping. We don’t want to be poor stewards of that, but we do want to recognize the restrictions we face.”

Wichita can mount a successful water conservation drive, LaFrance said, if it is initially effective and if it is consistent long term with a good public relations campaign.

“Public relations is always critical to a utility,” he said, “but even more so during a drought. A partnership with your customers is essential to manage demand on a water supply below its normal level.

“But if you can do that, it’s absolutely amazing how an entire community can transform into conservationists and how neighbors will help neighbors.”

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