Why wait for a crisis to save water?
Why not make being the most water-stingy town in Arizona a way of life?
Good idea, concluded the Payson Town Council in deciding last week to leave the town's unique water conservation plan in effect all the time, not just when below-normal rainfall triggers a water alert.
"The new level one is the old level two," explained Public Works Director Buzz Walker, the town's water czar and resident expert on things that splash, keep plants alive and sometimes (gasp) run down the street. "And the Water Conservation Level is what we live by."
Payson adopted the state's most detailed and stringent water conservation law in 2002, in the midst of both a building boom and a drought of unprecedented vigor. Water conflicts statewide and the prospect of golf-course-oriented developments in the Rim Country prompted the move toward water-saving restrictions.
The town's ordinance all but banned new lawns, required residents to restrict yard watering to certain days of the week, restricted car washing, required commercial and industrial developments to use water-thrifty native plants, encouraged residents to report when neighbors were wasting water and banned outdoor swimming pools -- even those big, temporary, above-ground play pools.
The town's policy allows only low-water-use toilets in new construction and offered subsidies for people who wanted to replace the old, water-wasting toilets. In addition, the town now offers residents a subsidy of up to $200 if they get rid of an old, water-hog washing machine and replace it with a new, water-thrifty model.
The restrictions and the town's on-going public education efforts worked: water use fell significantly, to 85 gallons per person per day this year.
The conservation goal called for water use of about 89 gallons per day -- a level about half the average daily use in Phoenix. Of course, the lack of water-intensive industry and businesses and a relatively high number of often-empty second homes contributed to some degree to one of the lowest water use rates in the state -- but the decrease has been sustained and dramatic.
The water conservation ordinance took effect just as one of the worst droughts in centuries took hold statewide. As a result, rainfall well below normal triggered the restrictions of a Stage II alert every year.
But this year, above-normal rainfall would have prompted the town to ease up on the existing water restrictions, like restricting days residents can water their yards based on whether their addresses are odd or even.
But water department officials figured relaxing the conservation rules for a year and then trying to get people re-educated the following year would present more problems than just adopting water conservation as a way of life.
The essential elimination of the old, virtually unregulated Stage I level was the major change in the recent updating of the five-year-old ordinance.
Other changes included:
- Requiring industrial, commercial and multiple-family residential projects to use only low-water-use native plants off the approved list posted on the town's Web site. Homeowners can still plant anything they want -- except plants that need sprinklers, like lawns.
- Banning the watering of native plants -- except with special permission from the water department. The department will grant exceptions in a couple of cases, like extra watering to make sure that newly planted or transplanted plants get a good start. In addition, the department can grant permission to water the native plants in case of things like bark beetle infestations, when plants need help to withstand disease or insects.
- Commercial landscape irrigation projects must now use "smart" irrigation systems, which use sensors to measure soil dryness before turning on the irrigation system.
"So does this mean we shouldn't see water going during a rainstorm any more?" asked Vice Mayor Tim Fruth, who said that irrigation during a rainstorm is one of the top complaints he gets.
"Yes, sir," said Walker.
Walker noted that the extra sensors on commercial landscaping mean "you don't just set the timer and forget it -- like a rotisserie chicken."
Generally, the provisions of the law remained unchanged for most residents. For instance, you still cannot wash your car more than three times a week -- unless you have a spray nozzle on your hose that keeps the water from running between spurts.
Also unchanged is the system that restricts watering days based on whether "you're an odd or an even person," observed Councilor John Wilson.
Institutionalizing conservation as a lifestyle regardless of annual rainfall won strong council support, with only Councilor Andy Romance raising a question about one provision that created a mini-Catch 22 contradiction.
Under the existing ordinance, the town is supposed to strive for a 5 percent reduction in water use anytime a Stage II alert is called. Since the Stage II or greater have been in effect ever since the ordinance was adopted, the town has pushed for reductions in average use every year.
"So the new level one is the old level two -- which called for a 5 percent reduction. So in four more years, we're down to 69 gallons per person, even if our goal was 89?" asked Romance.
After riding the semantic water slide trying to define the difference between water conservation levels and water use levels, Walker allowed as how they could change the wording to make it clear that residents won't have to cut per capita water use by 5 percent per year once the Level II restrictions become the status quo.
However, tougher restrictions would kick in should the drought return to cut annual rainfall significantly below the long-term average. At the higher alert levels, the ordinance gives the town the authority to dramatically reduce water use.
"I'm proud that in the five years we haven't had to make an emergency response," Walker said.
He said the town gets about 20 calls a year from residents reporting a possible violation of the water ordinance.
Sometimes, neighbors report someone setting up an above-ground playpool. More often, it's something like "fugitive" water running down the street.
"You pretty much always get a call on water running down the street," said Walker.
However, Walker couldn't recall actually writing a single citation for violating the law.
"Some of them are embarrassed, because they got caught. They just flat don't know the rules."
Often, it's just a matter of educating people -- so they understand that the water-thrifty native plants on the town's list don't generally need supplemental watering.
"We have customers that water every native plant on their lot -- and that's just silly. We have been through severe drought, to the point where you can't even walk in the forest -- and I don't see those plants dying. Manzanita may look like it's dead, but they all come back. They're smart. They've been through decades and centuries of this. They don't need us to survive," he said.