Image of outdoor water faucet with drips. Blurred trees in background.

Overview of Conservation in Water Management

The past summer has changed the way many Americans in the west think about water resources. Record-breaking heat accompanied by severe drought have highlighted the fragile balance that states and municipalities have been maintaining for decades. Water issues have been associated with states like California and Arizona, but the summer of 2021 brought this concern to the forefront for residents of Western Washington, an area known for an abundance of water. Exacerbating the supply issues are increased population growth straining municipal use; increased food demand due to population growth; and the effects of climate change that are reducing snowpack, causing heavier downpours that reduce absorption, and extending the dry season. With these cumulative, unavoidable factors in play many are left feeling helpless. What can be done to address these factors and ensure that residents, crops, and wildlife are able to survive?

Before addressing the solutions, we need to establish an understanding of water law in the west. Western water law, prior appropriations, differs from the system that is used for the states east of the Mississippi. The eastern states use the riparian doctrine, taken from English common law, which allows use of waters that flow through purchased property for domestic use. The state owns and allocates groundwater in these states. Prior appropriations, often referred to as “first in time-first in right”, is the product of westward expansion into drier climates. This law granted the use of water resources to the first claimant, whether or not that person owned the adjacent land. Allowing stakes to be claimed through drilling permitted farming and habitation of otherwise inhospitable tracts. However, unlike riparian rights, prior appropriation rights must be used or else be lost. This archaic doctrine sets the stage for conservation conflict in the west.

The following subheadings will address conservation in water governance at the federal, state, municipal, and personal levels.

Federal

Given the varied nature of water law in the United States as well as the emphasis on state’s rights to self-govern in intrastate affairs, federal regulations concerning conservation focus more on incentives than rigid mandates. For example, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) was passed in 2019 “to help implement conservation practices that address resource concerns” (7 CFR § 1466). Working with both the states and individuals to provide financial and technical resources, EQIP can “prioritize practices that have a high environmental benefit but low adoption rate” (Federal Register, 2020). This leeway allows EQIP to filter projects based on equity and impact, focusing on the funding of underserved groups and organic farms.

Image of overhead irrigation sprinkler system

Incentives in the form of rebates allows interested parties to benefit from implementing conservation measures on their own. Under 42 U.S. Code § 8256, rebates are offered for utilities that implement water conservation measures. Most recently, Senators Feinstein and Padilla introduced the Water Conservation Rebate Tax Parity Act, that would deduct the cost of water conservation and runoff management improvements from federal taxes. These incentives motivate private and public entities to invest in efficiency measures. Yet, many low-income areas and individuals are left out due to upfront costs. Many more are skeptical of the cost-benefit comparation. To address this gap, we move to our next subheading.

State

States have the ability to increase the standards set by federal regulators and to adjust regulatory measures based upon the specific geographical needs of their state. Western states are addressing water concerns in the face of population growth and climate change in various ways.

Nevada and Arizona, two of the driest states in the nation, are taking unique management methods appropriate for their state’s needs. Recognizing the need for adaptive management of their water supply Arizona passed a Groundwater Management Act in 1980. This law requires proof of water supply sufficient to sustain the population for 100 years before any new development can occur. With rapidly depleting aquifers, Arizona’s Pinal County has announced an injunction on development in the area until groundwater is adequately recharged (Brown, 2021). This comes in the face of high demand for new homes in a region that simply cannot support its existing demand. Nevada has taken a different route, working to reduce the amount of water consumed by its present population. The state has successfully reduced the amount of water consumed by 21% simply through the removal of turf in the Las Vegas valley. According to the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, enough was removed “lay an 18-inch wide piece of sod around the circumference of the Earth at the equator” (Brulliard and Partlow, 20201).

Aerial image of water treatment facility

As two of the fastest growing states, Texas and Colorado anticipate municipal shortages in the next two decades. This forecast has led Texas to commit $80 billion towards an investment in water infrastructure. The new use must be met with reductions elsewhere and improved efficiency. Reductions are anticipated in the form of crop replacement and farmland retirement. Colorado, a less agrarian state, is working to establish a regulatory framework for direct potable reuse, which would require water treatment facilities to recycle a portion of their wastewater for drinking. Yet, despite their best efforts, Colorado and Texas are seeing impacts to fish and wildlife (Brown, 2021).

Washington state is experiencing greater strain on water supplies than ever before. The supply issue is not isolated to the drier, eastern side of the state. Irrigation and public use make up 80% of the water use in Washington state (Fasser, 2018). This limits the ways in which Washington regulators can protract usage. The competing interests of farmers and the rapidly growing urban population have left the state in a tug-of-war for fresh water that has remained under the radar for many residents of the wetter side of the state. Arguments over senior rights and treaties have increased as streams dwindle to flows that are inhospitable for fish and wildlife. Washington, like Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and Texas, will need to examine its usage and forecast for drier conditions and a larger demand.

Local

Like the tiers of federal and state regulations that allow greater stringency for drier states, cities may determine that stronger measures are needed based on the supply and demand within their communities. Cities in western states have enacted measures to restrict usage and improve efficiency that suit their current and forecasted needs.

Oakley, Utah recently passed a 180-day ban on any new landscaping that requires the use of freshwater resources to maintain. This ban may be extended based on the water supply of the city and the demand for water-intensive lawns (Brown, 2021). Fresno, California has chosen to restrict water usage for its existing lawn maintenance demand. The city has installed smart meters at every residence that can be monitored online by the residents and the utility. SB 814 has set standards that determine “excessive water use” for each residence and associated fines for usage exceeding “the maximum gallons per hour, depending on the City’s current Water Shortage Contingency Plan stage, during days or hours when outdoor irrigation is prohibited, more than one day during the monthly billing period, as recorded by the City”. The city fines violators according to the number of repeated offenses before terminating the resident’s service. While this may be seen as a harsh measure, the scarcity of the resource, the implications for the city, and the multiple warnings issued with minimal fines attached, give the City just cause to protect its water supply (FMC 6 § 520).

closeup image of sprinkler watering green lawn

Moses Lake, WA has opted to restrict water use in its drier summer months. City officials have created a calendar system wherein homes with even numbered addresses may water, wash vehicles, or otherwise use water resources for outdoor related activities on even numbered days. Those with odd numbers may use their water on odd days. Fines for wasting water or leaking pipes can reach $5,000 per offense. To further curtail unmetered usage, the city has required that all residential buildings located within 200 feet of the city’s water infrastructure must connect to the city’s supply within six months of notification. Connections are made at the owner’s expense unless the project exceeds $9,000 (MLMC 13 § 13.07).

Given the longer, dryer summers and the shorter, warmer winters, these measures are unlikely to come to an end. Rather, depending on their success, they provide templates for what other cities can do to curb usage and stretch their resources to meet their growing populations. So, what can you do?

Personal

Fortunately, there are dozens of ways to conserve water on an individual basis. Adopting even one of these simple practices will save gallons of water per year. Starting within the home, we can address the issue of water waste in toilets. Replacing your toilet with a low or dual flush model can cut indoor water use by 30%, saving about 15,000 gallons of water per year! If this isn’t in your budget, you can use a rubber toilet brick or make the equivalent with a plastic bottle filled with sand. Be sure at least three gallons of water remain in the tank so it will flush properly. If it takes multiple flushes to clear the bowl then you’re wasting even more water (Eartheasy, 2021).

Image of water coming out of a sink faucet.

When washing laundry or dishes, try to make sure that you wait until you have a full load. Dishwashers are surprisingly more efficient than hand washing. “New Energy Star rated washers use 35 – 50% less water and 50% less energy per load”, saving up to 5,000 gallons of water per year (Eartheasy, 2021). If you don’t have a dishwasher then remember to at least turn off the water while you’re washing the dishes. Try to compost instead of using a garbage disposal.

Remember to turn off the water when you brush your teeth or shave. This will save 200 gallons per week for a household of four (Department of Ecology, 2021). If you can, install a low-flow aerator on your faucets and shower head. This simple measure can save over 11,000 gallons of water over the lifetime of the faucet (Guilak, 2021). Try to take short showers (5 minutes or less). This can save 1,000 gallons of water per month per user! If you choose to take a bath then plug the drain as the water adjusts to your ideal temperature (Department of Ecology, 2021).

Household leaks contribute a shocking amount to water waste each year. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 10% of US households waste at least 90 gallons of water per day due to unaddressed leaks (Guilak, 2021). Check your faucets, toilets, and water meter to determine if you have a leak. This will not just conserve a precious resource but save you money as well!

Advocate with your wallet by changing your buying habits. Think about how much water it takes to maintain your habits and find ways to cut back. The meat industry is not only one of the leaders in methane emissions, it’s also water-intensive. One burger equates to roughly 30 average American showers. A single serving of chicken can take as many as 90 gallons of water to produce. These costs don’t even factor in the environmental costs of food distribution (National Geographic, 2010). There are several non-meat products that are energy or water intensive as well. The easiest way to track and minimize your water consumption in your diet is to buy local and support small farms.

What about the purchase of nonfood items? The fashion industry is second only to agriculture in water consumption. This makes clothing a third of the average consumers’ overall contribution to water waste. A plain cotton t-shirt can take over 713 gallons to produce – and it may go out of fashion within a year. Buying used clothes can lengthen the life of these water-intensive items. If you must buy new then opt for organic cotton, which will at least reduce the toxic emissions generated by this industry (Guilak, 2021).

Moving outside, we will address car washing, yard maintenance, and travel. Washing your car alone can take up to 150 gallons of water on a single occasion (National Geographic, 2010). Using a nozzle with an off valve can save gallons.

Image of large outdoor succulents in low-water landscape garden

When considering water use in your yard, consider first what you’re planting. Instead of maintaining a lawn, consider planting drought-resistant grasses. Remove finicky perennials and replace them with native plants that will use less water and “be more resistant to local plant diseases” (Eartheasy, 2021). These measures can save up to 75% of water used for landscaping (Guilak, 2021). As the temperatures warm, water will evaporate more quickly from the soil. Planting trees can reduce the evaporation and keep the area cooler. Adding mulch around trees and plants will help retain moisture while also deterring weeds (Eartheasy, 2021). Watering your yard early in the morning will further reduce evaporation and prevent the growth of fungus and the invasion of pests.

Our last topic is travel. Though only about 5% of water waste is attributed to the fuel industry, the use of fuel for travel can add up fast. The production of a single gallon of gasoline requires 13 gallons of water. So, traveling from Los Angeles to San Francisco equates to 9,000 gallons of water. Traveling much farther, say to Istanbul, uses enough water to generate electricity for an average American home for up to five years (National Geographic, 2010). Cutting back on travel can be a tough compromise. Yet, this shows how much we can consume in our daily lives and the places that we could improve our efficiency.

Want to see how much water waste your average day? Try the Water Footprint Calculator. It can be found here: https://www.watercalculator.org/wfc2/q/household/

Article by Hillary Jasper Rose

Brown, A. (2021, October 12). Drought-stricken western towns say no to developers. The Pew Charitable Trusts. Retrieved from https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2021/10/12/drought-stricken-western-towns-say-no-to-developers.

Brulliard, K., & Partlow, J. (2021, August 17). First-ever water shortage declared on the Colorado River, triggering water cuts for some states in the West. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/08/16/colorado-river-water-cuts-drought/.

Fasser, E.T., 2018, Water use in Washington, 2015: U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2018-3058, 4 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/fs20183058.+

Eartheasy. (2021). 45+ ways to conserve water in the home and Yard. Eartheasy Guides & Articles. Retrieved from https://learn.eartheasy.com/guides/45-ways-to-conserve-water-in-the-home-and-yard/.

Washington State Department of Ecology. (2021). Water conservation: It all starts with you. Water conservation. Retrieved from https://ecology.wa.gov/Issues-and-local-projects/Education-training/What-you-can-do/Water-conservation.

Guilak, A. (2021, August 5). Types of water conservation methods. Renew Method. Retrieved from https://www.renewmethod.com/post/types-of-water-conservation-methods.

National Geographic. (2010, August 5). How you can conserve water. Environment. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/water-conservation-tips.