Water Hogs and Heroes
By Ben Carlson
When it comes to water conservation, no one can deny that Albuquerque has come a long way in a short time. Since the U.S. Geological Survey's 1993 report shattered our illusions about having a never ending supply of fresh water in the aquifer, the city has rapidly implemented a number of ambitious—and absolutely necessary—reforms in water use.
Thousands of citizens and businesses have taken up the government's offer of rebates for converting to xeriscapes (not zero scapes!) water-efficient washing machines, low-flow toilets and rain barrels, leading to an overall reduction in water use from approximately 42 billion gallons of water pumped from our regional aquifer in 1995, to 36 billion gallons pumped in 2003.
So, first the good news. While the city's population has grown over the past eight years, the overall, annual water consumption decreased significantly. Also, our per capita water consumption has decreased from 250 gallons per day in 1995, to 193 gallons per day in 2003.
Clearly, Albuquerque has become more water conscious over the years. The question is: Are we being water conscious enough?
Mother Nature will answer this question for us, one way or the other, in the coming decades. Because if we don't stop depleting our regional aquifer at the current rate, our metropolitan landmass will begin to buckle and sink. We're not talking about some Hollywood sci-fi scenario, where the Earth swallows Albuquerque. But the subtle effect is already being felt in the Northeast Heights, where most of the city's active wells exist, and some of the building structures are already showing signs of cracking and shifting due to subsidence, according to city Water Resources Manager John Stomp.
To offset the problem, the city is moving forward with plans to construct the San Juan-Chama diversion project along the Rio Grande near the Alameda crossing. The facility will convert river water stored at the Heron reservoir up north to Albuquerque municipal water, without decreasing the water volume in the Rio Grande. The city hopes to start construction on the project in the coming weeks and have it operable by the end of 2006. For the past seven years, water rate increases have fully funded the $275 million project, Stomp said.
Meanwhile, after announcing the city has obtained all the necessary permits, the State Engineer's office has placed several conditions on the plan—most notably that residents must meet a per capita conservation goal of 175 gallons per day. Ultimately, the goal of the project is to relieve the pressure on the aquifer, so that it can, over time, be replenished.
"If the aquifer got to a certain level of depletion, (the surface) would no longer be elastic," said Stomp, meaning that there would be no way to stop the city from sinking, adding, "which is what we are approaching, obviously."
In spite of our sweeping progress, a handful of users still make exorbitant demands on the water system. Commercial and industrial customers (who consume 30 percent of the city's water) lag behind residents in their efforts to conserve. And among residents, a mere 10 percent of users account for over 25 percent of total residential consumption. Some may claim that these customers need the water for important, economic reasons; others may insist that since they pay for all the water they consume, it's not fair to criticize them for it.
Nonetheless, considering the tenuous state of Albuquerque's long-term water supply, a look at public records pinpoints the largest consumers. At the same time, it's always nice to recognize a few of the many people who have made enormous strides in curtailing their use.
Though the line between hog and hero is not always clear, these users represent all the conflicting interests, advantages and drawbacks at play in the water conservation drama. Even if your name is not listed, ask yourself: Are my habits porcine or princely?
First, a short explanation of the system used to derive these lists. We contacted the city government's Division of Water Resources Management and requested the 10 largest water bills for residential and commercial properties on public record based on data from the first six months of 2004. (Separating them into these categories allowed us to distinguish individual users from businesses.) Each individual record was examined to make sure it wasn't inflated by a temporary malfunction in the water system (e.g., a leak showing up as a spike in the bill), and all the residential addresses were visited in the field to verify that they were in fact residences, not fast food restaurants. This eliminated some business customers who, for whatever reason, paid their bills as residential properties. So in the end, what we were left with were 10 residences and 10 commercial organizations which, for a variety of reasons, consumed outrageously large quantities of water relative to the rest of the city.
In all fairness, many of the top 10 commercial water users are in fact conglomerations of separate homeowners and renters, which can be slightly misleading. Grouping dozens or even hundreds of individual water users under one bill inevitably leads to high rates of consumption; however, it should be noted that there are many apartment complexes in Albuquerque that follow this model, and out of those only this handful emerged.
However you cut it, 59 million gallons is a lot of water for half a year's use, and it should come as no surprise that the Hog responsible for it is American Golf Corp. Whether you love the fact that it's possible to golf in a desert or loath the arrogance of trying to recreate a Scottish climate where it doesn't belong, the truth remains that running a golf course is a very expensive venture. As long as there's demand, these top two hogs will stay firmly in place.
With a water bill of over 14 million gallons for half a year, this senior citizens' mobile home park is a perennial member of top water user lists. This year, however, at least one resident hopes to see that change. The manager, Ann McBride insisted, that "we've been working so hard to get off that list" due to some recently implemented water conservation measures. She described how each of the 430 houses in Albuquerque Meadows installed water meters last year, "cutting consumption in half for residents." Individual use dropped to "an average of 3,000 gallons per month" she said, adding that homeowners were also taking steps to convert more of the Meadows' 45 acres (two and half of which are sod) to xeriscape, though only half an acre is xeriscaped, presently. (Not including the residents' individual lawns, many of which have already been converted.) To their credit, everyone in the Meadows seems to be making a serious effort to reduce water use, and their continued presence on the list might owe more to the sheer number of residents in the park than any extraordinary waste.
Meadowbrook Mobile Home Park
At number nine on the list, Meadowbrook stands a safe distance away from being the largest consumer of water, but it should resist feeling too complacent. "There are 252 units in the park," explained Leslie Raymond, the park manager, "and the residents do water their own lawns." Plus, she added, "we have a lawn in the middle of the park and two pools."
Residents are restricted from watering between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., and the park now requires new residents to do xeriscaping on their property. These modest changes should help to keep Meadowbrook toward the bottom of the list, but more ambitious reforms, such as requiring residents to pay their individual water bills, might take them off it entirely.
This list requires some explanation. When we went into the field to visit these top water users, we expected to find thick, jungle vegetation, sopping wet lawns and dense foliage in the front yard. What we found instead were generally modest homes that looked just like their neighbors. (Al Unser Jr.'s North Valley spread, of course, was an exception.) The top two users we investigated turned out to be victims of water leaks that lasted for months, costing them thousands of dollars and wasting thousands of gallons. Though we couldn't talk to the rest of the people on the list, we can safely assume that a few more of them had similar stories. (The others, we hope, have a good explanation.) If there is a lesson to be learned from them, it would be to watch your water bill for any spikes and take action immediately. A small leak can quickly turn into an epic disaster, and unless there is water damage to the home, the insurance company will not pay for the repairs.
7616 American Heritage Place NE
For months, Susan Graham and her family watched their water bill race upward without knowing why or exactly how to stop it. "In January we had a lot of guests, so I figured that had something to do with [our $300 water bill]," she explained. By spring, the bill had reached $1,000, and three plumbing companies, a posse of city employees and numerous construction companies later, the problem was traced to galvanized pipes that were leaking beneath the house's foundation. Because the insurance company refused to pay unless there was water damage, the Grahams were stuck with the $17,000 repair bill after the pipes were finally replaced in early summer. Now, of course, it only adds insult to injury that they would be labeled the top water hogs in the city. "The truth is," Susan said, "I'm not a big water consumer."
6847 Rio Grande NW
This spread was easily identified as the home of Al Unser Jr. Like Mrs. Graham, Little Al's property caretakers (he actually lives in Henderson, Nev.) also got a rude awakening when an exorbitant water bill showed up in the mail. Making the "Hog" moniker less likely, the large dwellings are hooked to city water, but the agricultural irrigation comes from the diversion ditch, an Unser spokesman said. The spokesman explained that a busted water main caused the spike, but like Graham's situation, it took months to locate and required expensive repairs.
In a city that has overwhelmingly embraced water conservation, there is no shortage of potential heroes that could be singled out for praise. So to keep it simple, fair and interestingly varied, we decided to highlight a few recipients of the top commercial xeriscaping rebates this year. (The city gives rebates at a rate of 40 cents per square foot, up to a total of $5,000 for businesses and $800 for residents. If you hate arithmetic—that works out to 12,500 square feet and 2,000 square feet, respectively.)
While some of these heroes are diehard water conservationists, many of them had decidedly unheroic motives for making the change. Money was often a primary consideration, as was reducing the difficulty of maintenance. A few "heroes," in fact, could only charitably be described as water hogs in transition. Nevertheless, honoring their progress is the best way to encourage others in similar circumstances to follow suit.
The list isn't ranked; it's based on relative rebate compliance.
10101 Montgomery NE
When the money is tight, practical concerns tend to dominate aesthetic ones. In view of this, the congregation of First Christian Church decided two or three years ago that it was too expensive to maintain their lawn. "Now personally, I like grass" one church member explained, "but we try to save money where we can." So they converted the property to xeriscape, purchased low flow toilets, and enjoyed the benefits of a slimmer water bill. They only forgot one thing: to ask for a rebate. It was not until this year that city officials notified the church that it was eligible for a rebate, and a sizeable one at that. Adding to their savings from cutting water use, First Christian Church finally collected its long-overdue $3,160 reward in 2004 for making the conversion years earlier.
5301 Madeira NE
Even though the residents of Colonial Park received a $4,000 rebate (one of the largest this year), Paul Deal, president of the Homeowners Association, admits that they are still more hogs than heroes. "We have over 100,000 square feet of landscaping," he said, which is "far more than we should have." And he's right: There are only 48 condos in Colonial Park. The water bill for landscaping alone comes to 600,000 gallons a month—"a huge expense for such a small place." While the owners would like to cut that figure in half, "it's very difficult to get things done when 48 people have to coordinate them," said Deal. Sharing a single water bill also makes conservation difficult, Deal noted, because "it takes away the personal incentive to cut individual use." Deal expressed some hope in agreeing to move the sprinklers so they water more efficiently, but admitted that the renters making the decisions "see it very differently from the people who live there."
425 Vassar SE
Anna-Lena Toledo, at least, is one landlord who believes strongly in working to conserve water. A former Midwesterner, she not only "feels very strongly about the water situation in Albuquerque," but even appreciates "the tremendous beauty in this [desert] environment." Water conservation has been a live topic at home ever since Toledo's son became involved with efforts to lobby the governor on related issues. As a result, she and her husband are gradually putting xeriscapes in all their rental properties as well. So far this year, they have converted 2,700 square feet to xeriscape, earning them a $1,080 rebate from the city. The official who came to approve their rebate "was happy to see landlords doing it at all," she said. But from Toledo's perspective, "the investment is so nominal." The upkeep is easy—they hand-water the plants every 10 days—and the conversion pays for itself in savings in the long run. And Toledo considers the xeriscape a vast improvement visually over the "shabby looking" bluegrass that it replaced. Here's a water hero that other landlords would do well to emulate.
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