I’m giving a talk next week at the CLE Law of the River conference in Las Vegas about what I think is one of the two most important trends in western water management. The first, which we hear a lot about, is the pressure posed by climate change and drought. The second, which I don’t think gets enough attention, is the remarkable trends in water use by the region’s municipalities. They are going down everywhere. I think this is the salient feature of our water planning and management efforts.
I’ll have to update my slides (that’s a joke – I’ve got a week, you think I’ve started on my slides?) after this morning’s news that Albuquerque’s 2015 water use came in at 127 gallons per capita per day. If you’re not a water numbers nerd, let me try to explain how remarkable that number is. In 1995, Albuquerque residents used 251 gallons per person per day. A major American city has cut its per person use of a critical resource by 49.4 percent in two decades:
“The last time overall water use was this low was in 1982,” Yuhas said. That’s especially impressive when you consider that the Albuquerque population in 1982 was about 366,000 and that the water utility serves more than 658,000 people today.
There’s a lot going on here. On the indoor side, changing national appliance standards and incentives from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority mean that toilets, clothes washers, etc., are growing steadily more efficient, both in all new construction and as new fixtures replace new ones in existing buildings.
The real action, though, is outdoors. There, incentives and education by the water utility are entwined with changing community values about what we want Albuquerque to look like. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the bulk of those savings over the last two decades have come in outdoor water use, the “consumptive” portion of our water use that we use in our gardens. There is politics and policy here, but all the outdoor savings have been voluntary, a change in behavior and values that is happening one yard at a time.
The outdoor piece matters because indoor water use is fully reused in New Mexico’s middle Rio Grande – we put our treated effluent back into the river where it is available for use by downstream cities, farms, and the river ecosystem itself. When you look at the consumptive fraction, which I think is the most important measure, the outdoor conservation success over the last two decades provides Albuquerque with a remarkable buffer to try to ensure resilience in the face of the threat of climate change to our water supply.