Mayors Prepare To Pitch Conservation

In a bid to strengthen their standing as the most vocal champions of innovative strategies to sustain the Great Lakes, mayors representing cities from across the Upper Midwest will use their annual conference in Grand Rapids, MI later this week to make "a major announcement" about water conservation and the importance of maintaining the quality and quantity of the region's increasingly valuable fresh water supply.

One source familiar with the the announcement, which is scheduled for a lunch time press conference this Thursday, said it will be based on the Water Conservation Framework, a voluntary program organized by the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Cities Initiative to reduce water use in the region's urban areas. Under the program, cities set conservation goals and work to reduce their water use 15 percent below 2000 consumption levels by 2015.

Nearly 30 Great Lakes cities and towns - including Chicago, Toronto, and Grand Rapids - already have embraced the program. One reason is environmental: just one percent of the total water in the Great Lakes supply is renewed each year, demand is rising regionally and globally, and there's growing awareness that robust water supplies are essential to the region's distinct ecology and quality of life.

But another reason for the push is economic. Tight budgets also have progressive local officials thinking differently about water supply planning. As the costs of maintaining public water and sewer service escalate, astute leaders have begun to shift the focus away from an exclusive reliance on building more pumping plants and larger water mains and toward making existing systems more water-efficient.

The strategy helps smart municipalities reduce costs, support innovation, delay or even avoid capital projects, and maintain the vigor of natural water supplies. Consider the following:

  • Beginning in the late 1980s, the Delaware River Basin Commission in New Jersey pursued an aggressive, comprehensive water conservation program. Based on water metering, leak detection and repair, and more efficient plumbing fixtures, the program lowered per capita water use by as much as 15 percent. The commission estimates that the water savings from low-flow toilets alone avoided $300-$500 million for new water supply and wastewater treatment facilities.
  • Santa Monica’s Baysaver Plumbing Fixture Rebate Program, started in 1989, reduced water use by 15 percent and cut sewage flows by 16 percent. The program saved the city $6 million in about ten years; local officials estimate a $2 return for every dollar invested in the program.
  • Leak repairs and water-saving fixtures installed at a 60-unit low-income housing development in Houston slashed water consumption by 72 percent. The $22,000 project cut the complex’s monthly water and wastewater bills by about 80 percent, paid for itself in little more than three months, and will permanently save the development $6,800 a month in water and sewage bills.
  • From 1980 to the mid 1990s, the number of Seattle Water Department customers grew by 20 percent. But metro area water needs essentially remained unchanged. With a modern plumbing code, rates designed to encourage conservation, and other programs, Seattle saved approximately 14 million gallons of water per day through the 1990s, and will save 21 million gallons more per day this year.

There are similarly significant opportunities throughout the Great Lakes. For example, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department hemorrhages $23 million and 35 billion gallons of treated drinking water each year due to aging and leaking infrastructure, according to a July 2002 report in The Detroit News.

Metro Grand Rapids leaks some 2 billion gallons of water per year at a cost of approximately $3 million, according to a recent report in the Grand Rapids Press.

Ironically, Great Lakes residents fear that it's the parched people of distant lands like Arizona, California, and Asia who want to build gigantic pipelines or send tankers and siphon off the Great Lakes. But, plainly, the most immediate challenge facing the region’s waters is much closer to home.

Instead of scrutinizing and managing current demand, basin communities reflexively tend to rely solely on finding new sources of water, adding more pumps, constructing ever-larger pipes and purification stations, and withdrawing ever more water.

That old way of thinking, in part, is likely why Highland Township near Detroit decided to drill two new supply wells; why the suburb of New Berlin continues to pester Milwaukee for more water; why some local officials want to punch a new pipeline through the globally unique Saugatuck Dunes; and it's the principal reason why more visionary Great Lakes leaders continue to push for a common set of standards to guide future water use decisions.

Whatever they say this Thursday, the mayors announcement will almost certainly aim to push back on the prevailing attitudes, call attention to the costs of profligate water use, and promote a more sustainable approach.

“We need to do more to conserve water and use it efficiently,” said Toronto Mayor David Miller. “As mayors we need to encourage cities and towns to develop initiatives such as those in Chicago and Toronto that promote water conservation.”