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What Other Western Cities Know about Living in Arid Climates

What Other Western Cities Know about Living in Arid Climates
San Diego is not alone in dealing with a water shortage. We'll find out how other Western cities have been dealing with a shrinking water supply and what San Diego might learn from them.


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

DOUG MYRLAND (Guest Host): I'm Doug Myrland. You're listening to These Days in San Diego. And we're going to continue our discussion about water by taking a look at how some other cities have addressed their own issues of water supply and demand. And we also are inviting you to join the conversation. We have several listeners standing by ready to make comments and questions and we can have you join them in the queue as well at 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. My guests are Rick Holmes. He's the Director of Environmental Resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Rick, welcome to the program.

RICK HOLMES (Director of Environmental Resources, Southern Nevada Water Authority): Morning. Thank you.

MYRLAND: Thank you very much for joining us. Also, we have Jeff Biggs, Director of the Tucson Water Department. And, Jeff, thank you for being with us.

JEFF BIGGS (Director, Tucson Water Department): You're welcome. I appreciate the opportunity.


MYRLAND: Well, we appreciate both of you giving us some context about what's going on in your own regions. And I want to start with Jeff mostly because according to our research, Tucson is one of the first places in the country that really started addressing these issues some years ago. And I wanted to just get a little context from you, Jeff, where does the water in Tucson mostly come from?

BIGGS: Yeah, up until 2001, we were reliant completely on ground water. And then in 2001, we began utilizing a Colorado River water allocation where we recharge Colorado River water and mix it with the native groundwater then recover that water and deliver that to our customers. So right now, we are, oh, utilizing between 65 and 70% of our Colorado River water compared to our groundwater usage.

MYRLAND: Now how much rain does Tucson get every year about?

BIGGS: Well, on the average, I've been told, eleven inches. I've been here since 2001 and we've never come close to that average. So we've…

MYRLAND: Well, whatever it is, you're going to get it all here in the next six weeks, right?

BIGGS: Well…

MYRLAND: With the monsoon.

BIGGS: It would be nice. But it's been a very unusual year so far for Tucson and Arizona in general, as far as the weather's concerned.

MYRLAND: Now Tucson has been an aggressive conservation kind of city with water for about 25 years. What – why did you decide to treat water as a limited resource so long ago?

BIGGS: Well, our conservation program started about 30 years ago. Back in 1976 is when it really started in earnest. In 1976, like I mentioned before, we were, you know, reliant upon groundwater and that summer it was a very hot summer and we were very concerned about the amount of groundwater that we had and compared to the population and the use of water. So we began a "Beat the Peak" program back then to really educate our customers on water usage, particularly in the desert. And ever since then, it's been really a fantastic program.

MYRLAND: Well, I want to ask you more about some of the details of what you're doing in Tucson including your gray water program, but I do want to also include Rick, Rick Holmes, who's the Director of Environmental Resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. And, Rick, your story in Las Vegas is a little bit different. You have more recently put in place a number of programs to get people to save water. Isn't that right?

HOLMES: Yeah, I think our history parallels Tucson a little bit, heavily dependent on groundwater as the sole source in the early years of Las Vegas Valley. But in 1971, started to develop the Colorado River resources and now 90% dependent on the Colorado River. And our conservation programs have been in place. It's a requirement of using the Colorado River but some major steps in the early 1990s, looking at some obvious things like artificial or manmade lakes and prohibiting those. A lot of the indoor plumbing requirements, low flow shower heads, lower flush toilets, but kicked it up a couple of big notches around the year 2000 and particularly as our nearly decade-long drought really started to hit home. Our conservation programs became a very valuable and important source of dealing with our water situation.

MYRLAND: Now one thing that I think some of our listeners may have read a little bit about is your program that actually pays people to rip up their lawns. Can you talk a minute about that?

HOLMES: Sure. Actually, we're in a somewhat unique situation with our reclaimed water being returned to the Colorado River, actually is a credit to us. We have a net allocation from the Colorado River. So our big concern – our focus, not exclusively, but our big concern is consumption. So the outdoor water use on things like landscape irrigation or evaporative cooling, those kinds of consumptive uses have been the focus of our programs. On a single family home, nearly 70% of the water is used outdoors as compared to indoors. Indoors, we capture that water, we treat it at a very high expense, return that water to the Colorado for credit. Outdoor water use is a consumptive use, it's lost, it's gone. So grass, in our environment where it rains less than four inches a year, grass is a big water demand. It will use something like 72 to 80 inches of water every year. That grass can be replaced, and in many cases we believe upgraded, to more of a native material, water smart landscaping, that will use on the order of 16 to 18 inches of water per year. So in a sense, you're creating, if you convert all that into gallons, you're saving about 55 gallons per square foot each year by water smart landscaping as opposed to a turf irrigation.

MYRLAND: That's Rick Holmes. He's the Director of Environmental Resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. We also have Jeff Biggs, Director of the Tucson Water Department on the phone. And we have a lot of listeners who want to join in and I want to invite Nathan in El Cajon to join us. Nathan, thanks for calling in.

NATHAN (Caller, El Cajon): Hello. Thank you for taking the call.

MYRLAND: Sure. What – what's on your mind?

NATHAN: Well, I hate sounding like Chicken Little and I hate being right even more when it comes to it but I've been predicting that it would take a severe drought here in San Diego to start following Arizona in both its gray water and water conservation programs. And it looks like – this morning, I just heard Tom Fudge, your predecessor actually, give a report on how now the state is going to lift the gray water permitting process and make it easier for homeowners to install a gray water system. And for the last six years, I've been trying to get more people to install gray water systems with my irrigation company and it is just so difficult because of the regulations here in the county. And I was wondering if anybody knew anything as far as your guests go, if the people who helped install – implement these programs in Arizona are helping implement them here in San Diego, or speaking with the city council? And then also I would love to plug the petition that I have online to get the regulations lifted here in San Diego.

MYRLAND: Okay, well, Nathan, thank you for that comment. And I want to sort of ask the same kind of question in a little different way and that is, did you all, in Las Vegas and in Tucson, have to change your codes and your regulations in order to allow more gray water installations?

BIGGS: Yeah, this is Jeff…

MYRLAND: Umm-hmm.

BIGGS: …from Tucson Water. Actually, last fall our mayor and council adopted two ordinances that will take effect in June in 2010. One is our rainwater harvesting ordinance, where commercial properties will have to, when they design their properties, the roof design will have to provide at least 50% of the water needed for irrigation. And then our gray water ordinance is mandatory within the city of Tucson that any new construction of homes after June of 2010 will include stub outs on the washing machines for gray water usage.

MYRLAND: And then Rick, have you changed any regulations in Nevada yet to allow that? Or…?

HOLMES: Not – not in the regulatory sense but addressing that in terms of the policies related to gray water. And, again, gray water, I'm using the definition of something from sinks, the washing machine, something that is not highly contaminated. When, in fact, we've gone you might say a step further in the community recycling program as I described. The captured sewage effluent from the house, all of the water that is in the sewer, is conveyed to centralized treatment plants and purified to levels – very high levels of treatment, and I mentioned the expense but it's an important resource for us to get that back to the Colorado River. So we have a number of places where that kind of collection and return to the river is not feasible and gray water systems would be very appropriate in those cases. If you, for example, have a septic system, that water's just going into the ground anyway, probably not reaching our central aquifers for recharge, using that under the appropriate health regulations is part of our policies.

MYRLAND: Now, Rick, that's – you're talking about returning gray water to the river or to – or through recycle but you're not talking about turning it into drinkable water, right?

HOLMES: That's correct.

MYRLAND: That's been a big controversy in California. So you've actually found a way to put it back into the system but not purify it and put it back into people's taps.

HOLMES: That's right, only in the sense that the Colorado River and Lake Mead are huge systems compared to the amount of returned waste water, the highly treated waste water, from Las Vegas Valley. So at some level you could say that there is a mixing and a relationship between what we return and what we again take back out. But we're dealing with huge reservoirs – a huge reservoir capacity in Lake Mead.

MYRLAND: Okay, I want to invite Jack in Bonita, who's called in to join the program. Jack, you're on These Days.

JACK (Caller, Bonita): Hi. I wanted to urge all of our listeners and, most particularly, public officials to begin a dialogue about reuse of water in San Diego County. It seems very, very clear that over the long term we do not have a sufficient supply of water to what is essentially a desert, and we need to reuse the water. The discussion of large scale desalinization is interesting and I realize the plant that's going in in Carlsbad but that's a huge user of energy and that is not a longterm solution to our water issues. We have to recycle what we already have. And it's very interesting to note that the City of Las Vegas is recycling their sewage back into the Colorado River from which we take our drinking water. So the whole argument of toilet to tap has already – is already here and we're drinking toilet to tap now. So to not be progressing on recycling in San Diego is just shortsighted. Thank you.

MYRLAND: Well, thank you for your comment. And I want to turn to Jeff Biggs first and talk about the community cultural change that you've undergone in Tucson since 1976 to get people to accept the need to be conserving not just during special periods of time but all the time. How did you accomplish this sort of sea change in attitude?

BIGGS: Well, like I said, since 1976, we've had a huge public outreach program, you know, education of our customers. And what's interesting, we really focus on elementary age school children. They understand, amazingly, what's going on with our community and our water use and then they'll go home and if they see their parents leave the, you know, the sink running or if they're watering their plants with a garden hose without shutting it off, washing the car without shutting the garden hose off, they'll scold their parents on the use of, you know, the wasting of water. So, in fact, in the last ten years we have dropped our usage as far as gallons per person from 119 gallons per person down below 93 gallons per person in the last decade. You know, that's like a 22% decrease. So it's really our customers that have really been driving this along with our public information and conservation office.

MYRLAND: So that would be 93 gallons per person per day.

BIGGS: Per day, yes, and it's still dropping.

MYRLAND: Now, Rick Holmes in Southern Nevada, you actually have used economic incentives that we've talked about. How – what – Can you talk a little bit more about your public education programs as well?

HOLMES: Sure. Our conservation program actually has four components. We view the tiered rate structure as one of those four. We have a number of regulatory requirements. Obviously, if you're going to have rules, you have to have enforcement and water waste enforcement is part of the package, restrictions on new development in terms of turf and indoor plumbing fixtures. But the other two, incentives and education, have really been ramped up and very much a part of our program in the last decade. The incentives in the past two or three years have been ranging in the $20 to $30 million dollar range, which for us is – it's a lot of money for a community with two million customers but those incentives only work if people know how to get to them and how to use them and the purpose and value. So quite a bit of work has been going on with landscape design, irrigation systems, managing your irrigation clock. If you're watering grass, what's the most effective way to do that? A lot of kind of hands-on and practical knowledge coming from the Southern Nevada Water Authority and each of our member jurisdictions in the water utilities. So education is hugely important, everything from training and certifying. What we have is water smart landscape contractors to working with nurseries who have plant material available, through the whole range of indoor water use and plumbing and efficiency.

BIGGS: Yeah, this is Jeff. I'd like to echo what Rick said. We also have a, you know, a tiered block rate as the more water that you use, the higher the cost is per unit. And, you know, we also do water audits for both residential and commercial customers and we do have water cops that do respond to customers who call in to say that people are wasting water. And this altogether has really lowered our usage. And we're now beginning to have rebates for low – for low income for HET toilets, which is the high efficiency toilets. We're working with the landscape architects on irrigation systems, commercial customers on pre-rinse spray valves, and we're actually beginning this year to set up rainwater harvesting and gray water demonstrations throughout the City of Tucson.

MYRLAND: Well, that's Jeff Biggs. He's the Director of the Tucson Water Department. Also joining us, Rick Holmes, Director of Environmental Resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. And we have on the telephone Richard Seibert (sic), who has called in to join us and he's a former state director of planning and research under the Pete Wilson administration. And, Richard, thank you for joining us.

RICHARD SEIFERT (Former California Director of Planning and Research): Good morning. Thank you for having me.

MYRLAND: Sure. What was your comment for us?

SEIFERT: Well, my comment is that the part of this equation that everyone seems to be missing, and I think consciously so, is an increase in supply. Conservation is great. It's certainly the most cost effective measure to stretch our water. Technology is coming along with dual flush toilets, and pricing measures are certainly in order. But the fact is, that the population of this area keeps rising and at some point conservation is going to hit its limits and we're going to have to find some way to increase supply. And there are things we can do, we can increase our – raise our capacity, we can raise, for example, the height of Auburn Dam. At some point, we're going to have to build a peripheral canal, no matter under what name. I think we're going to have to amend the Endangered Species Act. I think it's ridiculous that the delta smelt, for example, is put ahead of people's needs. And at some point in the future, maybe not in my lifetime, maybe not in yours, we're going to have to look at wide scale public works to import water from the Pacific northwest and Western Canada. In the 1960s, the Bechtel Corporation did a feasibility project on something called the North American Water and Power Authority that essentially would turn the Rocky Mountain trench in British Columbia into a giant reservoir. The costs are pretty daunting but at some point we'll look at that. But the simple facts are that people want to live in the southwest, they need water, and it's our responsibility to give it to them.

MYRLAND: Well, Richard Seibert (sic), thanks for joining us and making those comments. And I'm going to turn right to Rick Holmes, who's the Director of Environmental Resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority because I know some of the things that Richard has just talked about are certainly issues that you've worked through in Nevada as well.

HOLMES: Exactly. We share the same view that conservation is critical, it's important and it's often very cost effective for water resources but in our situation it's not going to get the full job done. As we look towards the future, say a 20-year projection of demand, and we have looked at conservation, frankly, as our first source of supply, that takes care of about one-third of that otherwise future demand. We think we can lower that need for resources significantly but we still have, you know, two-thirds of the future needs to go out and develop. We have access to those resources both in the

Colorado River and in groundwater within the state of Nevada. We have to put that in the right kind of timing and the right kind of economics but conservation alone, as important as it is, will not be the solution for all of our water needs.

MYRLAND: And Rick Holmes, I may ask you – may get a chance to ask you one more follow-up question about that after our break because I know that Nevada's actually gone out and gone shopping for water and maybe has some ideas about some other technological solutions. But we do need to take a break. I want to remind our listeners we have several people waiting in line to participate in the show but there's still room for a few more at 1-888-895-5727. Rick Holmes, who's the Director of Environmental Resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and Jeff Biggs, Director of the Tucson Water Department have very kindly agreed to stick with us for a few more minutes. So we'll be right back with more These Days right after this break.


MYRLAND: I'm Doug Myrland. This is These Days. We have Rick Holmes, Director of Environmental Resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Jeff Biggs, Director of the Tucson Water Department and, from downtown, Roger, who has – calling in. Roger, welcome to the program.

ROGER PARRISH (Caller, Downtown San Diego): Hi, this is Roger Parrish, how are you doing?

MYRLAND: Doing good.

ROGER: I just wanted to make a comment that we're trying to save water and I'm just at the corner of Market and Fifth and the folks are using high spray – power – high pressure power sprayers to do off all the sidewalks in the Gaslamp. It's got to be a regular thing. It's got to stop. I mean, if they want folks in the neighborhoods to not wash their driveways, everybody else has to participate too. Thank you.

MYRLAND: Thank you, Roger, and I want to turn to Jeff. Was there a little period of time where you had to institute a cultural change in your own department and in your own city to change some of these behaviors?

BIGGS: Yes, there was. It's taken time but our employees here at Tucson Water understand the need to conserve water so we ensure that, you know, we – that the staff fixes any leaking faucets, that we, like the gentleman just said, we sweep up any driveways or sidewalks instead of using water. So it has taken some time but our staff is doing a great job in our conservation efforts.

MYRLAND: And, Rick, I assume that in Las Vegas, that there is – there are rules against using hoses to hose down sidewalks, right?

HOLMES: Oh, yes. Some of those were put in as, initially as kind of a drought response plan but are now part of the permanent regulations and requirements in Southern Nevada.

MYRLAND: Okay, I want to go right to Bruce, who's calling in in Spring Valley. Bruce, welcome to the program.

BRUCE (Caller, Spring Valley): Good morning.

MYRLAND: Good morning.

BRUCE: I'm curious as to why I've never – I've heard so little about other devices that help conservation such as pumps with thermostats where you can pump water from your hot water heater and then back to your hot water heater until the temperature of the water gets up to – I know, myself, I just – I had to go digging on the internet to find such a device. I won't give you the brand name or anything but I installed it and I cut my water use for my shower upstairs by 50% just – And I know, you know, you say, well, put the water in a bucket and go water the lawn, but, you know, I know how difficult that is to do. And I have a really quick comment about all the finding more water. And I don't understand why we're not talking really longterm and talking about solar desalinization. I mean, we live right next to the ocean and I can't imagine that in a hundred years we're not going to be getting most of our water from the ocean. I just can't see it. Thank you.

MYRLAND: Good, well, Bruce, thanks for both those comments. And we'll kind of take them in the order that you gave them. First of all, Rick Holmes in Southern Nevada, can you talk a little bit about some of the ways that you help consumers find resources to get things like the recycling system he was talking about or whatever. And then maybe also talk about some of the longer term, bigger picture ideas that you all have had because I know you've talked a little bit about buying into some desalination for your region.

HOLMES: Right, on the – it's a kind of the immediate and short term, we have a number of pilot projects where we actually will test out different technologies whether that's the smart irrigation controllers to see if they really do save water. Are they easy to use? Is that something that the homeowner could put in place? Are there pieces of the energy use that may be tied in with hot water that also could be very good for water conservation? So we have a number of kind of pilot projects and testing the equipment and then we can make that information available to our customers. On the long range, that's another responsibility of the Water Authority that I work for and we are looking anywhere and everywhere, extensive research and keeping up to date on desalinization efforts, not because we have an ocean but because we have the ability perhaps to trade water that would otherwise be used in California if California develops a ocean desal system, trade that in exchange for Lake Mead water that would otherwise be going to California. We also have looked, as I said, at our in-state groundwater resources. We have a limited but very important slice of agricultural land in our tributaries. Those water rights existed before the Compact in 1922 that set up the full regulatory system for the Colorado. And we are essentially creating a surplus—by the way, some of those agricultural lands are managed—and then we have system improvement efficiency projects on the river itself that we are participating with Arizona and California. And then we have an extensive water banking program where water is stored both in Las Vegas Valley groundwater aquifers – stored in the ground in Arizona for future use. And also a water banking arrangement with California where last year we sent our entitlement, a portion of that went to California, that we were not using.

MYRLAND: Well, Rick – Rick Holmes is the Director of Environmental Resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Sounds like you've been making deals with other people and there's somebody on the line here, Richard in Capistrano Beach, who's the director of a local water district, who might want to talk about another deal so, Richard, thanks for calling in.

RICHARD (Caller, Capistrano Beach): Why thank you very much. I've been talking with Metropolitan and others and I think we all kind of know that the demand in Southern California is going to exceed and I'm sure that in Arizona your demand may eventually exceed your supplies from the river. And so I was thinking that the ocean desalination on the Pacific coast, the energy requirements are the main limiting and yet you have all the solar capability in the Palos Verde and several major power sources that perhaps that kind of a national agreement – a federal, it would have to be – the Department of Interior would be involved and maybe we could – you could generate some power and we could – we could wield the water. You could take the water from me and we could do the development on the coast. But right now the water, ocean water's, going to cost us on the coast in excess of $1200.00 an acre foot, and the Metropolitan rates are about $700.00 so – and I'm sure your water, the cost of your water from the Colorado's probably, I don't know, what, four or less. So there must be a way that we – that with that differential we could work with Arizona.

MYRLAND: Well, it sounds like the future is going to bring some creative deal making and if it actually comes out of the three of you, I expect KPBS to get a little cut for our membership campaign there. But thanks very much, Richard, for calling in and that's – I think that's a terrific example of the kind of creative thinking that different water districts, different authorities in different states have to – are going to have to do as we move forward. I want to kind of stay on this creative line of thinking. Norm in Imperial Beach has a question about using heat from nuclear plants? Norm?

NORM (Caller, Imperial Beach): Yeah. Why don't we shunt out some of that heat that is generated by the – you know, because the – we have San – we got two things at San Onofre and they put out a tremen – you know, it's like the power of the sun, you know. And why don't we shunt out that steam and stuff and create desalinization or something with – And I hear that they – that the outlet is, you know, ten degrees warmer than ordinary out there on that coast and, you know, the tech boys could, you know, figure out some way to use that – to use those nuclears to give us a lot, and there's also a young fellow that invented an cosmic thing that uses the tide to life and lower and is its own pump and can do something. And there's a girl who invented a very cheap photovoltaic that doesn't – is not as expensive to manufacture, so there's a lot of things out there that people are just kind of overlooking maybe and should think about that way.

MYRLAND: Well, Norm, thanks very much. And I want to turn to Jeff Biggs. You know, since 1976, your water department's been exploring options. I'm sure you've looked at a lot of these kind of futuristic solutions.

BIGGS: Yes, we have. Like Rick had mentioned, we've, you know, looked at, or the State of Arizona has looked at, you know, trading cap water or Colorado River water credits to, you know, California for desalinization water. You know, in the long term, I think that's something we certainly need to continue researching but locally here in Tucson, we've really – are focusing on, you know, maximizing our use of available renewable resources, which is really two things: our Colorado River water allotment and our use of effluent. We realize the only water supply that anyone has that grows with the population is your effluent and we're, you know, utilizing our effluent in our reclaim system on our golf courses and parks to the extent of about 10% of our demand. So I think…

MYRLAND: And Jeff, isn't it also just generally true that whatever additional solutions there may be to increase the supply, it's – as long as you can focus on the conservation side, that's actually less expensive.

BIGGS: Absolutely, the -- you know, the more you focus on conservation efforts, usually the – your demand begins to drop and continue to drop. So that helps push out your need for future water resources. I mean, our planners in our department right now are estimating that we have enough water, meaning our Colorado River water and our effluent and our groundwater, to year 2035. I know that sounds like a long time from now but to ensure that our future generations have plenty of water, we need to continue our thought process of – and research of looking at, you know, future resources. And, also, I think it's important that – everyone needs to look at climate change, and we are certainly participating in numerous research projects concerning climate change, not just here in Arizona but in the western United States. I think one more really – comment that I'd like to make that all of our Colorado River water users really need to make a collaborative effort in managing their water usage in the future.

MYRLAND: Well, we're – we just heard from Jeff Biggs. He's the Director of the Tucson Water Department. We also have Rick Holmes, Director of Environmental Resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. And it strikes me that while Las Vegas and southern Nevada are different than Tucson, you do have one very, very – thing that's in common and that is that both of your areas have enjoyed, I guess is the right word, a lot of population growth over the last 20 years. And I'm going to start with you, Rick. When you do your water projections, are you continuing – projecting that that growth is going to continue on the – in the steep way that it has for the past 20 years? Or are you assuming that that's going to – the population there is going to stabilize a little?

HOLMES: A little bit of both. We take our projections out a very long period of time and at the outer end of that we are looking to have growth rates that get somewhere down or close to national averages. But the history of Las Vegas Valley, as you point out, has been anything but average and it's been a very rapid growth and in the last year or eighteen months, has been actually unusually flat for us.

MYRLAND: So in a way the economic condition of the United States may have helped your water supply a little bit. I want…

HOLMES: Except on the revenue side, of course, but…


HOLMES: Our growth is always driven by economic activity.


HOLMES: So as we had new hotels, new expansion of resort and tourism industry, more employees, more families, more water use.

MYRLAND: And, Jeff, are you looking at a slower growth rate in Tucson?

BIGGS: Absolutely. Like Rick mentioned, there -- You know, a few years ago, Tucson and Phoenix and all of Arizona was growing very rapidly. That has certainly leveled out for right now. And our – Again, the reason that we can safely say that we've got enough water resources till 2035 is because of the slowdown and population growth.

MYRLAND: Okay. Well, Jeff Biggs, Director of the Tucson Water Department, Rick Holmes, Director of Environmental Resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, thank you very much for joining us. We really appreciate you taking the time. You're listening to These Days in San Diego.