More Than A Drop in the Bucket

Thursday, February 18, 2010

by Amara Holstein, URBAN RE:VISION, February 2010

dreamstime_6895959 In Portland, Oregon, rows of sedge plantings and aspen trees sit on what used to be an asphalt parking lot. In Las Vegas, homeowners trade their lawns for vast wads of cash. Birds flying over Chicago see fields of sedum on rooftops, and wastewater in Orange County is transformed into water that’s as clean as what comes out of the tap. The common thread to all of these examples? A desire to better manage water.—————

A new report released last fall by consulting firm McKinsey & Company declares that by 2030, the world’s water demands will have increased by 40%. Add to that the fact of rising seas, droughts, and shrinking water sheds, and cities across the country are starting to respond with some particularly innovative solutions tailor-made to their varied water needs.

A good case in point is Orange County, which has created the largest-scale program of recycling wastewater in the world. This part of Southern California had formerly relied on gleaning most of its water from a mix of ground water and two rivers (the Santa Ana and the Colorado). Anticipating increased land development, combined with multi-year droughts decreasing the river systems, the area was facing large water shortages.  As a result, the water district came up with a way to recycle wastewater that would otherwise drain into the ocean. Called the Groundwater Replenishment System , it essentially diverts the wastewater from one of the area’s two sewage treatment plants to a system that cleans the water to drinkable levels through a three-step process. The purified water is then put back into the ground, where it trickles through the soil to again become part of the municipal aquifers. On track to process half of the total wastewater produced by the area’s 2.5 million residents, the system has been up and running for two years. That’s 34 billion gallons of water recycled for reuse. An added bonus is that the system conserves the energy otherwise used in importing water from various rivers, saving money in the process. Entirely successful, the program’s already planning to expand, and cities such as Los Angeles and San Diego are looking into emulation.

Las Vegas, likewise, has focused most of its local water conservation efforts on one spectacularly successful program, although quite different in type from Orange County. Called the Water Smart Landscapes Program in which people are paid to rip out their lawns, “it’s our flagship conservation program and over 80% of what we do,” says Doug Bennett of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Initially launched as a five-year research project of 700 houses in 1995, the results of the study were startling: When people replaced their grass with native plants and xeriscaping, they reduced their water use on average by 75%. Not bad for a city where almost three-quarters of residential water use is outdoors. So in 1999, the area started the cash for grass program, available to all commercial and residential customers, scaling up the rebate amounts to its current level of $1.50 per square foot of grass removed for the first 5,000 square feet (larger conversions pay more in the $1 per square foot range, such as with golf courses and parks). Tiered water utility rate structures provide additional incentives to conserve, as do new city codes that prohibit grass in front yards and limit back yard size and outlaw nonfunctional grass in commercial developments.

The measurable results of this program are impressive: Over 40,000 lawns amounting to 141 million square feet of turf are now decorated with Joshua trees and cacti instead of grass, with savings of more than 33 billion gallons of water over the past decade (almost 20% annually in water savings for the city). As for other results, Bennett asserts that taking out lawns has helped build community. “No relationships have been forged over the roar of a lawnmower,” he says. “And when one neighbor takes out their lawn, often the rest of the street follows.” His dream is that the program will one day put itself out of business. Los Angeles has recently instituted a more modest similar program , and the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council has created a suggestively-named Rip Your Strip program that offers tips and advice (although no money) to residents taking out grass. [Read rest of story]

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