Denver Water Cuts Use By 20 Percent with Aggressive Conservation Program

Creative billboards help cut water use 20% in Denver.

In 2002, the worst drought in 300 years dehydrated the State of Colorado, leaving it a crispy brown tinderbox.

Denver Water scrambled to adapt. The northern side of Denver?s collection system only has about a fourth of the water that?s available on the southern end of the system. This already-smaller north side was dangerously close to running dry, forcing operators to jury-rig a distribution system that would deliver water from the south side to the parched north.

One of the worst forest fires in state history charred the mountains ? and the watershed ? to the west of Denver, causing sediment to flow into rivers and reservoirs, and creating operational challenges that still exist today. Crews that normally spent their days laying pipe were sent an hour and a half to the west to build sediment traps to capture dirt and debris spilling into Cheesman Reservoir.

That stressful, uncharted summer forced water leaders to rethink their conservation strategy. Was Denver Water doing enough to use water efficiently? Would Denver have enough water for the next summer? How can staff get all 1.3 million customers to understand that we live in a climate with a quarter of the precipitation as Miami?

A couple walloping snowstorms the following winter helped ease the grim conditions, but the terrifying 2002 drought led to a revamped conservation plan with an aggressive goal: Change the culture in the Denver-metro area to one that embraces wise water use.

Twelve years later, customers are using 21 percent less water than before the 2002 drought ? despite a population that has grown 10 percent since then. Conservation initiatives continue to save billions of gallons of water, helping Denver Water prepare for ? and withstand ? another terrifying drought.

Creating a Culture of Conservation

Denver Water has encouraged conservation - 1936 streetcar signDenver Water has encouraged conservation since its early days as a water utility almost a century ago. But a limited conservation program, suburban growth that took pride in expansive green lawns, and unmotivated customers made it a difficult notion to preach. Even if customers had embraced the idea, they had little in the way of making sure their use declined ? taps weren?t metered until the late 1980s, and customers were charged a flat rate until then. But the 2002 drought changed all that in a hurry.

In response to that drought, Denver Water?s governing body, the Board of Water Commissioners, challenged staff to reduce customers? use by 22 percent from pre-drought levels by the year 2016.

?In the past, our biggest challenge was just trying to raise awareness,? said Jeff Tejral, Denver Water?s conservation manager. ?We live in a dry climate, but customers didn?t know where their water came from and if they?re efficient or not. And people are busy ? they have to take kids to school, pay bills, walk the dog ? they don?t have time to think about water conservation.?

Denver Water employed a Denver-based advertising company, Sukle Advertising & Design, to create its now nationally recognized ?Use Only What You Need? campaign. That simple message, displayed throughout the city on billboards, in bus shelters and via guerrilla marketing tactics, started a citywide conversation about the importance of conservation.

Then Denver Water?s conservation department beefed up its offerings. Customers could receive free water use audits, rebates for buying efficient fixtures and efficiency contracts to help offset retrofit projects. Water waste monitors began combing the service areas watching for customers who were violating summer watering rules. Thousands of customers placed free signs in their yards, promoting their Use Only What You Need attitude.

To date, those programs have been wildly successful. In the past 10 years, Denver Water helped save more than 1.5 billion gallons of water by retrofitting more than 140,000 toilets to high-efficiency models with rebates and partnerships with local schools and low-income assistance programs. In the past five years, Denver Water helped save more than 100 million gallons of water with the water use education and enforcement program.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was common for customers to use more than 500 million gallons of water on a hot summer day. Those days are almost unheard of now. For the past five years, customers have not topped 400 million gallons in one day. Before the 2002 drought, it was common for customers to use more than 200 gallons of water per day per person. For the past five years, customers have not topped our goal of 165 gallons.

?We?re absolutely changing the culture,? Tejral said. ?But there?s still more to do.?

Facing Future Conservation ChallengesFacing Future Conservation Challenges

While the past decade or so was spent raising awareness about the importance of conservation, the next challenge is to help customers understand how to become more efficient. Most customers agree that using only what you need is a good thing; now they want specific ways to do just that.

This summer, Denver Water will start a pilot project aimed at customers in nearby Greenwood Village. There, customers are accustomed to balancing the cost of their water bills with keeping larger lawns green all summer. But residents, and their elected officials, are asking for Denver Water?s help to cut back. Denver Water will send each customer a letter every month throughout the irrigation season, showing how that person?s water use compares to an efficient standard, as well as to neighbors with similar-sized lots. The goal of this project is to help customers become more efficient by showing them what their lawn actually needs.

Denver Water also is offering a new water budget program, designed to help properties with an acre or more irrigate efficiently. With water budgets, Denver Water will send property owners and their landscape managers monthly use reports to show how they match up to their water budget, which is based on the property?s irrigable area, allowing them to quickly find and repair problems.

For the first time, Denver Water also co-sponsored state legislation that will phase out the sale of toilets, faucets and showerheads that aren?t certified by the Environmental Protection Agency?s WaterSense program. Allowing only efficient fixtures in the marketplace is expected to save the state roughly 13 billion gallons of water by 2050.

Conservation continues to become more important ? and more accepted ? in Colorado and for its neighbors.

?People agree that we need to do this ? they expect these conservation programs from us now,? said Tejral. ?It points to a cultural shift. This is where we are as a community.?

Ann Baker is a marketing and communications specialist for Denver Water.

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