We use 50 percent more than other Texas cities and spend millions to make sure we have all we want. Clearly, when it comes to its conservation, we could use a dousing of good sense

Judy Fender loved her lawn. She loved it so much, in fact, that she used to cut patterns in it when she mowed it. But when she moved to the White Rock Lake area seven years ago, something changed.

“The house I bought had a beautiful lawn,” says Fender, whose home had one-quarter acre of Bermuda and St. Augustine before she took it out a couple of years in 2000.

“But I just decided it sucked up too much water. With the water restrictions we have here, I wanted something in my yard that I could garden 12 months a year, and I knew I couldn’t do it with the lawn that was there.”

That issue — lawns that consume a lot of water — is something more of us are likely to start considering. Crime, potholes and strong mayors may not be the burning political issues of the next decade. Instead, it could well be whether we’re allowed to water our lawns.

Dallas — faced with rapid, steady growth and an increasing demand for water, but with no natural supply of water available, no Lake Michigan next door to tap at will — is at a liquid crossroads. The crisis we faced in the 1950s, when tremendous drought forced the City to use White Rock Lake water for the first time in 30 years, may not be at hand. But we must find enough water to meet the demands of a population that is expected to almost double by 2060, and do so affordably and without harming the environment.

Do we continue to build reservoirs, even though the water will be pumped from 80 to 100 miles away and flood significant parts of East Texas in the process? Can increased conservation — installing low-flow toilets, which use half as much water per flush, and tank-less water heaters, which save as much as 40 gallons a shower — make up the deficit? Are improvements in technology, such as filling reservoirs with treated wastewater that has already been used — flushed down the toilet, for example, and then recycled — a possible solution?

And perhaps most importantly, do we need to adjust our entire attitude about water, so that more of us think like Fender? Consider that half of the water we use in the summer is used to water our lawns, and that it’s not unusual for some neighborhood residents to use more than 15,000 gallons a month — almost double the typical amount — to keep the grass green. Is that a good enough reason for more reservoirs?

“We have about a 15- or 20-year window to deal with the issue,” says John Easton, an environmental engineer who teaches at SMU and specializes in water issues.

“And it’s not so much about conservation or building new reservoirs as it is about using water more efficiently. That means not necessarily taking shorter showers, but figuring out a way to use less water when we do it.”

Facts and figures

The most important fact about water in this part of Texas is that there isn’t very much of it. The state has only one natural lake — Caddo, in East Texas — and 90 percent of the drinking water in the Dallas area comes from man-made reservoirs, which are created by damming rivers such as the Trinity and waiting for them to fill with rain water. Dallas’ water comes from six of these reservoirs: Lake Grapevine, Lake Lewisville, Lake Ray Roberts, Lake Ray Hubbard, Lake Tawakoni, and the Elm Fork of the Trinity River.

Sometime in the next three years, the city will add Lake Fork to its supply, and plans call for adding Lake Palestine, some 80 miles away, by 2015. During that time, Dallas’ population is expected to grow to at least 1.5 million. In addition, long-range plans call for adding two more reservoirs in East Texas, including Wright Patman near Texarkana, in 2035 and 2045 as the city’s population approaches 2 million.

Don’t feel badly if you don’t know this. Hardly anyone does. A state water board survey found that only 28 percent of Texans know where their water comes from.

What it means is that every time you turn on the tap, the city spent tens of millions of dollars to dig the hole and lay the pipe to bring the water to you. One example: Dallas is spending $4.1 million per mile to lay seven miles of 108-inch diameter pipe (nine feet around) to finish connecting Lake Fork, about 35 miles northeast of Terrell, to the city’s water system. And estimates call for Dallas to spend as much as $500 million to add Lake Palestine’s water to its supply.

Says Jim Park, the chairman of the state-mandated committee that oversees water planning for the Dallas area: “The cost of building a reservoir is not really about building the reservoir, but about the pipeline to connect the reservoir.”

But given forecasts for population growth, what else is there to do? Current projections call for Dallas to reach two million people by 2060, with even bigger increases forecast for the city’s suburbs, 21 of which buy their water from Dallas and the rest of which compete with the city for the region’s limited supply. The latter includes McKinney, projected to reach 400,000 people by 2060, and Denton, expected to have 500,000 people.

“Water is not one of those things that you can do without,” says Charles E. Stringer, assistant director of water operations for Dallas Water Utilities, which oversees the city’s water system.

“Dallas would not have grown to be as big as it is unless there was a safe, affordable, dependable supply of water.”

Conspicuous consumption

We use lots and lots of that water, about 245 gallons per person per day. (We’re not the thirstiest in the area, though — that distinction goes to Highland Park, which uses 381 gallons per person per day, according to state figures.) The Dallas total is 50 percent more than in Houston, which gets 46 inches of rain a year to our 34; 50 percent more than in Austin, which has more strict conservation measures than we do, including a watering plan that limits homeowners to once every five days in the summer; and almost twice as much as in San Antonio, which is a model among U.S. cities for reducing water use.

Our total is somewhat inflated, since it includes commercial and business customers such as restaurants, which are notorious water wasters. Stringer says a typical home probably uses about half that total per day for inside use.

But it’s still a lot. Even half of the 245 gallons a day are the equivalent of filling and emptying a typical bathtub about 2 times. By 2010, per-person use is expected to grow to 258 gallons a day. Both figures are far above state averages, currently about 170 gallons per person per day. And in the summer, we use half of that water on our lawns — and our driveways and our sidewalks and any neighbors walking by.

“It’s just extremely difficult to teach people about this,” says landscaper Bonnie Reese, whose Casa Linda business, Beautiful Landscapes, specializes in low-maintenance yards, which could include traditional lawn grasses as well as xeriscaping.

One of her projects: Cutting water use at her church. This year, she has watered the church grounds, which includes buffalo and Bermuda grasses, nandinas and hollies, just four times since April. Everything, she says, is vibrant and healthy.

“People just can’t believe that they don’t have to water their lawns so much,” she says. “They don’t have to put hundreds of dollars on their water bill unnecessarily.”

Hence the City’s water conservation ordinance, which prohibits watering in the summer between 10 and 6 on weekdays, punishes excessive runoff and watering when it rains, and requires sprinkler systems to have water sensing devices. Stringer says that the ordinance seems to be working, since peak demand has decreased in the summer over the past several years (although milder and wetter summers may have helped, too, he notes).

The numbers seem to bear this out. Code enforcement inspectors didn’t issue any citations between last October and the beginning of August, and gave just 199 warnings, the lowest total in the three years of the ordinance.

In addition, the City wants to cut per person use by five percent over the next five years, and another 10 percent by 2060. It already reuses 70 percent of indoor water — what goes down the sink and through the washing machine — and is looking at ways to increase that figure (although there is no way currently to re-use outdoor water that isn’t absorbed by plants and grasses).

Also, the City ran a rebate program for sprinkler sensors during the last six months of 2004, which attracted three times as many participants as expected (although it only expected a couple of hundred applicants), and is studying rebate schemes for other water-efficient appliances, audits and rebates for restaurants, additional education programs, and upgrading city facilities. Cedar Crest Golf Course, for example, waters its fairways with recycled water.

Consistent rates

What the City doesn’t want to do is jigger with water rates, says Stringer. For one thing, if Dallas raised water prices, the higher cost might chase business and growth elsewhere. There also isn’t any evidence that higher rates cut use, Easton says.

“You’d probably have to raise the rates so much that people couldn’t afford it,” he says, “and then you’d raise the whole subject of why you’re making something everyone needs to live so expensive.”

Currently, Dallas has a four-tier residential system based on use — one charge for up to 4,000 gallons a month ($1.16 per 1,000 gallons); another for 4,001 to 10,001 gallons ($1.95 per 1,000 gallons); a third for 10,001 to 15,000 ($2.62 per 1,000 gallons); and the highest for more than 15,000 ($3.40 per 1,000 gallons). The goal is to keep water affordable, yet make people who use more pay more.

Still, Dallas’ water rates are not just among the lowest in the state, but in the country. A typical bill, which includes sewer charges and 8,300 gallons a month, is about two-thirds the total of bills in Baltimore, Philadelphia and San Diego.

So, if our water remains reasonably inexpensive, what’s the incentive to use it more efficiently?

Not much, and that may explain why Dallas lags behind other cities in conservation. Flagstaff, Ariz., offers a $500 rebate to homeowners who remove at least 1,500 square feet of grass and replace it with rock or native plants that use less water. Las Vegas, which has increased rates in a three-tier system that targets the highest 20 percent of water users, also offers a $1 a square foot rebate to take out grass and replace it with water-friendly plants.

Finding role models

San Antonio has gone several steps beyond even that. It cut its per person water use from 225 gallons a day in 1982 to 128 in 2004, thanks in part to aggressive conservation initiatives. They include carrots such as free low-flow toilets to any city resident who wants one, $150 rebates for tank-less water heaters, $100 credits for high-tech washing machines, which use half as much water, and $525 landscaping rebates.

But are there also sticks. The city not only has a four-tier residential rate system that charges heavy users four times more (compared to three times more in Dallas) but it enforces its water conservation ordinance with police officers assigned to the water department. All told, San Antonio spends about $5 million annually on conservation, less than the cost of 1 mile of the Lake Fork pipeline.

“What you have to remember is that for the longest time, we weren’t doing anything either,” says Calvin Finch, who directs San Antonio’s water conservation efforts. “But we had an intensive program to enlist our ratepayers to reduce use, and it has worked. And we have done it without reducing the quality of life, and growth and economic development have not been interfered with.”

Still, San Antonio may be a model that’s difficult to duplicate. Much of its water savings came from infrastructure improvements and repairs, and the city was forced to act after a federal lawsuit and state legislation limited its ability to continue to tap the underground Edwards Aquifer, its main source of water, at will. Plus, since there are few rivers to dam in that part of Texas, reservoirs aren’t a feasible option.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned. Fender has a yard; it just doesn’t have lush, green grass. It has native and drought-tolerant plants such as lantana, vitex (also known as the chaste tree), and roses and herbs. She also uses salvia greggii, a semi-evergreen shrub that blooms in a variety of colors, sometimes even in the winter.

“People have a misconception that xeriscaping and using native plants is a bunch of cactus and rocks,” Fender says. “And some are. But not everything is Wiley looking, like Wiley Coyote. And I decided not to have those kinds of native plants.”

Best yet, Fender’s water use is nowhere near that of her neighbors, who have to keep their St. Augustine and Bermuda happy. The total bill, which includes the other charges such as sewage and garbage collection, is never more than $50 a month, even in the middle of summer. That means she is using less than 6,000 gallons a month — or one-third the amount some of her neighbors use just to water the grass, as well as 2,300 gallons a month less than the city says a typical household uses.

Fender doesn’t even own a lawn mower anymore. As she has learned, sometimes giving up one pleasure paves the way for another — and conserves resources in the process.