Originally created 07/09/02

Conservation tops state supply plans



ATLANTA - Even the Georgia bureaucrat in charge of water conservation concedes he's not setting the best example.

"When I shave every morning, it's convenient for me to have my water running," said Lonice Barrett, the state's natural resources commissioner and supervisor of Georgia's newly hired conservation coordinator.

"That doesn't sound like much, but you multiply that by millions of places in Georgia, and that's a heck of a lot of water running down the drain. ... We need to change habits."

Conservation represents a cheaper, more environmentally friendly alternative for coping with the growing demand for water in the South, compared to building multimillion-dollar reservoirs and desalinization plants.

Three of the most populous and fastest-growing states in the region - Florida, Texas and North Carolina - have a jump on Georgia.

The regional water-management plans mandated by the Florida Legislature in 1997 call for a variety of conservation measures, and the state's Department of Environmental Protection launched a statewide conservation initiative last spring.

Conservation plays a key role in the state water plans of Texas and North Carolina. Texas planners are counting on conservation to limit the rise in municipal water demand to 67 percent during the next 50 years, despite a projected population increase of 90 percent.

BUT CONSERVATION AS A weapon in the fight to maintain adequate water supplies originated in the West, particularly fast-growing states such as California and Colorado, where water is perennially scarce.

In 1991, water-management districts, water utilities and environmental groups responded to a severe drought by forming the California Urban Water Conservation Council.

Mary Ann Dickinson, the council's executive director, said the goal was to avoid new government regulations by developing voluntary water-conservation measures.

"Some very serious drought-enforcement measures were being considered," she said. "The water districts didn't want to get into that. ... So, all of the parties got together to negotiate demand-reduction practices."

Homeowners are encouraged to do their part. The council's 14-point checklist recommends low-flow plumbing fixtures and landscaping that reduces reliance on watering.

Ms. Dickinson said studies have found that retrofitting homes with low-flow plumbing fixtures reduces water use up to 30 percent.

"We find that most water utilities deliver 50 to 60 percent of their water to residential customers," she said. "If these people can conserve 10 to 25 percent of their water, that's a significant reduction."

In Georgia, which still is working on a statewide water-management plan and only recently hired a conservation coordinator, the only conservation successes to date are occurring at the local level.

WATER PLANNERS HAVE taken note of the campaigns to stamp out smoking and littering with massive advertising and education initiatives in the public schools.

"You don't see people throwing stuff out on the highways like they used to," said Georgia's Mr. Barrett.

While he and others would like to translate those successes to water conservation, being stingy with water isn't an easy sell in Florida, said Barbara Vergara, the director of the St. Johns River Water Management District's Division of Water Supply Management.

"In a state like Florida, where you see so much water, it's difficult to realize the need for conservation," she said.

But Ms. Vergara said the ongoing drought has raised public awareness.

"Dry weather really has helped people focus and pay more attention to what we're saying," she said.

Indeed, water conservation can and is being pursued on a variety of fronts: from education and pricing to plumbing and landscaping. But even its most ardent supporters don't see it as a panacea.

Planners in charge of the supply side of the equation will continue exploring new ways of increasing the amount of water available to a growing population.

But, when approached aggressively, conservation can make that search a little less urgent.

The problem, however, won't disappear with the drought's end.

"Water conservation's going to buy us some time," said Allison Keefer, Georgia's reservoirs coordinator, a title that doesn't fully describe her role as point person for the full gamut of the state's water-supply planning.

"We can put off some of these problems 10 years down the road with these efforts. But 10 years isn't a long time."

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.