Originally created 07/09/02

Georgia coordinator faces challenge



ATLANTA - Mary Elfner is creative enough to have dreamed up a giant toilet running the bases during Savannah Sand Gnats home games, promoting water conservation.

But "Les Waters," as the running-toilet costumed character came to be known four years ago after a name-that-toilet fan contest, isn't what got Ms. Elfner hired last spring as Georgia's first water conservation coordinator.

In fact, state Natural Resources Commissioner Lonice Barrett had never heard of the campaign against leaky toilets that Ms. Elfner launched as water-conservation planner for the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission. But it does show a penchant for results that attracted Georgia's chief environmental leader.

"Mary is the type of person who can generate action," Mr. Barrett said. "Water conservation doesn't need to be just a buzzword. It needs to be acted on."

Ms. Elfner, who most recently served as the executive director of the Coastal Georgia Land Trust, began her new job July 1. For now, she's working out of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division's branch office in Savannah. But she will be moving to Atlanta, where her new office will be right next door to that of Allison Keefer, the state's reservoirs coordinator.

"I want to send a message that reservoirs and water conservation have to be on an equal footing," Mr. Barrett said.

That message isn't lost on environmentalists, who have enthusiastically applauded both the decision to hire a conservation coordinator and the choice of Ms. Elfner.

"The state can't formulate any sound water policy without making conservation an issue," said Gail Krueger, spokeswoman for Altamaha Riverkeeper, an organization dedicated to preserving the natural habitat and flow of one of the largest river systems along the East Coast.

"(Ms. Elfner) has done a whole lot to raise the idea of water conservation higher in the public consciousness."

Ms. Elfner will have a difficult task bringing conservation awareness to a state that historically hasn't had to worry about water. Conservation long has been routine in many Western states, and conservation measures are written into state law in Florida.

"I'm sure I'll be calling on a lot of people throughout the country to see what other communities have done," she said.

As the Les Waters campaign shows, toilets have been a frequent target of Ms. Elfner's conservation efforts. She said toilets are by far the biggest consumers of water in the household.

"When they leak, people don't tend to fix them," she said.

When Ms. Elfner was working for the planning commission, she used a state grant to provide free low-flow toilets to anyone who brought in an old toilet for exchange.

Besides encouraging homeowners to install low-flow plumbing fixtures, she would like to see more Georgia water utilities set rates that promote conservation. A summer surcharge on water in Gwinnett County has helped the fast-growing Atlanta suburb hold the line on its water usage at about 85 million gallons a day during the past several years, even as the system's customer base grew by about 5 percent in each of those years.