Water Usage Drops Despite Higher Population In Western U.S. & Mexico

A Northern Arizona University soccer game is played on a field irrigated by reclaimed water.
June 29, 2011

On a typical warm summer day at Flagstaff’s Wheeler Park, couples picnic, the homeless congregate and college students relax.

What they may or may not know is the grass they’re lounging on is kept green by reclaimed waste water – toilet and sewage that is converted into crystal clear water. The reclaimed water is used by parks, golf courses and Northern Arizona University’s athletic fields.

“We save over 42 million gallons of drinking water a year by delivering reclaimed water to these nice grass areas everyone enjoys during the summer time,” said Flagstaff’s water resources manager Brad Hill.

The drinking water supply is limited and it comes from far away. The aquifer that’s fed by the Colorado River is 2,700 feet below the surface.

Water has become scarcer in the last 10 years due to ongoing drought and climate change. So Flagstaff along with almost every other city in the region has implemented several conservation restrictions and incentives.

Flagstaff city officials will tell you when to water your garden. You’re rewarded for native plant landscapes and low flow toilets. And if that’s not enough incentive, your water bill goes up the more water you use.

“Conversely if you use little water we reward you for that too,” Hill said. “You get a price break if you use less than 4,000 gallons per month. If you have a whole lot of lawn or a whole lot of water use you’re going to pay for that.”

Even though Flagstaff has grown 40 percent over the last two decades, the city is pumping less water.

“That is a remarkable achievement despite pretty impressive population growth,” said Michael Cohen, a senior research associate with the California-based Pacific Institute. “And that’s really what needs to happen.”

Cohen authored the study and found that even though cities in the western United States have grown by at least 10 million people over the past two decades – Las Vegas and Tijuana doubled in size -- they’re using less water per capita. Cohen looked at a hundred municipal and regional water authorities to come up with these figures.

Many factors contribute to the drop in consumption. They include increased awareness; federal, state and municipal water restrictions; and even the mortgage foreclosure crisis. In Las Vegas and Phoenix, no one waters the lawns on foreclosed properties.

While Cohen is encouraged by his findings he says per capita efficiency is not enough.

“There’s still a long way to go,” he said. “The trend is in the right direction and people are doing better but that doesn’t mean we’ve achieved all our goals yet.”

The study doesn’t address agriculture use, which still accounts for 70 percent of the demand. Cohen says farmers could use water more efficiently.

The focus of the report was on cities because that’s where the biggest growth in demand appears. Cohen said as more and more people move west, they have to realize there’s less and less water.