Worst Western Drought in 108 Years
Citizens Rethink Water Use, Conservation as Utilities Implement Tough Surcharges and Restrictions
Water utilities in cities throughout the drought-stricken American west are implementing and enforcing tough and costly spring and summer water conservation measures according to a sampling of drought response plans conducted by the American Water Works Association (AWWA). According to a sampling of western utilities’ drought response plans conducted by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) citizens are faced with tough and costly spring and summer water conservation measures ‘ all designed to save millions of gallons of water.
While historically water utilities have promoted water conservation in a variety of ways, the new policies and restrictions are attempting to persuade citizens to change their water use behavior. According to AWWA's sampling, water utilities are enforcing strict water restrictions and charging steep water use surcharges as well as fines against those who blatantly waste water. Many have enacted grass, garden and tree planting moratoriums. Some are enforcing lawn watering and car washing bans, while others have leveled prohibitions on hotel laundry. In other cities, restaurants are forbidden to automatically serve diners a glass of water with their meal.
The unprecedented drought that has left much of the American west high and dry and citizens, who used to take what seemed like an unlimited water supply for granted, are now being forced to rethink how they use and conserve water.
Established in 1881, AWWA is the oldest and largest nonprofit scientific and educational organization dedicated to safe drinking water in North America. AWWA has over 56,000 members worldwide and its more than 4,600 utility members serve 80 percent of America’s population. For more information on drought statistics throughout the country and comprehensive information on water conservation, go to www.awwa.org.
The American west is faced with one of the worst droughts in the last 108 years. According to the National Weather Service, increased precipitation by late winter (February and March) may not have arrived in time to make a significant dent in these conditions.
In 2002, Colorado measured its driest calendar in 108 years and is now entering its fifth summer of extreme drought conditions. In addition to scarce water, the state is again faced with the possibility of the devastating forest fires experienced last year. Nebraska, Wyoming, and Nevada also recorded their third driest year.
Although recent rain and snow have improved drought conditions in parts of the West, this winter’s precipitation totals have done little to ease the drought, as snow pack has been below normal in every western state and reservoirs have reached record lows in those locations. ‘These necessary water restrictions are a critical reminder that water is one of our most important and valued natural resources,’ said Jack Hoffbuhr, executive director of AWWA. ‘No longer can citizens expect lush lawns and cheap access to an unlimited supply of water. The message utilities are sending to their customers is use water more efficiently, conserve where you can and approach your day-to-day water use with a clearer understanding of the water-shortage created by the drought.’
AWWA’s sampling of various community water utilities throughout the west identified several common drought restrictions.
* Throughout the west, higher rates in the form of conservation surcharges are being used as incentives for citizens to conserve water.
* Most utilities are involved in massive public education campaigns to teach consumers basic water conservation tips for around the home. Next month, 11 Colorado Front Range utilities will roll out a $600,000 joint advertising campaign to remind customers there’s still a drought and they must do their part to ease it. Simple steps, such as repairing leaky faucets, turning off the water during tooth brushing or shaving and other common sense measures collectively make a big difference. Utility websites have been updated with water conservation tips and water bill inserts to remind water customers about conservation tips and new restrictions.
* Most communities have implemented strict lawn watering schedules and, in some cases, have completely banned lawn watering. Many have restricted home car washing or passed prohibitions on using the hose to clean driveways, sidewalks and decks. Other communities have put a ban on filling swimming pools or spas.
* Some cities will not allow restaurants to offer water to diners unless specifically asked, while some are restricting hotels from laundering bed sheets of guests that stay more than one night.
* Others are offering rebates to consumers who purchase water efficient appliances such as washing machines, low flow toilets and water saving dishwashers. Denver Water is handing out buckets to capture run-off shower water and timers to encourage shorter showers.
* Some cities have been forced to close or limit the usage of recreation fields due to lack of water while other cities are updating to state-of-the art, computer controlled sprinkler systems to efficiently water parks and ball fields with minimum amounts of water.
* Most utilities have beefed up water patrols by cruising neighborhoods and monitoring meters. Water wasting scofflaws who violate drought restrictions might pay fines from $50 - $1,000 with funds going to water conservation programs or forest fire prevention programs.
* As an alternative to lush, water-thirsty Kentucky bluegrass lawns, most utilities are encouraging homeowners to create beautiful xeriscape gardens with drought-tolerant plants and foliage.
The West Tackles the Drought
Below are specific examples of how several western cities are managing water conservation during the worst drought in 108 years. For more information and research materials related to the science of drought as well as conservation tips and water usage statistics, go to
In Aurora, Colorado the city’s reservoir system is at 26 percent of capacity. Once snowmelt begins and water returns to the reservoirs, Aurora’s system is expected to fill to just 50 percent of capacity.
No new lawn permits have been issued since Aug. 30, 2002 and new lawns will not be allowed (sod and seed) in 2003. Planting of trees and shrubs is prohibited but the planting of xeriscape plants, vegetables and flowers is allowed. Lawn watering is limited to two days per week, for a maximum of one hour per watering day but is prohibited from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Water customers are encouraged to hand water trees and shrubs but the hose must have a spray nozzle or deep-root watering mechanism attached. This type of watering must be monitored so that waste does not occur.
Privately owned residential pools may not be filled. Restaurants are required to serve water only upon request. Hotels and motels are required to display water conservation materials provided by the City of Aurora that give patrons the choice of having linens changed less frequently.
Those violating water restrictions net initial warnings, with charges of $100, $250 and $500 for subsequent violations. The Aurora City Council might increase the fines later this month.
The Aurora Utilities Department is selling 1,000 personal water meters to customers that are available at a discounted rate of $7.50. The meters normally cost twice that and are not widely available in retail stores.
In Cheyenne, Wyoming, water storage levels dipped nearly 50 percent from last year.
In addition to a drought surcharge, the Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities imposed a 17-point water use restriction plan for this summer which hopes to reduce water consumption by 25 percent to 35 percent.
The restrictions would limit lawn and turf watering to just two days a week and only for a maximum of two hours on those days. Watering would be banned between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. each day.
The restriction also put a total ban on lawn watering from October through April. The plan implements a strict prohibition on washing hard surfaces, such as sidewalks, driveways, and parking lots. Violators would receive a warning for first time offenses, a $300 fine on a second, and a $500 fine on third or future violations. Restaurants will only serve water if asked, and lodging establishments will offer guests the option of not changing linen or towels if they are staying more than one night.
The Mile High City is high and dry. Denver Water’s water storage reservoirs are just above 40 percent full, half the normal average at this time of year. Despite one of the state’s worst snowstorms on record in late March, for the sixth year in a row, Colorado’s snowpack - a key predictor of new drinking water supplies - failed to reach average levels by April 1, registering only 94 percent. About 80 percent of Colorado’s annual water supply is derived from snowpack runoff. The runoff helps cities determine how much new water they are likely to collect every year. It will also help determine how much, if any, outside watering to allow this summer.
Denver Water adopted additional temporary charges to encourage customers to use less water during the spring and summer months of the drought. For residential customers, surcharges will kick in after the customer uses more than 18,000 gallons in two months. The initial surcharge will be 80 cents per 1,000 gallons, rising to $11.85 per 1,000 gallons for customers who use more than 61,000 gallons of water in two months. Large commercial users and industrial customers would face similar surcharges. In addition to water surcharges, the following restrictions were enacted this past Wednesday April 16, 2003.
Lawn watering is permitted on two assigned days per-week for 15 minutes for each irrigation zone (or sprinkler head placement) up to a limit of eight zones. Watering on Monday is prohibited and there will be no watering between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.
New seed and sod may be watered only on watering days for 15 minutes per zone and trees and shrubs may be watered by with a hand-held hose with a shut-off valve or low-volume non-spray irrigation on assigned watering days but not between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Fountains, waterfalls and ponds may not be operated if water is sprayed or shoots into the air. Personal vehicles may be washed at the owner’s home on the designated watering day only with a bucket or a hose equipped with a positive shut-off nozzle but not between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., and not on Mondays. Washing driveways and sidewalks is prohibited except for health or safety
According to Denver Water, the average household uses 32,000 gallons every two months in summer. By following watering restrictions this summer, that household should be able to cut its use to 22,000 gallons every two months. If so, the house will exceed the 18,000 limit by 4,000 gallons, but its overall bill will drop.
The plan aims to reduce water consumption by 30 percent. The surcharges will remain in effect until reservoirs reach at least 80 percent capacity.
El Paso, Texas
In El Paso, new water restrictions allow outdoor watering for only two hours, one day a week, before 9 a.m. and after 7 p.m. Watering days are determined by the last number of the street address.
Upon a second violation of the Drought and Water Emergency Management Response Plan, the General Manager may order the installation of a restriction device or downsizing of the water meter at the customer’s cost.
Outdoor watering with a permanent drip irrigation system, sub-surface irrigation or reclaimed water is exempt.
Routine fire hydrant flushing and testing shall be curtailed.
No new landscaping may be installed or planted. Using a bucket to water trees, shrubs and flowers is permitted.
Existing swimming pools cannot be drained and refilled after April 1st. Single-family residential swimming pools must be covered when not in use. Additionally, pools can be topped off to replace water loss by evaporation.
Las Vegas, Nevada
In Las Vegas, Nevada, Lake Mead is fed by the Colorado River, the source of southern Nevada’s drinking water. The lake has dropped 60 feet in the past two years, to its lowest level since 1972. And last year, for the first time, Las Vegas exceeded its 300,000-acre-feet allotment from the Colorado River, years before water officials expected that to happen. The valley will likely have to tap into groundwater reserves before the end of the year.
As a result, the water utility has put the City under a "drought watch" in which homeowners and resorts are assigned specific days when they are allowed to use water. Front yards of new homes won’t be able to have grass in a drought alert. In order to meet new watering restrictions next year, many Las Vegas golf courses will have to either take out some of their turf or let the grass turn brown.
Lincoln’s University of Nebraska National Drought Mitigation Center offers the nation measures to help reduce societal impact of drought. Nebraska lost $1.2 billion last year in drought-related damages alone and almost one-in-five community water supplies are down to one well.
As farmers in Nebraska worry about another drought, they are expected to receive approximately $260 million from a $3.1 billion federal aid package passed by Congress this February. Farmers who can afford the latest in irrigation technology will find up to 90-95% of irrigation water to be used for biomass production.
Despite recent rain and snow that will delay the fire season by a month, the drought season has hit Arizona hard.
The city of Phoenix expects to save over 166 million gallons of water during this season by several innovative solutions. The Parks and Recreation Department delayed planting and purposefully "under-seeded" golf-course fairways this past winter in anticipation of water restrictions. City officials have ordered the shutting off of fountains and misting systems and have begun to install more efficient plumbing fixtures. Additionally, city officials are urging residents to step up efforts to find and repair leaks and start using only drought-tolerant plants when replacing shrubs and trees.
San Diego, California
San Diego has turned seaward to fight annual drought problems and has begun the development, along with 12 other planned California communities, of a seawater desalination plant to battle the yearly droughts.
Short-term requests of residents include washing vehicles with:
- a hand-held hose with positive shut-off nozzle and bucket
- water saved from indoor use
- a commercial car wash that recycles its wash water
Residents living on a canyon or near an open space are asked to plant fire-resistant shrubbery, which typically require very little water. They may also direct the water drain line from evaporative air conditioners to a flowerbed, tree base or lawn.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
In Santa Fe New Mexico, residents face even stricter surcharges: $15 per 1000 gallons for usage above 10,000 gallons per month, $25 per 1000 gallons for usage above 20,000 gallons per month and commercial businesses face a $2 per 1000 gallons surcharge on all usage.
Salt Lake City, Utah
In Salt Lake City, if you spray, you pay. Residents who do not conserve could face up to $30 more a month in water fees than their neighbors. As Utah heads into the fifth year of a drought, administrators have proposed a six-tiered drought response plan to ease the burdens on the city’s resources.
As the city moves into the xeriscape trend from its traditions of green landscaping, residents of the nation’s second most arid state are learning to adapt to changes in weather patterns and city law.