Conservation Helped Avoid Tighter Water Limits

July 19, 2002

Water restrictions brought on by drought have resulted in many an American lawn turning brown this summer. But many experts believe it could have been much worse.

As Traci Watson recently reported in USA TODAY, federal statistics show that the amount of water taken from streams, lakes and other sources for each person has been falling since the early 1980s. In 1980, an average of nearly 2,000 gallons was collected for use per person. By 1995, it was only 1,510 gallons.

Without that decline, the current dry spell, affecting 30 states, might have prompted even tighter water restrictions, including limits on construction and renovations.

''Our population is growing, and our use of water is really not changing up or down,'' says Robert Hirsch, head of hydrology at the U.S. Geological Survey. ''We're kind of at a steady state.''

Much of the credit for lower water use goes to farmers and factories, experts say.

Farmers have either quit irrigating their fields or switched to more efficient irrigation methods. Factories, barred by the Clean Water Act of 1972 from dumping large quantities of dirty wastewater, have retooled their operations to recycle more water.

Credit also goes to consumers. Among changes cited by experts:

• The use of low-flow toilets, faucets and showerheads. In New York City, for example, toilet replacements in the mid-1990s saved 70 million to 90 million gallons of water a day.

• Meter installation. Many older houses and apartment buildings in the USA still have no water meters. But the proportion of unmetered homes has slowly dropped. Adding a meter is a sure way to reduce a household's water use. A meter allows a company to charge for water by the gallon rather than simply collecting a flat fee.

• Rate increases. By one rough estimate, the price of water from public supplies rose from an average of $1.73 per thousand gallons in 1981 to $2.60 per thousand gallons in 1999 dollars.

• Conservation. Cities throughout the country, but particularly in the West, actively promote efforts to save water and now offer rebates for water-efficient washing machines, replacement of lawns with trees and free ''leak audits.''

The results of these conservation programs can be significant.

In Austin, which has aggressively encouraged residents to watch their water use, per-capita water consumption fell 24% in 16 years, from 221 gallons per person per day in 1984 to 168 in 2000. That's the latest year for which data are available.

In Los Angeles, the population grew by nearly 1 million between 1970 and 1998, yet water use in that period remained flat.

Deborah Lumia of the geological survey suspects that the nation's per-capita use numbers for 2000, which will be released next year, won't be so rosy.

The economy was relatively strong that year, and ''as the economy rises, water use rises,'' Lumia says.

''People tend to use more dishwashers and hot tubs and wash the car more often and have bigger yards, and these kinds of things are eventually going to show up in the data,'' she says.

Federal statistics on the average usage in 2000 will be released next year, officials said.