As the world collectively peers into its magic crystal ball (which totally exists), most observers see a future ridden with serious environmental issues that will be difficult to manage – especially if meaningful action isn’t taken immediately. While many of these threats (like those of climate change) are global in nature, the degree to which different parts of the world are affected will vary. Texas’ future, for example, promises to be very difficult due to an increase in drought conditions coupled with a rapidly growing population – factors that will inevitably lead to a decrease in freshwater resources. Indeed, we are already experiencing difficulty in providing ample water resources to satisfy the state’s residential, commercial, and ecological needs – a fact that emphasizes the importance of water conservation, moving forward. Fortunately, San Antonio (the state’s second largest city) has taken on a leadership role in the state by successfully implementing aggressive water conservation measures through its public water utility, San Antonio Water System (SAWS).
Through a variety of incentives, educational initiatives, restrictions, and water recycling measures, the city manages to use roughly the same amount of water that it used in 1984, despite a 67% increase in population.
Much of this success can be attributed to its incentives for large-scale commercial water users, who represent 50% of the city’s water consumption despite being only 10% of the customer base. These incentives, which foot significant portions of the bill for water-saving retrofits, have been popular for businesses in San Antonio since they provide for high post-installation savings that typically allow businesses to get a quick return on their investment. For example, Frito-Lay’s plant in San Antonio undertook a $1.4 million dollar retrofit in 2003, for which it received a nearly $265,000 rebate; the retrofits also save the company roughly $138,000 per year, which means it likely recouped its investment in 2011. Most importantly, the plant’s retrofits have saved 43 million gallons of water per year and have even helped the company increase potato chip production. Other successful commercial water conservation programs include a rebate program for restaurants that has gotten 40% of San Antonio restaurants to lower their water usage, and a hotel rebate program which seeks to minimize the impact of the city’s bustling tourism industry on water resources.
SAWS has also implemented several impressive residential conservation programs like the Plumbers to People program, which provides free repairs to leaky plumbing for low-income San Antonians. Another effective initiative has been their High-Efficiency Toilet Program, which distributes new low-water toilets to customers with wasteful toilets. Both programs are very cost-effective and are praised for their ability to integrate low-income customers into SAWS’ conservation efforts. Most importantly, however, they save over 3 billion gallons of water per year.
Furthermore, much of the water that the city does use is eventually recycled. After being processed at a water treatment plant, it is commonly used for the irrigation of parks and golf courses, in cooling towers, and in industrial processes. Perhaps the most surprising use of recycled water, however, is for the replenishment of San Antonio’s famed River Walk.
Through these programs, San Antonio has made significant progress in reducing per capita water use from a high of 225 gallons per day in the mid-1980s to a low of 136 gallons per day, with a final goal of 116 gallons per day by 2016. Achieving further reductions in water use will become increasingly difficult, however, since opportunities to pick the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of conservation measures will become less abundant. Regardless, with more time to develop (and aided by progress in technology and policy, as well as phase-outs of water-guzzling coal plants), these programs will go a long way in securing water for San Antonio’s future.
Oh, and, it will surely help to have a mayor that describes water conservation as being “part and parcel of being a San Antonian.”
By Diego Atencio