Waste it to save your community

Essay by Ed Quillen

Water – July 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

IN THE REST of the temperate world, “spring” means a season of blossoms, greenery and gentle showers. Here in the mountains, it means wind or blistering heat alternating with blizzards — often within the hour, accompanied by landslips and rockslides.

Throw in the emergence of blood-sucking woodticks, the pungent aroma of a yard thawing after a winter of dog deposits and the discovery of mule-deer hoof prints where your crocuses should be, and it’s easy to see why all mountain-dwellers with money decamp to Mexico for what they call “Mud Season.” But in recent years, there has been one certain sign of spring: the vernal notice from your city utility department concerning water usage.

The notice explains the decreed days and hours for watering lawns, warning of stiff fines for violators. It will also explain that watering sidewalks or streets is forbidden.

After that comes some propaganda about the importance of water-saving toilets, low-flow shower heads and underground sprinkler systems that conserve water.

At first, I was susceptible to these messages. Our traditional lore has it that water is the lifeblood of the American West, and that it’s a limited resource. Environmentalists point out that if we use less water then we won’t have to dam more rivers and dewater remote valleys; and with water conservation, the electrical production of coal-fueled power plants won’t be needed to pump water and global warming.

Then doubts began to creep in, though. An article in a regional gardening magazine cited studies performed by the Denver Water Board. The average bluegrass lawn, irrigated by the old-fashioned hose with sprinklers, gets 31 inches of water each summer. The lawn with sophisticated plumbing and cute pop-up sprinkler heads gets 39 inches.

Low-flow shower heads often mean longer showers and no net water savings, and those modern minimal-flush toilets, in my limited experience anyway, generally take three or four flushes to do the job, which means they use more water than the old-fashioned big-tank water-wasters.

Granted, water-saving technology will probably improve. And it is theoretically possible to rip out the bluegrass and replace it with an attractive xeriscape. But once the skepticism starts, it’s hard to stop. The message is “save water.” But they never say why.

There’s a good reason they don’t. My town begs its citizens to conserve water so we can get through the summer. But if they’re so short of water for us, why can they always find enough water to extend service to the new Wal-Mart?

Where does the city find water for all these new franchise motels and drive-ins when they’re telling us there isn’t enough water for our phreatophytic lilac bushes and cottonwood trees?

And those subdivisions that spread like toadflax? How does the city find water to serve them when they want the rest of us to limit our consumption?

The answer is obvious. The city wants us to save water so that the city will have more to sell to accommodate growth. The more water we save, the more big-box stores to destroy our ma-and-pa downtown shops, the more waferboard motels promoting industrial tourism, the more minimum-wage burger-flipper jobs, the more three-car-garages on a cul-de-sac that was wholesome sagebrush last summer.

That’s what water conservation brings. People concerned about their small-town quality of life ought to bear this in mind, and launch a campaign to advocate water wastage: oppose meters, promote irrigated sidewalks, and encourage thirsty bluegrass lawns.

This sounds extreme. But consider the other options. Zoning laws can be beaten with money and lawsuits, as can comprehensive master plans, growth limits and every other trick that has been tried.

Wasting water, on the other hand, is as simple as turning a faucet on and leaving it that way, or being too lazy to fix that leaking toilet. No laws, no lawyers, no hearings, no money — just plain old American sloth.

Wanton water wastage is the only good tool we peons have in this battle, and we’d better use it. But at the very least, when you get the annual message telling you to save water, call your mayor and ask “Why?”

Ed Quillen is a regular contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colorado, the co-publisher of this magazine, and the author of the newly released book, Deep in the Heart of the Rockies.