Estimates of the costs and benefits of water conservation programs range dramatically. Because communities can choose from a toolbox of methods to reduce water use (from subsidizing low-flow toilets to using escalating rate structures to paying “cash for grass”) and water resource problems vary, sometime dramatically, from place to place, comparing the costs and benefits of various programs can be like comparing apples to oranges. At times, this confusion makes developing the financial case for conservation challenging, particularly when the market often underprices water. (When ecosystem costs and benefits are included in the calculus, there is no question conservation programs should win out.) Yet, there’s at least one clear case in which water conservation is a winner: When communities are faced with decisions to procure new supply.
In my community, local leaders are considering obtaining additional water rights by way of waiving annexation fees for a proposed development in exchange for water rights. The numbers seem a bit off the charts: Waiving all or part of fees for services that might run to $3.5 million in exchange for water rights that are said to provide some 800 AF of water, or what might amount to approximately $4,375 per AF. A study by Western Resource Advocates, entitled Smart Savings: Water Conservation, Measured that Make Cents, shows that based on a survey of a dozen utility-based water conservation programs implemented by western utilities, the costs of conservation for 11 of the 12 utilities ranged from $42 to $577 per AF of water conserved, with one outlier at $5,128 per AF. Water conservation measures ranged from toilet retrofits and rebates to audits and commercial landscaping codes. In my community, a recent USGS study has shown our water use to be off the charts—or some 757 gallons per person per day in the municipal delivery areas. Given that conservation is clearly the low-hanging fruit, and it would cost us one or two orders of magnitude less to conserve that to procure the equivalent volume of new supply, the smart decision seems obvious.