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Cities Flush Out New Tactics To Conserve Water Supplies

EVERY day, millions of gallons of valuable drinking water are wasted in the US. Whether through leaky pipes, faulty toilets, or automatic sprinkler systems that operate during rainstorms, utilities are finding they cannot afford to let usable water go down the drain.

Cities from Boston to Los Angeles are finding it cheaper to encourage citizens to conserve water than to find new supplies or build new treatment plants.

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Nowhere is the water-conservation ethic taking hold more than in the flint-dry Southwest, where rapid population growth and dwindling water supplies are forcing authorities to look at everything from the plants people grow to the toilets they flush.

``Conservation is no longer viewed as just a good idea or good public relations,'' says Gary Woodard of the Water Resources Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson. ``It's now viewed as a serious part of solving water-supply problems.''

City officials in El Paso, Texas, expect it to exhaust its ground-water supply within 25 years. The city recently purchased a large ranch 150 miles to the east for the sole purpose of pumping its ground water to city residents. The pipeline alone will cost tens of millions of dollars.

``If water is not conserved, we will be forced to use alternate sources, which means we will be forced to pay four to six times as much for our water,'' says Donna Britton of the El Paso Water Utility. The agency began enforcing strict outdoor watering rules in 1991. From April to September, city residents are prohibited from watering from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Violators face fines up to $500.

In Austin, Texas, the city provides free water audits. In Phoenix, city agencies pay homeowners to replace their lawn with native plants.

Across the sunbelt, cities are promoting xeriscaping, which employs low-water-use plants instead of turf grass. Several cities in Florida and Arizona sponsor workshops and give awards to homes with the best xeriscape designs.

In the cooler, wetter, but more populated Northeast, the Boston area is a pioneer in system-wide water conservation. In 1987, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority spent $10 million retrofitting industrial and commercial users. The MWRA also installs faucet aerators, low-flow showerheads, and water-displacement devices in toilets at no charge.

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``We decided we weren't going to build a new supply, we were going to reduce demand,'' explains MWRA's Stephen Estes-Smargiassi. ``We looked at the system from the reservoir to the tap.'' Mr. Estes-Smargiassi says leakage alone was wasting 35 million gallons of water per day. Since 1988, the agency's water consumption has dropped by about 20 percent.

Cities are also replacing toilets, which account for up to 40 percent of all residential water use. Old toilets use five to seven gallons per flush. New models use 1.6 gallons. Utilities in Tucson, Phoenix, El Paso, and Los Angeles are paying customers up to $100 for each toilet they replace.

Los Angeles has the biggest such program in the US. About 750,000 toilets have been replaced since 1989 at a cost of $100 million, saving enough water to supply 60,000 households.

But Los Angeles may soon be eclipsed by New York City. In August, the city launched a three-year campaign to replace 1.3 million toilets. Residents are paid up to $240 to jettison an old commode.

Warren Liebold of New York City's Department of Environmental Protection says the program will cost $240 million. But he says, ``Our avoided costs are two to three times that.''

The new demand has toilet manufacturers overflowing with orders. ``We are running over capacity,'' says Lee Wingert, an employee of Universal-Rundle's factory in Hondo, Texas. ``We're way behind as far as demand is concerned.''

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