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Texas Cracks Whip on Water Wasters

Months of drought force tough policies and improved conservation ethos.

The crime scene is an apartment complex. The offense is watering lawns on a no-watering day. The evidence is the glistening grass and puddles in the street.

Mack Chambers and Joel Perez step out of their purple Pontiac and swing into action.

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"We're with the water patrol," Mr. Chambers grins, greeting the building manager in the office of the apartment complex. "You're busted." The fake tough-guy tactic works. The manager giggles and promises to reset the timers for the sprinklers. She even offers Toll House cookies.

Faced with dwindling water supplies during what may become the toughest drought in nearly 20 years, San Antonio and dozens of cities across the region are employing a creative mix of carrot-and-stick incentives to reduce water consumption. In the process, they are developing a new ethos in managing water resources and providing what experts call a model for other Western states.

"Texas has ... recognized the problem early on and devoted resources to solve it," says Alice Darilek, head of water conservation for the New Mexico state engineer's office in Santa Fe.

While Texas and Oklahoma have borne the brunt of this year's four-month-and-counting drought, all Western states face a common dilemma: They must attract new businesses and residents in order to prosper, but they must also bring growing water consumption under control to keep their reservoirs and aquifers from drying up.

"With the state population expected to double in the next 20 years, we're going to need more water resources, both reservoirs and groundwater," says Joe Beal, director of the Lower Colorado River Authority, which manages a string of hydroelectric dams in central Texas. Some aquifers are being depleted faster than they can be replenished, he adds, putting many communities at risk during a long dry spell, such as the seven-year drought that gripped Texas from 1950 to '57. "If we have a drought like the '50s, we're in a world of hurt."

To be sure, most Western states recognize water as their chief long-term issue, but Texas has gone the furthest by passing a new law that requires each city to plan for future water needs, according to local conditions.

Called Senate Bill 1, or SB1 for short, the 1997 law requires each community to develop long-term water supplies well into the next century, plan for droughts, and encourage conservation.

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"I think SB1 is a giant step forward, putting us ahead of other states," says John Baker, commissioner of the Texas Natural Resource and Conservation Commission in Austin. It also avoids the top-down, Austin-knows-best approach to governance, he adds.

Conserve and recycle

Ultimately, experts say, the only way to meet future water demand is to build more reservoirs, tap more aquifers, and recycle waste water for non-drinking purposes, such as watering golf courses. In this game, Dallas is far ahead, with nearly a 50-year water supply. Brownsville, by contrast, is projected to run out of water in 10 years.

When it comes to conservation, however, there are a variety of solutions in Texas:

* In El Paso, water rates are generally so high that few landowners plant thirsty green lawns. Water consumption, as a result, is much lower per capita than in other Texas cities.

* In Amarillo, where the reservoirs are at a 10-year low, farmers are being encouraged to use farming techniques that leave more moisture in the ground.

* In Brownsville, on the Rio Grande, watering schedules - with even-numbered street addresses watering on even-numbered dates - are still voluntary, But if water levels in the local reservoirs drop significantly from their current low levels, rationing will occur. Restaurants won't be allowed to give ice water unless the customer requests it.

* In Mesquite, a Dallas suburb, voluntary water conservation was abandoned for mandatory rationing, because people only seemed to be watering their lawns more in preparation for a cutoff.

Experts say the solution is to price water like a precious commodity. "In the 1970s, when [Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] discovered basic economics, that they could raise the price of oil as high as they wanted, we started conserving," says Kary Mathis, director of the International Center for Arid and Semiarid Land Studies at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

Here in San Antonio, the water situation is particularly grave. With a population of 1 million and growing, the city has just about reached the limit of how much water it can draw from the Edwards Aquifer, the city's primary source of water.

In the long-term, city officials expect to purchase the right to draw from Canyon Lake, some 50 miles to the north. But for now, it must conserve what it has.

To do this, San Antonio has doubled the size of its water patrol and given its members broader police-like powers.

Shame game

In teams of two, the field inspectors scour the city for wasted water, leaking pipes, and bursting mains. The effort has saved the city millions of dollars this summer alone, and put a fair number of water wastrels on notice.

Even the local newspaper, the San Antonio Express News, has gotten into the shame game, printing lists of the city's biggest water users, including country singer George Strait and basketball star David Robinson.

Of course, Chambers and Mr. Perez don't tend to run into such famous offenders. Their usual suspects are more likely to be office-building managers and house-proud gardeners. But there was that now-infamous elderly lady with the hose.

"That lady had an attitude," recalls Chambers. "I could have stayed there all night and she wouldn't put that hose down."

Some customers think a green lawn is a constitutional right. But Perez says that most San Antonioans support water conservation. "People here are pretty water conscious.... They know we all need to do our part to help out."

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