In many arid regions of the United States, access to water can mean the difference between a livable community and a desert. While many Midwestern communities have benefited from large-scale dam and irrigation projects, city officials are recognizing the need to conserve water more aggressively.
For over a century, the immense Edwards Aquifer has supplied San Antonio with pure spring water, keeping costs low for all city residents. However, the city's massive growth over the past few decades has severely strained this resource. By 1992, local government began to realize that their system for managing water use was insufficient to handle the increased demand. Combining two existing water utilities and one city department, the city created the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) as a centralized source for both water supply and conservation efforts, with a focus on community-wide education and infrastructure improvement.
The reorganized SAWS administers a wide variety of programs to reduce water use, from free high-efficiency toilet distribution, landscaping changes, industrial retrofits, enforcement of water waste laws, and educational opportunities.
One program, known as "Plumbers to People," provides leak repair for low-income citizens, resulting in huge water savings among a population often unable to pay for a plumber. Another SAWS initiative, the Seasonal Irrigation Program (SIP), originated because of a 1998 research project. The project tested the effects of sending out a weekly e-mail to 4,000 homeowners, which offered advice on ways to conserve water while tending their gardens. The study found that the information in the e-mails led to a savings of 36 million gallons of water each year. SIP continues such educational efforts while proactively identifying additional sources of wasted water.
In the case of water conservation, a penny saved is worth far more than a penny earned; the cost of saving one million gallons of water through direct programs, tax incentives, and rebates is around $285, compared to a cost of $3130 per million gallons to secure new supplies of water. This estimate does not even include the environmental costs associated with increased water consumption and the associated rise in energy use.
Based on predicted consumption trends from before the start of the program, SAWS has saved a total of 175.5 billion gallons of water, as of 1997. The majority of SAWS programs were established in 1993, with a per person water use reduction goal of 12 percent by 2008. The city reached this goal in 2001, and had hit a 20 percent reduction by 2003, despite a 28 percent population increase. In a matter of years, San Antonio has gone from being a cautionary tale of rampant water use, to a model of resource responsibility.