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Water Works, 3: The conservation conversation

Let it flow Credit: Credit: Ed Devereaux

Seattle was among the first major American cities to accept that it had hit the limit. The Emerald City taps a clear mountain river called the Cedar, and a smaller river, the Tolt, to quench the thirst of 1.4 million urbanites and corporate giants from Amazon to Microsoft.

The Cedar River begins in the cloud-laced foothills of the Cascade Range, flows forty-five miles south to Seattle’s iconic Lake Washington, and ultimately to Puget Sound. Seattle’s leaders had the foresight to begin buying up the river’s watershed for drinking water in the late 1800s; over a century, they’d preserved more than 90,000 acres. At the upper reaches of the watershed, snowpack collects in winter, then fills the city’s reservoirs for the dry summer. At the lower end, the Landsburg Dam diverts the river for drinking water.

Beginning in the 1960s, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) offcials were convinced the system could not meet the demands of a fast-growing population that, like most of America, used water as if it were abundant as air. While many cities faced one water anxiety or another — dwindling supply, looming infrastructure costs, flooding, sewage and stormwater overflows — Seattle, its original waterworks so old they had been built with wooden stave pipes, faced all of those and more.

Snowcapped Cascades above Kenmore, Credit: AR McLin/Flickr

Managing water is a delicate balance. Hoarding too much can unleash floods. Storing too little can mean shortages. In winter 1991–92, SPU spilled off its reservoirs to guard against springtime floods. But spring rains were paltry. By summer, drought bore down. Across the West, wildfires burned hundreds of thousands of acres. The Cedar River shrank, and the water quality plummeted too. The utility, which had never done more than filter and fluoridate its pristine supply, now planned a multi-million-dollar ozone-purification plant to get its customers through future droughts. Longterm, it planned to spend $180 million for a project to siphon the north fork of the Tolt River for additional supply.

To deal with the emergency at hand, SPU banned lawn watering for the entire summer. At first, losing their lawns did not sit well with residents, who each indulged in about 150 gallons of water a day through the 1980s (today’s average, roughly, for most Americans). The city is surrounded by water. With the illusion of abundance in panoramic view — lakes Washington and Union, and Puget Sound — Seattleites saw little harm in cranking the sprinklers before they left for work. But soon “people started figuring out the laws of surviving drought,” says 20-year employee Ralph Naess, SPU’s director of watershed education. “A: You don’t need the water. B: You don’t have to pay for the water. And C: Everyone else has a brown lawn too.”

The drought showed residents they could live with much less. But it was the region’s flashing silver amulet — the salmon that swim through culture as much as nature in the Pacific Northwest — that convinced them why they should. While sewage and stormwater were killing salmon in the streams, the drinking water side of the equation had choked off the fishes’ migration up the Cedar River. Through the 1990s, the plight of the river’s Chinook — the lunkers among Pacific salmon — gained urgency in the public’s awareness thanks to wildlife advocates, including the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, leading to a “threatened” listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Over the decade, Seattle’s water use dropped even as its population climbed. As conservation caught on, the utility delayed plans for the new drinking-water project on the Tolt, as well as the ozone plant. SPU structured its water rates so that heavy summertime wasters paid more. New plumbing codes required efficient toilets and faucets in all construction. Incentive programs rebated hundreds of thousands of residents and business owners who switched out wasteful old plumbing. Public education put saving water on par with recycling.

The water industry had always viewed conservation as an emergency stopgap during drought. But now, Seattle and other cities, including San Antonio and Tucson, were proving the numbers could be huge. Conservation was the cheapest, most ecologically sound source of new water, and could supplant costlier infrastructure. Seattle residents’ daily Big Gulp has dropped steadily each decade, from a per-person high of 169 gallons in 1979 to 92 gallons today.

A more profound shift has come in recent years, as the mentality of saving water gives way to living differently with water. Rather than irrigate less, increasing numbers of residents don’t irrigate at all, or they rely on cisterns. Rather than cut back on the potable water flushed down toilets and churned in washing machines, more homes collect rain for those uses.

Challenging century-old engineering traditions grounded in public health and safety was not easy. In 1998, when the Vine Street organizers presented their 50-page plans to the city, the buildings, streets and utility departments were highly skeptical. But over the years, as the culture of city government changed, the project amassed 15 grants totaling $3 million to re-engineer Vine Street.

Today, green infrastructure is a centerpiece of city water policy and championed by institutions as varied as Washington State University and the Boeing Charitable Trust. In 2011, WSU Extension and the nonprofit Stewardship Partners, along with dozens of other public, nonprofit and private partners launched a campaign to install 12,000 rain gardens throughout the metro area. The Seattle Housing Authority has tackled the biggest green infrastructure project to date, building miles of pollution-soaking swales and other ecological filters through the largest public housing development in the city.

The private market has followed.

On the sprawling Eastside of Seattle, in Issaquah, a new multifamily project called zHome sets out to prove market-rate developments can be carbon- and energy-neutral. The collaboration between a local builder and one of the largest home builders in Japan also shows how little potable water it takes to live in high style.

The EPA certifies new homes for their “WaterSense” if they use 20 percent less than a typical new home. The zHomes use 70 percent less. Tucked behind each townhouse is a cistern to capture rainwater for flushing toilets and washing clothes. Outside, the pervious parking lot draws rainwater into the ground rather than sending it to storm gutters. Landscaping is sod-free and inspiring, with rain gardens and drought-tolerant plants that need no irrigation.

No one claims the region will never need another major drinking-water project. A dozen years ago, five cities including Issaquah and two smaller water and sewer departments broke away from SPU to form their own water utility and give themselves some independence should the region endure another water crisis — or a climate-change wildcard, such as an influx of environmental refugees.

Cascade Water Alliance still buys its water from Seattle. But the upstart utility has also purchased a future water source and water rights at Lake Tapps, a former hydroelectric project in the shadow of Mount Rainier. No pipelines are imminent. Cascade, Seattle and nearby Tacoma have signed agreements that no one will develop new sources “until we’ve maximized every last molecule,” says Cascade CEO Chuck Clarke. It is entirely possible, he adds, that will never happen.

Tomorrow: Smart planning for the future.

This four-part series on urban water use appears courtesy of and in partnership with Orion magazine's two-year series, Reimagining Infrastructure. Check out Orion's free trial issue program. Cedar River photo courtesy of Flickr user rmblack.

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