Water consumption in Cortez has decreased 38.5 percent since 1990, but for Public Works Director Phil Johnson, that’s still too high.
A consumer uses about 200 gallons of water each day, down from 325 gallons in 1990, but an update to the city’s water conservation plan, last revised in 2010, aims to cut per capita water use to 180 gallons a day. The Cortez City Council will conduct a public hearing and take a final vote to adopt the water conservation plan at its regular meeting on Nov. 13 at 7:30 p.m.
Johnson said he would like to reach that 180-gallon goal in a couple of years — and then continue the downward trend.
“I would say that we need to get much lower than 180, especially given our current situation with our changing environment, the reduced snowpack levels, etc.,” Johnson said.
He said he is concerned with the long-term impacts 50 to 100 years from now. As Cortez, like much of the arid Southwest, is married to snowpack, there won’t be many opportunities to suddenly add water to the system.
“The reason I want to save water is so people can adjust and adapt their lifestyle to using less water ... because when our water supply is not what it is now — it’s less — our quality of life will not be impacted as greatly because we’re able to live within our means,” Johnson said.
Reducing water use isn’t easy. Johnson said Cortez will have to provide help and education to get there.
The draft plan details conservation goals and water-saving measures. In addition to a reduction in per person per day water use, the plan calls for full metering of all users in the Cortez system, a reduction in water loss and completion of a drought contingency plan.
Water-saving measures include a rebate program for water-efficient appliances like low-flow toilets and front-loading washing machines as well as encouragement of landscape efficiency, industrial efficiency and water reuse systems.
Johnson said reducing outdoor water use would provide the most benefits. He said the Public Works Department is training its employees to offer residents a water auditing service.
“A lot of people just overwater,” Johnson said. “They think the grass needs a lot more water than it really does, and so we want to provide an audit where we can go out there and measure and talk to them.”
In the experience of Vic Vanik, owner of Four Seasons Greenhouse and Nursery, persuading people to reduce outdoor water consumption is much easier during a drought than it is during a good water year.
“It’s kind of a shame, but people don’t really think there’s a problem with drought until the drought is here,” Vanik said.
He said he’s seen an uptick over the past few months in customers looking for drought-tolerant plants. But those plants need a year to become established, so planting drought-tolerant plants during a drought is too late.
“If we continue the drought next year, there will be a lot interest, no doubt about it,” Vanik said. “If we have a wet winter, people forget all about the fact that we’re in a drought area.”
To discourage wasteful outdoor water use, Johnson said Cortez since 2004 has imposed a restriction on watering during the heat of the day, between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., from May 15 to Sept. 15. But the city’s water rate structure does not necessarily encourage conservation, he said.
Cortez operates on a uniform water rate structure. The city charges a base rate for the first 1,000 gallons of monthly usage and a flat marginal rate for each additional 1,000 gallons used. The draft plan states Cortez will consider moving to a “conservation-oriented rate structure” that would encourage conservation among high water users.
Johnson said that could entail hiring a consultant to conduct a rate study in the coming year. He said a conservation-oriented rate structure would start with an affordable core service, maybe around 4,000 or 5,000 gallons per month, and then increase from there.
“Then if they want to use more than that for irrigation, that’s a choice,” Johnson said. “Obviously it would be something, I think, we’re probably going to be looking at an increasing block rate so the more you use the more you pay.”
If the Cortez City Council adopts the plan in November, Johnson said the public works department will make it a living, breathing document that will set the pace for local conservation practices.
Like Johnson, Vanik said education is the critical component in reducing water use. He said there are definitely people in Cortez who understand that they live in a desert, but people who come to the area often need a history lesson. Sometimes they don’t understand the immutable relationship between snowpack and water supply.
“What happens if we don’t have a wet winter? What are we going to do with McPhee (Reservoir) next year?” Vanik said. “It’s going to be really bad if we don’t have a good winter this winter.”