Becky Rader grew up in Dallas during the 1950s, and one of her most vivid memories is seeing her mother turn on the tap and brown gunk come out. The city, in the midst of a tremendous drought, was reduced to using water from the Red River, which was far from appealing in taste or appearance. It didn’t do much for the pipes, either.

“Nowadays, we do not have the same concept or respect of water,” says Rader, who lives in Lake Highlands Estates. “We’ve had water in abundance for so long, everyone just turns on the tap and doesn’t think about it. Why should we bother to save it?”

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It’s a question more of us are going to start asking. Crime, potholes and strong mayors may not be the burning political issues of the next decade. Instead, it could well be whether we’re allowed to water our lawns.

Dallas – faced with rapid, steady growth and an increasing demand for water, but with no natural supply of water available, no Lake Michigan next door to tap at will – is at a liquid crossroads.

The crisis we faced in the 1950s, when tremendous drought forced the city to use White Rock Lake water for the first time in 30 years, may not be at hand. But we must find enough water to meet the demands of a population that is expected to almost double by 2060, and do so affordably and without harming the environment.

Do we continue to build reservoirs, even though the water will be pumped from 80 to 100 miles away and flood significant parts of East Texas in the process?

Can increased conservation – installing low-flow toilets, which use half as much water per flush, and tank-less water heaters, which save as much as 40 gallons a shower – make up the deficit?

Are improvements in technology, such as filling reservoirs with treated wastewater that has already been used (flushed down the toilet, for example, and then recycled) a possible solution?

And, perhaps most importantly, do we need to adjust our entire attitude about water, so that more of us think like Rader?

Consider that half of the water we use in the summer is used to water our lawns, and that it’s not unusual for some neighborhood residents to use more than 15,000 gallons a month – almost double the typical amount – to keep their grass green. Is that a good enough reason for more reservoirs?

“We have about a 15- or 20-year window to deal with the issue,” says John Easton, an environmental engineer who teaches at SMU and specializes in water issues.

“And it’s not so much about conservation or building new reservoirs as it is about using water more efficiently. That means not necessarily taking shorter showers, but figuring out a way to use less water when we do it.”

Facts and figures

The most important fact about water in this part of Texas is that there isn’t very much of it. The state has only one natural lake – Caddo, in East Texas – and 90 percent of the drinking water in the Dallas area comes from manmade reservoirs, which are created by damming rivers like the Trinity and then waiting for them to fill with rainwater. Dallas’ water comes from six of these reservoirs: Lake Grapevine, Lake Lewisville, Lake Ray Roberts, Lake Ray Hubbard, Lake Tawakoni and the Elm Fork of the Trinity River.

Sometime in the next three years, the city will add Lake Fork to its supply, and plans call for adding Lake Palestine, some 80 miles away, by 2015. During that time, Dallas’ population is expected to grow to at least 1.5 million. In addition, long-range plans call for adding two more reservoirs in East Texas (including Wright Patman near Texarkana) in 2035 and 2045 as the city’s population approaches 2 million.

Don’t feel badly if you don’t know this. Hardly anyone does. A state water board survey found that only 28 percent of Texans know where their water comes from.

What it means is that the city spends tens of millions of dollars to dig the hole and lay the pipe to bring the water to you when you turn on the tap. One example: Dallas is spending $4.1 million a mile to lay seven miles of 108-inch diameter pipe (nine feet around) to finish connecting Lake Fork, about 35 miles northeast of Terrell, to the city’s water system. And estimates call for Dallas to spend as much as $500 million to add Lake Palestine’s water to its supply.

Says Jim Park, the chairman of the state-mandated committee that oversees water planning for the Dallas area: “The cost of building a reservoir is not really about building the reservoir, but about the pipeline to connect the reservoir.”

But given forecasts for population growth, what else is there to do?

Current projections call for Dallas to reach 2 million people by 2060, with even bigger increases forecast for the city’s suburbs, 21 of which buy their water from Dallas and the rest of which compete with the city for the region’s limited supply. The latter includes McKinney, projected to reach 400,000 people by 2060, and Denton, expected to have 500,000 people.

“Water is not one of those things that you can do without,” says Charles E. Stringer, assistant director of water operations for Dallas Water Utilities, which oversees the city’s water system.

“Dallas would not have grown to be as big as it is unless there was a safe, affordable, dependable supply of water.”

Conspicuous consumption

We use lots and lots of that water, about 245 gallons per person per day. (We’re not the thirstiest in the area, though – that distinction goes to Highland Park, which uses 381 gallons per person per day, according to state figures.)

This means Dallas uses 50 percent more water than Houston, which receives 46 inches of rain a year to our 34; 50 percent more than Austin, which has stricter conservation measures than we do, including a watering plan that limits homeowners to once every five days in the summer; and almost twice as much as San Antonio, which is a model among U.S. cities for reducing water use.

Our daily total is somewhat inflated, since it includes commercial and business customers such as restaurants, which are notorious water wasters. Stringer says a typical home probably uses about half that 245-gallon average for inside use.

But it’s still a lot. Using half of 245 gallons a day is the same as filling and emptying a typical bathtub about two times. By 2010 per-person use is expected to grow to 258 gallons a day. Both figures significantly exceed state averages, currently about 170 gallons per person per day. And in the summer, we use half of that water on our lawns – and our driveways and our sidewalks and any neighbors walking by.

“It’s just extremely difficult to teach people about this,” says landscaper Bonnie Reese, whose Casa Linda business, Beautiful Landscapes, specializes in low-maintenance yards with traditional lawn grasses as well as xeriscaping.

One of her projects: Cutting water use at Lake Highlands’ Redeemer Bible Church, where Reese is a member. This year, she has watered the church grounds, which includes buffalo and Bermuda grasses, nandinas and hollies, just four times since April. Everything, she says, is vibrant and healthy.

“People just can’t believe that they don’t have to water their lawns so much,” she says. “They don’t have to put hundreds of dollars on their water bill unnecessarily.”

Hence the city’s water conservation ordinance, which prohibits watering in the summer between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays, punishes excessive runoff and watering when it rains, and requires sprinkler systems to have water-sensing devices.

Stringer says that the ordinance seems to be working. Peak demand has decreased in the summer over the past several years, although milder and wetter summers may have helped, too, he notes. The numbers seem to bear this out. Code enforcement inspectors didn’t issue any citations between last October and the beginning of August, and gave just 199 warnings, the lowest total since the ordinance went into effect three years ago.

In addition, the city wants to cut per person use by 5 percent over the next five years and another 10 percent by 2060. It already reuses 70 percent of indoor water – what goes down the sink and through the washing machine – and is looking at ways to increase that figure (although there is no way currently to re-use outdoor water that isn’t absorbed by plants and grasses).

Also, the city ran a rebate program for sprinkler sensors in the last six months of 2004, which attracted three times as many participants as expected. Of course, it only expected a couple of hundred applicants. It is also studying rebate schemes for other water-efficient appliances, audits and rebates for restaurants, additional educational programs and city facility upgrades. Cedar Crest Golf Course, for example, waters its fairways with recycled water.

Consistent rates

What the City doesn’t want to do is jigger with water rates, Stringer says. For one thing, if Dallas raised water prices, the higher cost might chase business and growth elsewhere. There also isn’t any evidence that higher rates cut use, Easton says.

“You’d probably have to raise the rates so much that people couldn’t afford it,” he says, “and then you’d raise the whole subject of why you’re making something everyone needs to live so expensive.”

Currently, Dallas has a four-tier residential system based on use: one charge for up to 4,000 gallons a month ($1.16 per 1,000 gallons); another for 4,001 to 10,000 gallons ($1.95 per 1,000 gallons); a third for 10,001 to 15,000 ($2.62 per 1,000 gallons); and the highest for more than 15,000 ($3.40 per 1,000 gallons).

The goal is to keep water affordable, yet make people who use more pay more. Still, Dallas’ water rates are among the lowest, not just in the state, but also in the country. A typical bill, which includes sewer charges and 8,300 gallons a month, amounts to roughly two-thirds of an average bill in Baltimore, Philadelphia or San Diego.

So, if our water remains reasonably inexpensive, what’s the incentive to use it more efficiently?

Not much, and that may explain why Dallas lags behind other cities in conservation.

Flagstaff, Ariz., offers a $500 rebate to homeowners who remove at least 1,500 square feet of grass and replace it with rocks or native plants that use less water. Las Vegas, which has increased rates in a three-tier system that targets the highest 20 percent of water users, also offers a $1-a-square-foot rebate to take out grass and replace it with water-friendly plants.

Finding role models

San Antonio has gone several steps beyond even these desert municipalities. It cut its per-person average water use from 225 gallons a day in 1982 to 128 in 2004, thanks in part to aggressive conservation initiatives. They include carrots such as free low-flow toilets to any city resident who wants one, $150 rebates for tank-less water heaters, $100 credits for high-tech washing machines, which use half as much water, and $525 landscaping rebates. But there are also sticks. San Antonio not only has a four-tier residential rate system that charges heavy users four times more (compared to three times more in Dallas), but it also enforces its water conservation ordinance with police officers assigned to the water department.

All told, San Antonio spends about $5 million annually on conservation, less than the cost to build one mile of the Lake Fork pipeline.

“What you have to remember is that for the longest time, we weren’t doing anything either,” says Calvin Finch, who directs San Antonio’s water conservation efforts.

“But we had an intensive program to enlist our ratepayers to reduce use, and it has worked. And we have done it without reducing the quality of life, and growth and economic development have not been interfered with.”

Still, San Antonio may be a model that’s difficult to duplicate. Much of its water saving came from infrastructure improvements and repairs, and the city was forced to act after a federal lawsuit and state legislation limited its ability to continue to tap at will the underground Edwards Aquifer, its main source of water. Plus, since there are few rivers to dam in that part of Texas, reservoirs aren’t a feasible option.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned, and you don’t need to tear up your front yard to learn them.

Lake Highlands resident Rader kept her St. Augustine lawn; she just waters it once a month. She put a brick in her toilet tank and replaces the flapper regularly, turns off faucets, runs the dishwasher once a week, and uses the washing machine just a couple of times a week. The water for her 1,700 square-foot home (not including the other charges on the bill, such as sewage and garbage collection) costs as little as $6 a month, which translates to less than 5,000 gallons a month – or one-third the amount some of her neighbors use just to water the grass, and 3,300 gallons a month less than the city says a typical household uses.

“Sometimes, the lawn does look a little toasty and crisp,” she says. “But I know how important water is, and it’s more important than my lawn.”