My first article as an environmental reporter back in November 1981 was about water. It concerned a decision by then Interior-Secretary James Watt to extend the Central Arizona Project canal to south of Tucson and to kill a proposed dam near Phoenix that would have stored water for people to drink, while flooding an Indian reservation and bald eagle nests in the process.

Now, I am restarting "Blogging the Desert," with an item on water once more. This time, it's simply interviews with a water conservation expert and a top Tucson Water official, reacting to a series of papers just published by the National Academy of Sciences on the problems of declining water supplies in the Southwest. 

One of the papers' main points is that government, across the board, needs to put more emphasis on conserving water and less on finding new supplies because new supplies are getting harder and more expensive to find.

A city official took almost a "what's new" attitude toward that finding, but a local water conservation activist said the entire region needs to do more to save water than it's doing now.

As far as Tucson Water's chief counsel is concerned, this city's been following the course recommended by this report for a long time. It's common knowledge around the Southwest that we have been at the forefront of the water conservation movement since the mid-1970s or so. Tucson Water's Chris Avery said that many of the new papers' recommendations are old hat for this city.

"We started a reclaimed system a long time ago. We had one million people relying on groundwater, but we've made a transition to renewable supplies. We're trying to take advantage of other local resources such as rainwater and gray water.

"We have a community conservation task force, that did a cost-benefit analysis and a pilot study, and came up with programs we thought would be most cost-efficient. We thought our money was best focused on rainwater harvesting and toilet replacement programs.

"Reading an article like this makes me feel we are on track to doing the right thing," Avery said. 

Tucson's leadership role in water conservation is unquestionable, and here's a striking statistic. Tucson Water customers are using no more water in total today than they were a decade ago when the city's population was significantly less, Avery said.

Val Little, director of the Water Conservation Alliance for Southern Arizona, agrees that Tucson is farther along than say, Phoenix, with this city's paucity of lawns.

But, "that doesn’t mean that we don't have a lot more to do. We are at the end of the pipeline," Little said, referring to the presence of the end of the Central Arizona Project canal at Pima Mine Road, lying between Tucson and Green Valley. When the CAP runs short, many people have believed that Tucson could be most vulnerable to cutbacks simply for that reason.

On Monday, Little proposed three steps she believes local officials should look at closely to insure a more successful water future here.

-- Get the public comfortable with the idea of reusing treated and reclaimed sewage effluent for drinking, since we're already drinking some of the treated sewage effluent that Las Vegas discharges into Lake Mead that feeds CAP.

"We have the technology to reuse that water safely. We have to focus on chemicals in it like PCPs but the technology is there."

b)This community should set a goal to have all outdoor watering in peoples' homes come from non-potable sources such as gray water or rainwater in a decade.

To get there, Little recommends dipping into every possible tool: raising rates, research, technology, public education and investment and if necessary regulation.

"That would give us a real leg upon other communities that wouldn't bite the bullet," she said.

c)c)When existing homes are sold in the future, the sellers and buyers should face a rule called "retrofit with resale," requiring the seller to add low-flow toilets and the like that would save water.

Avery, however, said city water officials believe that decisions about what kind of fixtures should go in people's houses and what water sources they should use should be the owners' decisions. The city tries to make use as efficient as possible, using a block rate structure that tries to penalize large users, he said.

"It's our customers who get to make these decisions about how much they value their outdoor use," Avery said.