Water use continues to drop in Tucson, but we may want to stop patting ourselves on the back for being such good environmental stewards.

Trends in demographics and landscape tastes, along with improved efficiency of water-using fixtures and appliances, may be more important than individual conservation, said Gary Woodard, who recently retired as associate director for knowledge transfer in the UA department of hydrology and water resources.

“We may not be morally superior to Phoenix after all,” Woodard told his fellow water experts at the Arizona Hydrological Society’s annual symposium in Tucson last month. There, he presented preliminary results of a study that seeks to explain why municipal demand for water is dropping.

Tucson Water delivered less potable water to its customers last year than in 1995. Water use is dropping elsewhere in Arizona, in the Southwest, the West and all over North America, said Woodard.

Woodard is working with the water-consulting firm Montgomery & Associates to study the phenomenon for a consortium of Tucson-area water providers. They’d like to find out why their predictions of growing water use kept turning into flat demand. A study is also planned for the Phoenix region.

The Tucson numbers are not completely crunched, but some of the trends are clear. We have lost our affection for turf, golf, swamp coolers and swimming pools. New and newly refurbished homes have more water-saving fixtures and appliances. Our homes are built on smaller lots that are more likely to be covered with garages and patios than with grass and plants.

The assumptions Woodard made about future water use at the beginning of his career are being turned on their head.

In 1982, he said, climate change was not a looming consideration. Every new subdivision included a golf course. A third of new homes had in-ground swimming pools. Turf ruled the terrain and evaporative cooling was cheaper and just as efficient as a cheap air conditioner. Toilets used up to 5 gallons a flush and low-water flushers didn’t work very well.

Copper mining, meanwhile, looked like an interim use of the water supply. Big, new mines were planned for South America and Indonesia. The Colorado River was deemed a reliable source of water for the future.

Today, growth has slowed and the recession thwarted population projections. Domestic copper is making a comeback. Shortages of Central Arizona Project water are predicted.

Tucson’s Active Groundwater Management Area has reached “safe yield,” meaning the water taken from our aquifer is being replaced, “but nobody is popping champagne corks,” said Woodard. The future is too uncertain for that.

Muni demand slows

Municipal demand for water seems to be on a permanent slide.

Robert Glennon, a professor in the UA College of Law who raises alarms about worldwide water supplies in his writing, says Tucsonans and Southern Arizona’s water managers should pat themselves on the back.

“The Tucson community and Tucson Water both deserve a lot of credit for creating a culture of respect for water that is different from Phoenix.”

Demand may be falling up north, but it’s still a much bigger per-capita number than Tucson.

“Go to Phoenix, and the water is still flowing into the street from overwatered lawns,” he said.

Some residential areas of Phoenix retain irrigation rights to flood lawns and big trees.

Grady Gammage, a senior fellow at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute, argues that such uses are appropriate in older sections of the Phoenix area.

Gammage is an attorney and sometime real estate developer who shared the stage with Woodard at the hydrology conference. He said lush lawns are part of Phoenix history.

Tucson was always a desert town, he said. Phoenix, which grew as an agricultural community from massive dams and reclamation projects, has always been “an oasis.”

Newer sections of the Valley of the Sun are much more water conscious, he said.

Saving water can create problems. Water utilities had to raise rates in the midst of a recession — playing catch-up because their projected revenues, based on increasing demand, did not materialize.

Metro Water, which serves an area just north of Tucson, saw its demand fall 1.9 percent last year. It is projected to fall more than 2 percent this year, and the utility is seeking its second increase in a row, said Warren Tenney, Metro’s assistant general manager.

Tenney said the 2012 demand was the lowest in the utility’s 19 years of operation.

He said rate hikes don’t sit well with some customers who feel they are being penalized for being good stewards.

Fernando Molina, spokesman for Tucson Water, whose rates are also rising, said customers should realize that costs would be even higher if demand hadn’t been cut over time.

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Tucson customers adopted a conservation ethic in the 1970s when the original goal was to reduce demand during peak times and forestall costly infrastructure improvements needed only for the hot days of summer.

The goal these days is improving efficiency. Tucson Water has rebate programs for low-flush toilets in lower-income homes and rebates for water harvesting and gray-water systems, in addition to educational programs.

Arizona’s water director said steadily dropping demand is caused by a variety of factors, including the economy and state regulations.

“I’d say a significant portion of it is due to conservation,” said Sandy Fabritz Whitney.

Arizona’s water use peaked in 1980 at 10 million acre-feet, when the state began to regulate it, and has fallen since, she said.

Overall water use today, including agriculture and industrial, is 75 percent of the 1980 total.

Whitney said municipal demand was affected by the economic downturn. She also thinks publicity about continuing drought in the West reinforces the conservation ethic.

“When you see that bathtub ring around Lake Mead, those images have an impact and that’s OK,” she said. “It drives people to think and listen to the messages about conservation.”

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158. Follow him on Facebook or @bealagram on Twitter.