December 30, 2014--As water demand slows, utilities seek new solutions (High Country News)

As a fifteenth year of drought persists in several Western states, cities like Las Vegas and Denver are contemplating costly new dams and pipelines to meet water demand. Those projects come from a brand of old solutions, ones that shaped the Western U.S., allowing cities to spread across dry plains and sandy deserts. But they may no longer be the go-to answer to the complex set of challenges facing water utilities today. The old way of dealing with water needs is based on the assumption that demand will continuously rise as populations grow. But data shows a different story. Implausible as it many seem in a region defined by growth and expansion, municipal water use in Western states has been falling over the last two decades. This trend is evidence that water deliveries do not simply track population, says Sharlene Leurig, a water-financing expert at Ceres, a Boston-based nonprofit that advocates for business leadership on climate change. While individuals using less water is great for the planet, the trend threatens financial stability for utilities that depend on selling water to consumers. The less water people use, the more money utilities lose. Nowhere is that trend more striking than in the Southwest, home to some of our fastest growing and driest cities. Albuquerque, Fort Collins and Salt Lake City all reduced their per capita water use by over 30 percent from 1990 to 2010, in spite of expanding populations. A move toward smaller houses, more water-efficient household appliances, municipal conservation programs and the national economic recession that crippled Western housing markets have all contributed to the slowing demand. The solution to falling revenues, according to a recent Ceres report, is changing the way utilities price water. And in drought-stressed regions from Utah to Colorado, many already are changing their pricing models, which allows them to implement conservation programs while preserving their revenues.

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