Waste Not, Want Not

Colorado community uses conservation and careful management methods to maximize the scarce precipitation feeding its water supply.
Waste Not, Want Not

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Futurists warn that we're heading into an era when clean, fresh water will grow harder and harder to find.

If they're right, Aurora, Colo., just might have an advantage. The city has been confronting water scarcity for decades, and its water utility has learned a lot along the way about how to stretch the precious resource as far as possible.

Located just east of Denver, on the prairie at the feet of the Rocky Mountains, Aurora draws its water from the South Platte, Arkansas and Colorado river basins. And for half a century, Aurora Water, the branch of the city government responsible for water supply and distribution, has operated with an eye toward making the most of a sparse resource.

"Our City Council had a lot of foresight in the 1950s, when our system was getting up and running," says Lisa Darling, South Platte program manager for Aurora Water. "They told us not to rely on nonrenewable water resources. But they also told us to work at making sure the system could sustain itself and meet demands through a three-year 1950s drought, which prior to 2002 was our most severe drought."

Aurora Water rises to that challenge in several ways. First, there's managing the supply. Over the years, the agency has learned how to make sure the water that does fall to earth goes as far as possible and that there is plenty in reserve when needed.

Then there's managing the de-mand. Conservation is job one in Aurora, and through education, rate structuring and technological innovation, the agency stretches its limited water supply as far as possible.

"Colorado is an arid state and water is at a premium," says Tom Ries, manager of transmission and distribution for Aurora Water and interim deputy director of water operations and engineering. "The more we can do to wisely use that resource, the better it's going to be for all of us."

Third largest city

Aurora is the third largest city in Colorado, covering about 150 square miles with a population of 335,000. The customer base is served by approximately 1,864 miles of water distribution line, ranging from 6- to 72-inch pipe of a wide range of materials, from PVC to steel, to ductile and cast iron. "Whatever material you can name, we have some of it," Ries says.

The city, a suburb of the Mile High City, has a moderate amount of light industry. Except perhaps for the popularity of golf courses, which require plenty of watering to maintain lush greens, little about Aurora's demographics or economy really stands out when it comes to water demand, Ries says. Average demand is about 45 mgd.

"We're dependent on snowfall, snowmelt runoff (to feed the South Platte River)," Ries says. "We don't get significant precipitation except during the winter time."

A reservoir system stores some 150,000 acre-feet of water, about three times the community's annual demand of 50,000 acre-feet, says John Murphy, senior water resources engineer for Aurora Water.

But the river, Murphy notes, isn't just a water supply source, it's a recreational amenity for boating, fishing, tourism and other activities. So Aurora Water and its counterpart agency in Denver work together with fish and wildlife agency officials to make sure that as they draw down water, levels remain sufficient to support the fish population as well as recreational activities.

Managing storage

The volume of water flow into Aurora's system can fluctuate drastically. During the worst drought in recent years, 2002, the inflow of water was 23,000 acre-feet — less than half the yearly demand.

Darling says more sophisticated weather forecasting tools are now available to help the agency more accurately gauge the likelihood of precipitation.

The recently completed $653 million Prairie Waters Project is also adding to Aurora's resources. The project recaptures water that has already been returned once to the South Platte after treatment.

The water is recovered downstream and piped 34 miles back to a new, state-of-the-art treatment facility near the Aurora Reservoir. Some 10,000 acre-feet of water — about 20 percent of the annual demand — can be recaptured that way, Murphy says.

Maintenance schedule

Ongoing maintenance has helped improve Aurora's efficiency. The city's 11,500 fire hydrants are inspected and serviced every year, and some 30,000 valves in the distribution system are examined in order of their critical significance in the system.

The agency has four employees who are almost entirely dedicated to leak detection, whether for routine investigation or to solve water main breaks, Ries says. That has built important expertise and has also minimized traffic disruptions and reduced the length of time water has to be turned off for repairs.

An extensive battery of jetter/vacuum combination trucks — four from Vac-Con, two from other suppliers — and five CCTV inspection vans equipped with RS Technical cameras and transporters help keep things humming throughout the system. Aurora uses POSM Pro Pipeline Observation System Management to capture and manage its pipeline inspection data. The agency's principal tools also include a wide range of leak detection equipment, including Fluid Conservation Systems (FCS) and Schonstedt Instrument Co. leak correlators, FCS Leak Loggers, and a variety of ground and other electronic microphones from Fisher, Vivax-Metrotech, Heath Consultants and Pollardwater.com. The Metrotech 810 and Heath Tech 800 line locators round out Aurora's tool chest.

Lowering demand

Multiple strategies help Aurora keep demand for water in check. The most basic is a billing structure based strictly on use — no taxpayer funds go into the agency —
that actually raises the unit rate for water as the overall volume of water drawn goes up.

Promoting conservation is also an extensive part of the agency's mission, a mission that falls under the eye of Mark Cassalia, water conservation supervisor.

When the water supply becomes really limited, strict measures can be required, like restrictions on watering lawns and other usage constraints, Cassalia says. But much of the conservation program is aimed at preventing things from ever getting that far.

Water conservation audit teams follow up if customers call to complain of leaks in their water systems. They also bird-dog water bills and offer to come in and help customers who see huge spikes above typical use ­— typically 1,500-2,000 gallons per month during the indoor season of winter, Cassalia says.

Smart readers, dry landscape

The city buys $71 remote "smart readers" that customers can buy for $30 and use to track their own water usage. About the size of a cellphone, the wireless readers are placed where they're easily seen — on the outside of the fridge, for instance — and collect data from the customer's water meter. The user typically takes a reading at night, makes a note of it, and then zeroes out the reader. The next morning, the device is read again. "If any gallons went through, you have a leak," Cassalia says.

Public education is an important component. The city promotes the use of low-volume shower heads and sink aerators. "That can return the cost on your water bill within a month to three months," Cassalia says. The city rebates up to $75 per toilet if a homeowner has a new 1.28 gal/flush toilet installed. For toilets that can flush on a gallon or less, the rebate goes up to $150.

Lawns and gardens are another point of focus.

"We only receive 14 inches of precipitation a year, so having a lawn is nearly impossible without irrigation," Cassalia says. "Approximately 75 percent of our customers have a built-in irrigation system or an automatic sprinkler system. Those of us who don't, have to water by hand pretty frequently."

That leads to another Aurora strategy: giving rebates to customers who replace their water-needy lawns with "xeriscape" — landscaping that is designed for arid conditions.

The city will pay $1 for every square foot of land that has been xeriscaped, up to $10,000 for a residential property and $25,000 for larger plots of land. Ornamental grasses and shrubs are among the characteristic choices for such a climate-friendly landscape, and tolerate much less water than the standard suburban lawn bluegrass.

Aurora also encourages people to use the rain they do get to water their lawns rather than relying on the outdoor spigot and hose. And when new development comes in, the city planning department requires that no more than 40 percent of the landscaping can be conventional bluegrass lawn, Cassalia says.

Aurora Water puts on about 25 adult education classes a year in the community; a "youth water festival" for fifth-graders that draws 1,600 students every year who come to the Aurora Water facilities and spend the day learning about how water works; and additional lesson plans and curriculum materials provided to schools and teachers.

Sustainable future

All of this, says Cassalia, is aimed at infusing the whole community with the same appreciation for the value of water and the importance of taking responsibility for using it wisely that Aurora Water has already long understood.

"We know it's not sustainable in the long run to develop as we did in the '70s and '80s, with bluegrass fence to fence," Cassalia says. "It just doesn't match our climate, and the amount of energy we use to get that water there — it's very difficult."

Along with conservation and expanding ways to reuse water, Cassalia admits Aurora is going to have to look for new supplies. But it will be impossible to rely simply on finding new sources alone. If every utility limited its strategy to getting new supplies of water and ignored reuse and conservation, it would "drive the cost of water up astronomically."

Making the most of the resource will require all three tools: finding new sources, reusing water creatively in more and more ways, and conserving it from the start. "That's really the only way that we believe will be sustainable," Cassalia says.


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