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Municipal, utility incentives driving water conservation in Arizona

John Smith, Mesa-based vice president of business development for Green Plumbers USA, says rebates offered by municipalities, utilities and the federal government get people's attention when it comes to conserving water. (Cronkite News photo/Joe Martin)

PHOENIX -- Scottsdale offers residents $75 for installing new toilets that use less water. Tucson offers up to $1,000 for permanent gray water systems in homes. Chandler offers up to $3,000 for converting lawns to desert landscaping.

The goal: Encouraging conservation of Arizona's finite water supply and, in turn, lowering the cities' costs of obtaining and delivering water.

With supplies limited and growth expected, conservation is certain to be a big part of Arizona's water future. But experts say making homes more water-efficient is driven primarily by government and utility incentives rather than homeowners simply trying to go green.

"What pushes that movement is the municipalities and the federal rebates," said John Smith, Mesa-based vice president of business development for Green Plumbers USA. "Anytime there's money involved it gets people's attention."

Smith, a former plumber turned advocate for what's referred to in the industry as green plumbing, said one of biggest challenges in persuading people to conserve water is proving to them that there is even a problem.

Water costs in Phoenix are eighth-lowest on a list of 30 U.S. cities, at about $38.75 a month for an average family using 100 gallons per person per day, according to Circle of Blue, an organization dedicated to covering world resource issues.

While water might be cheap today, Smith said that won't be the case in the future.

"In our lifetime, you and I are not going to have a water problem. We're going to be able to go to our tap and we're going to be able to get it," Smith said. "Now in my children's adulthood, I think that's where the problem's going to start. And I think municipalities are seeing that ahead of the game, and they're starting to plan for it."

That has local governments using incentives such as rebates.

Tempe offers homeowners a rebate for replacing toilets but goes a step further by providing financial incentives for hotels and apartment complexes to do the same.

Pete Smith, the city's conservation coordinator, said such efforts are getting results, citing a 25 percent reduction in per-capita water use across the state between 1996 and 2009.

"I think it's the mentality," Smith said. "It's finally sinking in we live in a desert. If you want to protect resources for the future, we need to be more sustainable."

While some cities pay their residents for going green, other cities offer programs to do it for them.

Instead of providing a rebate, Phoenix tries to reduce the cost of water by retrofitting older houses and houses in low-income neighborhoods with more water-efficient appliances.

Gerard Silvani, principal planner for the city of Phoenix, said residents are naturally making the switch without the need for a rebate, but for those who can't afford to do so it makes more sense for the city to help out.

"To incentivize something that's already happened wouldn't be very fair to our customers," he said. "We would change that policy perhaps if we felt we're facing a shortage."

Carol Ward-Morris, program manager for Demand Management and Sustainability at the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, said that while incentives have proven to be successful Phoenix's retrofit program, which has been going on for nearly 20 years, has proven successful.

"It's just a different approach. Not everyone has the same menu of incentives, if any at all. It depends on how it fits into their mix," Ward-Morris said.

Plumbers like Smith encourage customers to use appliances approved by WaterSense, an Environmental Protection Agency program that tests and endorses products for their water-efficiency.

Smith noted that the average toilet now uses 1.6 gallons of water, which the EPA considers efficient.

"Now, there are toilets out there that will flush on 3 to 5 gallons of water," he said. "Those are the one's we really want to get out of the market."

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