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Half of Waukesha homeowners are thrifty with water use

May 22, 2012
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By Laurel Walker of the Journal Sentinel

May 22, 2012 0

Waukesha - A national expert on water use and conservation who studied Waukesha Water Utility customers' records over three years found that half of city homeowners are very thrifty - "super savers" - when it comes to water use compared with the national average.

But the top 1% of single-family home customers use a lot of water - more than three times the national average.

Likewise, the expert found, the top 10% of commercial accounts use 69% of water needed for all its commercial users, and the top 10% of industrial accounts use 84% of the industrial water demand.

Analysis by Amy L. Vickers, an Amherst, Mass., international consultant and researcher on water use and conservation, has given the Waukesha Water Utility more information than it has ever had about its customers, said Nancy Quirk, technical services manager for the utility.

"We looked intently at our data, and how our customers are using water," Quirk said. "We know our customers better."

With that knowledge and an updated water conservation plan just approved by the Water Utility Commission, the utility can now target the highest water users with education, audits and incentives to achieve the greatest water savings, she said.

After the utility's first conservation plan developed in 2006, Waukesha adopted the state's first permanent daytime sprinkling ban, the state's first municipal replacement toilet rebate program and the state's first rate structure that promotes conservation by charging residents higher fees the more water they use.

While the new plan emphasizes targeting individual users and companies that use high amounts of water, the utility will also continue its sprinkling ban, its fee approach and its toilet rebates.

"In Wisconsin, we found that not a lot of people water their lawns," at least compared to the national average, Quirk said.

While most homeowners are relatively frugal with water, especially outside, Quirk said, they still use a lot of water to take showers, use the toilet and do the laundry. About 63% of the water pumped by utility customers is used by the residential class.

So the utility is planning a higher rebate program - increasing the current $25 per household rebate to $100 - for those who replace water-wasting toilets with more efficient ones.

So far, the utility has handed out 86 rebates. A single water-efficient toilet can save a homeowner about 9,000 to 11,000 gallons of water per year, depending on household size, the utility says.

Other incentives to be offered may include rebates for more efficient shower heads, for example.

While the residential class uses most of the city's water, commercial properties use 18% of the water demanded, industrial properties use 15% and public institutions use 4%.

Targeted incentives and efforts will also be developed for those high-use customers under the plan. For example, water-saving spray-rinse valves can save water for school and other commercial kitchens, and cooling equipment can be more water efficient, Quirk said.

Conservation mandate

Waukesha is under a court order to reduce the radium content in its water to meet federal standards within six years. While the city seeks approval for a new water supply from Lake Michigan, it must also meet state-mandated conservation efforts to reduce its water use.

The utility and its consultants used a committee of public agency, private business, educational institutions, environmental advocates and city residents to guide the planning effort.

Dan Duchniak, Water Utility manager, said that under state regulations tied to its Great Lakes water application, Waukesha must ultimately save a million gallons of water a day, or about 10% of what customers otherwise would use, by 2050.

The new conservation plan looks at shorter term goals.

"In the first 20 years (by 2030), we have to save 182.5 million gallons of water - measurable savings," Duchniak said. "We are at 38 million gallons so far, so we're at 20% of our 2030 goal."

He added: "This plan outlines how we'll get the rest of the savings by 2030."

The plan is expected to be updated in another five years.

In the first five years of the utility's concerted conservation efforts, water use dropped every year, but it increased last year, Quirk said.

Waukesha pumped an average of 7.78 million gallons a day from its wells in 2005, a figure that - despite rising population - dropped to 7.18 million in 2006, to 7.17 million in 2007, to 6.9 million in 2008, to 6.79 million in 2009 and 6.69 million in 2010.

Quirk said last year, water usage increased to 6.97 million gallons per day, which may reflect the drier conditions in 2011.

The Water Utility page on the Waukesha website will have a copy of the new conservation plan online in the near future, Quirk said.

About Laurel Walker
Laurel Walker covered local, school and county government for 20 years -- the last half of that at the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel -- before she was named Waukesha County columnist in 1997. Today she writes about the people, places and events around metropolitan Milwaukee with a broad suburban focus. She was the youngest of nine children raised on a central Wisconsin farm before leaving the nest for journalism studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a masters degree at the University of Oregon. She has spent the last half of her life in Waukesha County, where she and her husband raised two sons. Though she has a fondness for life in Waukesha, she eagerly partakes in the culture of the big city to the east and the recreation of the forests to the west. With sons in the arts, she has a special fondness for symphonic music concerts and art museums. She finds peace in a good book at a Northwoods getaway weekend, adventure in family visits to the east and west coasts, and satisfaction in a column well-written that reaches readers.
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