Recently very much center stage and in the spotlight, water conservation seems to be an idea whose time has come. If we define water conservation as careful use of water to better maintain current supplies, then water conservation is not a recent development. Relatively new is our current perception of water conservation. Water conservation has been practiced in Arizona for a long time, ever since the first humans arrived. Upon observing the scarcity of water in these desert lands, early inhabitants calculated what efforts would be required to live with the available supply. They lived their lives to fit the arid conditions of the area, taking care the sparse water supplies were carefully and fairly used. Now fast forward to the 19th and 20th centuries: Later arrivals, now called Arizonans, also confronted desert dryness and lived accordingly, but due to their technological prowess, they soon found ways to circumvent arid conditions. In the face of water scarcity, they built concrete dams, reservoirs and canals, to capture, store and deliver water. They sought new supplies by pumping water from underground and later from distant locations. Backed by wealth and power of the federal government, many Arizonans in early and mid-20th century believed new water supplies would be forthcoming to meet whatever future needs might arise. These were the salad days of water resources development. During these times, Arizona had as little interest in water conservation as in developing its own foreign policy. In fact, many Arizonans likely viewed water conservation as foreign policy. In truth, a utilitarian version of water conservation was being honored. Espoused by Gifford Pinchot, US Forest Service head and close associate of Theodore Roosevelt, this philosophy advocated using natural resources to best benefit of humankind, with resources developed for "the greatest good, for the greatest number, for the longest time." Whatever illusions Arizonans might have had about unlimited water supplies were eventually cut short by reality. Projects to obtain additional water supplies were proving prohibitively costly, economically and environmentally. Not only that, but all available water sources had been tapped, and Arizona had run out of renewable water supplies to exploit. A federal water resource project of grand proportions, the Central Arizona Project stands as a monument to the Age of the Big Water Project, its last hurrah. Water managers increasingly turned to what economists call "demand management" or, in other words, water conservation measures. This represented a major shift in managment of water resources. Practiced in the past to help resolve problems of water shortages, water conservation now gained official status, used to help resolve the dilemma of attempting to meet growing water demands with insufficient supplies. What was previously provided by new water development projects - pumps, canals, reservoirs, etc. - would be accomplished by public media messages, printed materials, education programs, rebate and retrofit device offers, landscape and plumbing ordinances and changes in water rate structures and price levels. Water conservation entered its modern phase.

Water Conservation As Idea

The following brief review of the current status of water conservation in the state is to encourage a broader understanding of the concept, beyond view that water conservation begins and ends with dos and don'ts of saving water. For example, in line with most people's understanding of water conservation, a Connecticut water utility offers a brochure entitled, "Water Conservation Starts By Fixing Leaks..." As the previous discussion demonstrates, however, water conservation is more than fixing leaks, installing low-flush toilets and planting desert vegetation. Water conservation can be viewed as an idea that evolved over time, in response to various historical, cultural and political forces. In this light, it is not an exaggeration to consider water conservation an exercise in democracy. Citizens are participating directly in a community cause when they practice water conservation. Unlike lawmaking, which involves citizens indirectly as they vote for candidates who then write and pass laws, water conservation involves direct citizen action. A householder does or does not conserve water. And just as informed voters make better choices at the polls, consumers who more fully understand water conservation, its historical, political and cultural implications, are more likely to have a greater interest in saving water. Following, therefore, is a course of study of water conservation, its theory and practice, beginning with early frontier times. Reprinted with permission of the Water Resources Research Center, College of Agriculture, University of Arizona.