To many people conserving water reflects a modern sensibility. In their minds, water conservation is linked to recycling and environmental preservation, all viewed as relatively recent developments in response to late 20th century conditions.

Water conservation, however, also has a past. For a long time, Arizona residents have practiced water conservation. Whether what early prospectors and pioneers practiced was in fact water conservation as currently understood might be debated. Yet early accounts of efforts to cope with water scarcity on the frontier demonstrate a commitment that must impress and inspire contemporary advocates of water conservation. Further, a brief description of early efforts to make do with scarce water will shed some light on what we mean by water conservation nowadays.

A good character to begin with might be the solitary prospector trekking through hot, dry desert lands in frontier Arizona. With water sources few and far between, the prospector carefully reckons what water might be ahead to slake his tightening thirst. Circling vultures and bleached bones bode ill for any miscalculations. The prospector undoubtedly makes every drop count.

In this extreme situation, with water a life-and-death matter, the prospector, when getting and using water, may not strictly speaking be practicing water conservation. In fact, it might be argued he does not have the luxury of conserving water; he is merely ensuring his survival. Water conservation is generally thought of as a conscious commitment, with a person deciding whether to conserve water or not. The prospector's bleak condition precludes any choice in the matter.

Settlers coming to an arid or semiarid region to ranch or farm faced somewhat different circumstances than the prospector. Western author Wallace Stegner, who grew up on the arid plains, describes water conservation as practiced during his youth: "There was a whole folklore of water. People said a man had to make a dipperful go as far as it would. You boiled sweet corn, say. Instead of throwing the water out, you washed the dishes in it. Then you strained it through a cloth into the radiator of your car, and if your car should break down you didn't just leave the water to evaporate in its gullet, but drained it out to water sweet peas."

The Stegner family evidently had a very personal relationship to water. Water had a hand-me-down use, like valued family clothing passed on to other members. Water scarcity was a haunting specter but the family did not face the dire straits of the lonely desert prospector (No circling vultures or whitened bones). Yet, to live and farm on the semi-arid and arid prairie required careful and frugal water use be a way of life. To deviate from this course threatened hardship and failure.

Also worth noting, the Stegner household was an early practitioner of what we now know as graywater use. Household water was not limited to a single use, but was recycled to serve several purposes, from domestic, to agricultural and, considering its use in the automobile, possibly even to light industrial use.

Another historical narrative further demonstrates an unwritten frontier water management plan mandated careful and fugal water use. Juanita Brooks, who lived along the Virgin River in Bunkersville, NV, a few miles from the Arizona border, described her early life on the frontier in Harpers magazine in 1941: "The Saturday bath water had an interesting history. Forced to serve more than one person, it must be used to wash out socks or overalls or to wipe up the floor before it was finally poured into the hollow around a discouraged rose bush or young tree."

The above families did not think of themselves as practicing water conservation. In fact, Stegner speaks of the "folklore of water" when relating his family's early water-saving experiences. Before law and public policy ruled the land, what was done to live in a land of scarce water reflected customs, beliefs and traditions of people settled there. Yet, at the same time, their efforts surely would meet the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) definition of water conservation: "Water conservation consists of any beneficial reduction in water losses, waste, or use."

Such stories of life on the frontier often are told to flaunt the bravado of rugged Old West individuals, to show they are a race apart from contemporary westerners. They may or may not have been. What the stories clearly demonstrate, however, is water conservation in this setting was an unavoidable task, another necessary chore like planting crops and milking cows. Success at conserving water determined whether a family coped with frontier conditions. Further, by carefully using water, frontier folks recognized and accepted limitations of the natural environment. The psychology of water conservation operated at a very basic level. The politics of water conservation did not yet exist.

Early City Dwellers Save Water

Dwellers of early urban areas - or what passed for urban areas on the frontier - faced their own challenges for getting and using water. Americans occupying the former Spanish Presidio of Tucson relied on services of water vendors for some of their water supplies. Each morning a water vendor would drive his burros to a spring to fill hide or canvas bags. His stock replenished, the vendor would herd his laden burros through dusty or muddy village streets, announcing in song that water was for sale, five cents per bucket.

Later, carts replaced burros, enabling the vendor to carry more water, thus increasing delivery capacity. More water could now be delivered more efficiently. A bucket of water sold for five cents, with payment made at delivery or weekly. Door jambs served as ledgers, with vendors recording amounts due on the strips of wood.

Early Tucsonans, however, had other sources of water when less high quality water would serve the purpose at hand. In efforts to stretch budgets, residents reserved the pricey, five-cent water for drinking and relied on other sources of water for various household uses. For example, wastewater irrigated trees and gardens, and Santa Cruz water would be fetched for bathing and laundry.

Viewed in a modern context, the water vendor might be considered the precursor of a water utility. Early residents of the Old Pueblo now become water consumers. This is a significant moment in history of water conservation in Arizona, with water provider and water consumer sharing an interest in economics of water. The water vendor or provider seeks profits, and residents want the most goods or services from expenditures. Water conservation becomes an economic strategy to help balance the household budget. In this context, water becomes mainly a commodity. The folklore of water is replaced by the economy of water. Early Tucson residents appear to be practicing water conservation partly as we understand the concept.

(Perhaps two stories of Saturday night baths might dramatize this difference in attitudes about water, between water as a respected and valued resource and water as a commodity. Previously, Juanita Brooks was quoted describing how Saturday bath water would serve several needy bathers before being used for laundry and cleaning, then to water plants. In Flagstaff, another kind of bath-time ethic arose. Local legend tells of the custom of checking downtown saloons on bath night for neighbors with piles of chips before them. Such individuals were likely to be long occupied in playing poker. Their unguarded water barrels were soon empty to provide an ample and luxurious bath to an unscrupulous opportunist. Both accounts are of people taking best advantage of available water resources, but with a striking difference.)

Individuals engaged in conserving water to maintain life on the frontier might represent a personal commitment to careful water use. With increased settlement and with more people competing for limited water resources, water use became a community concern and cooperation a necessity, for one and all to survive. When agreements or laws were worked out to determine water use, community attitudes and values played an important role. Since water conservation is the flip side of water use, examining these attitudes and values will provide some clues to understanding certain public responses to water saving strategies in this region.