Questioning the purpose of water conservation might seem to belabor the obvious. This is because water conservation often is perceived as an unqualified good, its cause just, its methods fair and its motives pure. (A Southern Arizona Water Resources Association newsletter stated: "Water conservation is like motherhood and apple pieÉsomething we know is innately good, especially when we live in a desert.") Yet, differences of opinion exist about rationale behind water conservation programs and even whether such efforts are needed.

To some people water conservation is a solution to a problem that does not exist. If they live in Tucson, they may observe that life goes on in the city, seemingly not inconvenienced by a lack of water. Not only are present residents well supplied and well watered, but evidently there is enough water to spare for ongoing growth in the area. People living in the Phoenix area may feel comforted by the series of reservoirs storing water above the city, to be released upon demand to head off threats of shortages. Why take on the burden of conservation when water seems not to be a problem?

Others consider water just another commodity, its consumption determined by perceived need and ability to pay. According to this scenario, people need not be frugal with water if their preference is for lush landscaping, backyard swimming pools, or fullflowing toilets and faucets. Why should such people suffer inconveniences and discomforts of water conservation if the way they choose to live requires heavy water use? Who is to say native vegetation is preferable to turf? Such people believe their willingness to pay for excessive amounts of water entitles them to whatever quantities they desire.

Still others are guided by what they perceive to be a higher set of principles that value water beyond supply and demand and its direct use. That water is a scarce resource in a desert environment means water is to be used carefully in such areas. Even where relatively plentiful, water is still valued as a natural resource, to be respected and used wisely. As Helen Ingram wrote in her book, Water and Poverty in the Southwest, "This is not a rational choice to plug leaks and fix leaky faucets, but rather a deep feeling that waste or excess is incompatible with and even irreverent toward such a valuable and fundamental part of the environment." To such people water conservation is not a strategy, but an ethic, best understood as conforming to a system of moral principles or values.

Others argue they would gladly conserve water except they are wary their efforts might not be put to good purpose. They believe water conservation is a good cause made at times to serve questionable ends, even used to accommodate additional growth and development. They fear water savings resulting from residents getting by on less water might mean more people moving into the area, to share supplies freed up by the conservation efforts to others.

Suspecting a hidden - or not so hidden - agenda favoring growth and development in a water conservation program is justified, from an historical and more contemporary perspective. The presence of such an agenda rankles those whose commitment to water conservation follows much different lines. For example, if you believe saving water is an inherent good in itself, you may resent water conservation used as a strategy to favor growth and development. This, however, might be a reflection of modern sensibilities. Other views prevailed in the past.

Water Conservation Serving Growth

As early as 1892, the Tucson City Council was discussing what could be considered water conservation measures. At that time, the council debated limiting irrigation to nighttime hours due to water shortages. The ordinance did not pass, but the mayor did order the water supply to city parks shut off.

A decade was to go by before the council passed in 1903 an ordinance limiting irrigation to between 5 - 8 a.m. and 5 - 8 p.m. Violators could be fined a maximum of $50, a significant sum at that time. In 1920, again confronting water shortages, the council voted to limit watering to certain hours. It was at this time the council hired a staff person to provide water conservation information to the public.

What prompted the council to take action was a growth issue, at least as understood in those frontier days. In that now-seemingly-innocent time, growth was not considered a threat to water supplies-i.e., aquifers or streams. Instead, the problem was increased population outgrowing ability of the utility to deliver needed water resources. As a result, water conservation was stressed not to preserve supplies, but as an interim measure while the utility expanded the water delivery system.

A notice in a Tucson paper makes this point clear. Dated June 6, 1903, a 'Notice to Water Consumers' states, "Owing to the increased consumption of water so far in excess of the present means of supply, and the decrease in the underground flow to the now existing wells, it becomes necessary to curb the sprinkling and irrigation of lawns and trees, until the installation of the new pump ordered by the city." The notice included names of members on the Water Committee and graciously concluded by "Étrusting that the fair-minded citizens of Tucson will bear with us in this proposition."

A variation of the above theme is to promote water conservation to avoid the financial burden of expanding present facilities, at least for the time being. In this situation, the need to expand the water delivery system to meet demands of growth is put off by encouraging conservation. In other words, water conservation is a stopgap measure, to allow business as usual, without the utility expending great sums of money on capital expenditures. Some critics claim this was the rationale behind Tucson establishing in 1977 it's Beat the Peak water conservation program. At the time it was considered an innovative program to control water use, and it attracted national attention.

The Beat the Peak program resulted from a political debacle, with a party in power deposed over a water rate increase intended, among other things, to control growth. Although pledged to roll back water rates, the political victors subsequently retained the increase. Once in power, they discovered not only was the increase justified but, contrary to the original intent, the higher rates would provide funds to increase water supplies and expand the distribution system. This would benefit future population growth. The council, therefore, further raised the rates and for good measure initiated a water conservation program.

The Beat the Peak program thus was launched, to help manage peak load by urging citizens not to water between 4 - 8 p.m. This was to save Tucson Water, the city water utility, from having to make large capital expenditures, to the advantage of the city's bonding capacity and it's potential for future growth and development. An argument to secure Beat the Peak funding stated for every dollar spent on its media message $1,000 would be saved on further capital expenditures.

The Beat the Peak program has changed with the times. Still in operation, the program urges other reasons for saving water than to delay the need to construct new reservoirs. The program has adopted law-abiding sensibilities, urging water conservation to meet legal mandates of the GMA. Water savings also are urged by appeals to a desert environmental ethic.


Discriminating practitioners of water conservation know there is more to water conservation than saving water. Saving water is the end result, the final product of the workings of various historical, cultural and political influences. These determine our perceptions of water, water use, and therefore our commitment to water conservation. For example, water conservation can be folklore, a strategy to support growth and development, a method for providing water for "the greatest good, of the greatest number, for the longest time" or an action mandated by law, among other things.

How is the current age to be defined? One development to set it apart is that water conservation seems to have come of age. It is a serious water policy issue to consider, at the national and even international level. At the same time, water conservation has gained popular recognition as a cause deserving of consideration and commitment. That water conservation can play an important role in managing water resources is now readily acknowledged.

What is meant by water conservation has changed over time, its meaning having evolved in response to varied circumstances and needs. To characterize water conservation today, however, aside from pointing out its greater popularity, is difficult. This is because ours is an eclectic age, more so than other periods of the past. Water conservation is supported and practiced today for varied reasons.

Yet, if we were to identify one strand that stands out today, a belief that might characterize water conservation in our time, it would be an acceptance of a water conservation ethic.

More people are aware of the environmental costs of securing increasingly more water resources. Desert dwellers are especially sensitive to the ecological incongruity of exploiting water resources in an arid environment. Meanwhile a global water shortage looms, threatening health and well being of a vast number of people and economic security of nations. An awareness of these circumstances serve to raise people's consciousness about water and its use. Along with whatever economic or psychological satisfactions people derive from fixing a leaking faucet comes the glow of knowing they did the right thing.

Editor's Note: This is the final Water 2000 article. We hoped you enjoyed this feature of National Driller. Reprinted with permission from the Aquifer.