Conserve2Enhance: Helping Communities Take Action for Water and the Environment


University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center
The 3000-gallon cistern in front of Henry Elementary School saves water and shows off the artistic talents of the students.​

Issues around water as a resource consistently top the list of environmental concerns in the United States, especially when they relate to water supply and quality. However, the large-scale nature of water issues means it is often challenging for individuals to discover, learn, and act to positively impact local water resources as well as the greater environment.

When rain falls in a natural area, water is absorbed and filtered naturally by existing soil layers and plants. The runoff of water after storms is cleaner and traditionally less of a problem than in areas that have been altered by humans. Now, a main factor impacting local water resources is the water systems infrastructure. When it rains, runoff of water flows from impermeable surfaces like streets, parking lots, and rooftops directly to storm drains and washes. This stormwater runoff rapidly transports pollutants from these surfaces that are harmful to aquatic life and human health into the water system, such as heavy metals and E. coli. Managing urban stormwater has traditionally depended on “gray infrastructure” like pipes, gutters, ditches, and storm sewers. These have been designed to carry rainwater away from the urban system altogether to nearby streams, rivers, and other bodies of water.

In the face of water crises like dwindling water supplies or changing stream flows, citizens often wonder and ask, “What can I do to help?” Action-oriented answers involve getting your hands dirty, such as setting up green infrastructure in and with communities. More recently, the use of “green infrastructure” has increased as one way to reduce potable water use for landscaping purposes as well as to improve water quality for humans and wildlife alike. Green infrastructure uses or mimics natural processes to reuse or “trap” stormwater runoff where rain has fallen, which increases infiltration rates and alleviates problems associated with increased runoff.

As a cheap and fairly simple solution, green infrastructure is effective at managing both the beneficial and harmful impacts of wet weather (rain) and the flooding, erosion, and sedimentation that can accompany these events. Results start with improved water quality and decreased dependence on potable water sources and go on to include flood protection, improved wildlife habitat, and cleaner air. Green infrastructure uses vegetation, soils, and other natural elements and systems to restore some of these natural processes that manage water effectively and create healthier urban environments. At the city or county level, green infrastructure is a patchwork of natural areas that provides habitat, flood protection, and cleaner air and water. At the neighborhood or site level, stormwater management systems mimic nature and soak up and store water.

Cities are central in supporting this solution; while cities overwrite their natural environment with concrete and buildings, they can gain capital, both human and monetary, to develop creative solutions for restoring, reinventing, or preserving green spaces and ecological functioning. Those that have the capacity and resources available to engage citizens, like Portland, Oregon and Boulder, Colorado, have carried out highly effective green infrastructure efforts benefiting both human quality of life and the environment. This capacity to mobilize the necessary resources for environmental and social causes is not a typical privilege of most cities, especially as smaller municipalities lack resources to fund significant system improvements.1 However, public interest and support for “non-essential” environmental enhancements like this does exist in many communities, even while financial resources for implementation are rarely allocated.2

As the population of the semi-arid Southwest has grown steadily, existing water supplies have often been funneled to meet increasing demands—municipal, commercial, and industrial. Meanwhile, the river systems and natural environment suffer under pressure. Because of the many benefits it provides and the interest surrounding it, creative solutions for funding green infrastructure and environmental enhancements are needed in this region. One such solution is the Conserve2EnhanceTM (C2E) program, which makes green infrastructure achievable through volunteer donations associated with water conservation that fund local projects in the American city of Tucson, Arizona. It operates on the assumptions that 1) water utility companies (public and private) are in a position to enact effective conservation campaigns; 2) water users have the ability to save water; and, 3) money saved from reduced water use can go back to supporting the environment. C2E was an idea developed by the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center in response to the question, “Why should I conserve water if it will only go to new development?”

University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center
In 2013, the Henry Elementary School Project used Tucson C2E funds to restore and enhance the urban wash bordering school grounds.

Over the last six years, C2E has conserved over nine million gallons of water and invested almost US$80,000 in community-identified environmental enhancement projects. Most of this investment has been in neighborhood-scale projects in Tucson, Arizona that would have not been possible otherwise. A case study of C2E has shown greening of streets and decreased localized flooding in local communities. At the community level, these projects prompt the involvement of hundreds of volunteers from diverse backgrounds, who likely would not have come together to share shovels and build basins otherwise. Increased water awareness has been observed across all age groups, given the participation of students from elementary schools all the way up to college, members of Home Owner’s Associations, local nonprofits, and others. Through the funds raised, local groups and neighborhoods have the opportunity to positively influence their physical surroundings while also building a sense of community. At the same time, programs like C2E ripple beyond a single neighborhood and foster bonds amongst neighbors, organizations, and institutions in the wider community.

Nuts and Bolts

While many community-based programs aim to tackle big water issues, clean water and a healthy environment come down to people. So how exactly do you equip individuals to undertake action to positively influence their environment?

C2E is a program intended for use with on-the-ground projects, including instream flow restoration, green infrastructure, and aquatic habitat improvement. However, since every community has unique priorities and issues, each existing C2E program has different environmental enhancement goals. Early in the development process, key partners define general goals for C2E in their community and the type of projects that funds will support through local grants. An oversight body, made up of local leaders and volunteers from the community, establishes criteria, selects programs or projects, and ensures accountability of funds raised through C2E. The oversight body may be created specifically to manage the C2E fund or may be an existing community board, but its main purpose is to represent the interests of the community and be a voice for local environmental concerns.

Originally dependent upon massive spreadsheets and equations to calculate water savings, early project managers realized that C2E needed a smooth interface to maximize impact and be broadly appealing—or even useable—to a large audience. Born out of a lot of water data and some software ingenuity, participants now implement conservation measures in their home or business and keep track of their water use through the online C2E Water Use DashboardTM. The Dashboard application prompts participants to make donations to environmental enhancement projects in their community based on the money they have saved through conserving water. The Dashboard also allows users to see how their water use changes over time, make comparisons to prior years, and learn about other ways to conserve water. This platform further allows C2E program managers and utility managers to communicate with participants and stay connected to up-to-date water and monetary savings, as well as other opportunities to participate in local projects. By joining C2E, a single person’s effort to use less water at home can result in direct benefits to the community and local environment.

Challenges: (Re)Setting Mindsets/Systems

While programs like C2E can be an effective mechanism to engage the public and encourage water conservation, institutional inertia often must be overcome to implement even small changes to the status quo. Perhaps the most important institutional hurdle is the difficulty associated with incorporating new ideas into complex water utility management plans and billing systems. Three frequently cited factors for a perceived lack of innovation in the American municipal water sector are the following:3

  • Water is exceptionally cheap compared to other commodities;
  • Water is a public resource usually managed by established methods, so alternative systems or mechanisms can be very difficult to apply; and,
  • Water is uninteresting because it is taken for granted and does not have many champions.
University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center
Henry Elementary volunteers built basins to keep water and debris from spilling onto the sidewalk and streets during monsoon rains.

Despite these hurdles, public and private water providers have championed innovation and conservation. Water providers can reach a wide audience and raise awareness among a customer base that makes up the majority of municipal populations in the U.S. In Tucson, involving the local water provider has allowed the Tucson C2E program to steadily gain traction and funds for community projects.  The water provider’s involvement is paramount to the success of the existing C2E programs, contributing to overall functionality of the program and teamwork (e.g., providing water use data and participating in an advisory position, in coordination with local non-governmental organizations). Elsewhere, there are many examples of local water providers pulling regional environmental objectives into the spotlight and attracting customer participation. For example, in the Seattle area, water providers are realizing a “city-to-forest” vision with a program called RainWise, in which participants are offered rebates of up to 100 percent when installing rainwater harvesting gardens or cisterns outside their homes. In the midst of a severe drought, the Santa Cruz Water Department in California provides “Water School” for customers who exceed their water use-allotment, making a two-hour learning experience relatable and interesting enough for people to take the lessons home with them. In the first year of the program, seven percent of their water customers attended Water School for exceeding their allotment, dropping to just three percent in the second year.

Few problems have simple solutions because of the complexity of social and environmental issues. This is particularly true in the U.S., where straightforward water solutions are scarce due to thorny management issues. Teamwork and coordination are powerful tools in discovering and creating solutions, as well as in gathering support and understanding from the public. Looking forward, it is a hopeful sign that utilities are increasingly working with one another and on a regional scale to evaluate their practices and learn from successes. As C2E continues to build a repertoire of shared experiences in launching the mechanism, there is even greater potential for the C2E framework to benefit a range of communities. C2E is an innovative way through which utilities can reach their customers and launch effective conservation campaigns while also encouraging citizen participation. With more utilities promoting conservation, a mindset of water consciousness is not emphasized just during times of water shortage but rather becomes a way of life. Moving out of the “crisis mode” of water shortage, the goal is for households to build conservation habits with the understanding that the water coming from the faucet is not endless.

Opportunities: Funding for Green Infrastructure

In the Tucson C2E program, grant recipients have included schools, neighborhoods, and nonprofit organizations. Using program funds, local projects have implemented green infrastructure strategies, such as installing rain gardens, applying rainwater harvesting, and increasing urban tree canopies. The observed environmental benefits of this work are similar to the benefits of most green infrastructure projects such as flood control, but the social benefits are more difficult to measure. The connections made between neighbors and the partnerships developed among local leaders in the community provide benefits that prosper beyond the earthworks.  Bridging the gap between age, income, and education, while working together to achieve positive, visible changes in the local community results in a sense of ownership, cohesion, and place that is difficult to attain, even by attending a public meeting or helping with a neighborhood fundraiser.

One example is the Henry Elementary School Project. In 2013, the project used Tucson C2E funds to restore and enhance the urban wash bordering school grounds, which was ripe for green infrastructure improvements. Issues such as invasive vegetation, uncontrolled stormwater runoff, aged infrastructure, and the usual urban problems such as littering and graffiti, were starting to take their toll on the quality of the environment near the school. With the help of C2E funds, volunteers from the community, school, and local organizations worked together over the course of a year to benefit the urban wash that runs in front of the school by increasing its visibility with signs and revitalized infrastructure, removing invasive vegetation and planting native species, building basins to retain stormwater, and much more. From picking up trash to removing buffelgrass to painting the giant cistern, the local community came together to get the job done—in effect, benefitting the entire neighborhood.

This work improved the habitat on the campus and adjacent waterways while educating students and neighbors about the importance of urban washes, native trees, and impacts of an urban heat island due to human activities resulting in warmer temperatures than in rural areas. In this community, environmental enhancement continued beyond the life of the C2E grant, with plans to connect and enhance neighborhoods surrounding the school. The hard work and coordination of individuals and organizations, including residents, students, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, juvenile probationary participants, and many others made this project a success.

Conserve2Enhance
The C2E Water Use DashboardTM is a free online tool allowing participants to track their water use, learn about potential ways to save water, and donate to locally led projects.

Another C2E project took place in the middle of an urban Tucson neighborhood called Palo Verde. Palo Verde residents applied for a grant to improve stormwater management and transform a half-block lot into an open community space, making it the only one in the neighborhood. The barren, weed-infested, asphalt covered ground of this lot was rebuilt to mitigate flood and drainage problems. Neighbors and partners supported the project by developing a design that included swales, berms, and basins to direct and capture rainwater throughout the site and retain stormwater runoff. With few other amenities in this older neighborhood, the Palo Verde Pocket Park now provides an important space for neighbors to gather. It also created a green spot in this otherwise heavily developed area. Community members are invited to wander through the space on a raised path and enjoy the company of local pollinators, plants, and the occasional avian or reptile friend.

The Henry Elementary Project and the Palo Verde Pocket Park are just two examples of what is possible through on-the-ground work reinforced with programmatic support. Once the model is established, these projects and associated benefits continue to take shape and improve the local community and environment. A proven history of program successes and growing network of supporters speak for themselves.  Conserve2EnhanceTM and other community-based programs throughout the country are powered by everyday people who make change possible and achieve exciting and visible results. Success is also contagious, with new programs flourishing wherever there are champions for the environment and their community.

The Trifecta: Water Conservation, Community Building, and Green Infrastructure

Accomplishing feats such as large-scale water conservation and supporting and sustaining healthy environments requires holistic approaches to and from individuals, groups, and institutions as they work together toward common goals. Citizens can produce impressive results by coming together. But before work can begin, it is necessary to know where there is need and how it will be met. A collective vision and the ability to realize it require active and ongoing citizen participation. By supporting environmental restoration projects based on community goals, Conserve2EnhanceTM provides an opportunity to develop community connections and make green infrastructure possible in neighborhoods that otherwise lack the means to address localized water and environment issues. By connecting utilities, community organizations, and local citizens, C2E provides opportunities to link water conservation to visible results in any community. As more and more communities express interest in C2E, the model is expected to spread, like our next case study in Flagstaff, Arizona, where the community came online with a new C2E program in the summer of 2016.

References

  1. Speight, VL. Innovation in the water industry: barriers and opportunities for US and UK utilities. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water 2(4), 301–313 (2015).
  2. Benedict, MA & McMahon, ET. Green Infrastructure: Linking Landscapes and Communities (Island Press, Washington DC, 2012).
  3. Young, M. in Damned If We Don’t (ed. Peacock, C.) 87–104 (Water Anthology Press, Granite Bay, CA, 2012).