Slow, steady progress best captures the city of Walla Walla’s efforts to conserve one of its most precious resources, water.

Walla Walla Trends Indicator 3.2.2 displays (via the bars) a gradual decline in total water consumption within the city over the past decade. Until 2018, that is.

The indicator tells a story that contains some good news and some not-so-good. In the latter category: system leakage in the city remains stubbornly high. For 2018, the city still lost 23 percent of its water somewhere in the distribution network. This is twice as high as the city of Spokane and nearly a multiple of 10 for the Tri-Cities. Yet, we should celebrate progress: A decade ago, the rate was 33 percent.

On the other hand, the city of Walla Walla can point to achievement on a per capita basis. Indicator 3.2.3, shows a drop in annual average daily consumption from 194 gallons in 2009 to 180 gallons in 2017, until 2018, when it climbed back to 202 per day. Rainfall was exceedingly light in the summer of 2018; it is unlikely that 2019 will not resume the longer trend.

How did this decline happen in an ever-thirstier world? Undoubtedly, efforts by the city’s Water Division to educate have borne fruit. Over time, so will its recently installed smart meters. And the division’s capital improvements, replacing old trunk lines, will slowly stop the drips (or gushers) beneath the streets. The William A. Grant Water & Environmental Center at Walla Walla Community College has also raised awareness of water’s role in Southeastern Washington’s ecology and economy. And the U-B itself has been an educator — keeping a running tab on city water consumption on its pages.

Further, compared to the chosen benchmark for this indicator, one can take some pride. The city of Spokane has made little progress in closing its spigots over the same period. And Spokane’s per capita consumption has been, on average, about 20 percent higher than the city of WW.  

Before we celebrate local conservation efforts too enthusiastically, however, we should first note that Walla Walla’s per capita consumption numbers are considerably higher than those of two of the Tri-Cities. (Richland is the exception.) We should also give a nod to Mother Nature. The Trends’ per capita water consumption indicator also tracks summer rainfall. Presumably, low rainfall years will lead to greater water use on lawns and gardens. In fact, this is the statistical result when the two trends are correlated. A highly negative correlation (-0.79) between rainfall and per capita water use exists. More rain, less water consumed.

If greater water conservation is a goal of the city, it shouldn’t count on rainfall’s cooperation. In fact, the odds from most climate modelers tilt toward hotter (and presumably drier) summers. But Walla Walla can certainly engage in many activities/initiatives to shepherd its water resource. First and foremost is the supply side: cut down the losses from distribution system leaks.  

Demand side opportunities are also present, via the city’s new smart water meters. There will undoubtedly be a learning curve by residents in tracking, interpreting and acting on the meters’ results, so changes will take some time. Of course, I would be remiss as an economist not to mention pricing can play a role as well. Just as time-of-day electricity pricing can influence how we consume electricity, so can a similar rate structure affect water use. For example: one might consider much cheaper rates in the off-peak hours of say, 9 p.m.-6 a.m.  

One area that residents can affect only minimally is changing weather patterns. If the Mill Creek watershed, source for the bulk of the city’s water, faces lower snow packs and quicker spring runoffs, then summer supplies might well be lower within a generation.  

Of course, many more people than Walla Walla residents impact localized effects of global warming. But it certainly won’t hurt for Walla Wallans to adopt some of the many practices proposed to limit further increases in temperatures. There’s much that can be done at the local level so that this community can continue to claim its name as the place of many waters.

D. Patrick Jones, Ph.D., is executive director of the Institute for Public Policy & Economic Analysis at Eastern Washington University. Find the institute online at www.ewu.edu/policyinstitute

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