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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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City leaders agree Spokane needs to use less water. But how can they convince residents and businesses?

A sprinkler spits out water in a Spokane yard in the evening in July 2008.  (RAJAH BOSE/Spokesman-Review)
A sprinkler spits out water in a Spokane yard in the evening in July 2008. (RAJAH BOSE/Spokesman-Review)

Spokane leaders are contemplating how to encourage conservation in a city that uses more water per capita than 98% of the United States.

On Thursday, the city’s Water Resource Collaboration Group outlined an ambitious plan to cut water use by 25%, a goal described as “both ambitious and achievable” by Kara Odegard, the city’s manager of sustainable initiatives.

Even if that goal is met, Spokanites already use so much water that the plan would still leave the city in the 96th percentile nationally, based on 2015 United States Geological Survey data.

It’s with that in mind that the group set a 25% conservation target, which is a notable increase from the more modest 5% reduction target for the next decade laid out in a conservation plan adopted by the City Council last year.

Just a 5% cut would save 500 million gallons of water in Spokane over the next decade.

City leaders agree Spokane needs to conserve water but face a conundrum in how best to do so. The city could incentivize reductions with rewards, like a rebate on utility bills. Or, it could take a firmer approach by raising rates on prodigious water users and implementing mandatory irrigation standards on new development.

The city could also aim for a blend of both: the proverbial carrot and the stick.

The Water Resource Collaboration Group introduced its first set of recommendations to the Spokane City Council during a study session on Thursday.

The recommendations include a prohibition on watering lawns during the daytime through summer and potentially requiring the city’s highest water users to participate in a free audit. The city could also set environmentally friendlier standards for irrigation systems installed in new developments or during substantial renovations.

“There have been plenty of reports out there that show voluntary measures don’t work very well, and they cause a lot of confusion when we actually go into droughts,” Odegard said.

The recommendations focused on limiting water use not just by city residents but businesses as well.

The Water Resource Collaboration Group was formed following the city’s adoption of its new water conservation plan in 2020. That plan only called for a water use reduction of 5%, but the collaboration group is dreaming bigger.

A study conducted by the city last year found that a majority of Spokane residents were willing to take measures like limiting water use during the daytime in the summer months.

The group hopes to encourage water conservation through myriad measures.

The city could provide free audits to high-using businesses and homeowners. It could designate funds to a program to help low-income residents fix leaks.

“Some folks can’t afford to fix plumbing in their home, so additional research and attention to low-income programs would be helpful,” Odegard said.

Education efforts about conservation aren’t getting through to every resident, according to Odegard. The group is also recommending that the city make water use more clear on ratepayers’ utility bills, particularly those who receive them electronically. The city could take steps to allow ratepayers to download data about their water use.

Giacobbe Byrd, a member of the group and City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear’s legislative assistant, said the city should also focus its efforts on informing people about water waste.

“We use a lot of water that is unnecessary and might take a long time to get back into our ecosystem, into our aquifer,” Byrd said.

The city should also increase staffing dedicated to water conservation, Odegard argued. The city currently has two such full-time employees, but two additional efficiency technicians could help with on-site assessments, and an education and outreach specialist would help the city with messaging.

Kinnear sought to “dispel the myth” that Spokane sits atop an unlimited water supply in the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.

“It would take just a couple of drought years and we would be really in a bad way,” Kinnear said.

Kinnear argued that water is cheap – “probably too cheap” – but it is not plentiful.

Councilman Michael Cathcart argued the best way to get residents to reduce water consumption is to provide incentives and even “gamify” the effort by allowing neighborhoods to compare their water savings against one another.

“I don’t know how you would enforce no daytime use. Would you send enforcement out and look for sprinklers that are active and give people fines? There’s a point where it’s not necessarily so practical,” Cathcart said.

Council President Breean Beggs said it’s important to implement real-time water meters, which would enable the city to calculate the real cost of providing water to different areas of the city at different times of day. The city could “charge people accordingly and then give people incentives if they water overnight and things like that.”

When the city pumps water out of the aquifer during peak summer months, it’s drawing water that would normally be returned to the Spokane River and impacting the ecosystem, Odegard said.

“This is part of the problem. We’ve been under the impression that we have unlimited water supply, and with a changing climate and our growing community that is no longer really the case,” Odegard said.

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