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City of Durango hopes to start a conversation around water use

Study shows ‘exponential’ differences between highest and lowest users
A.J. Lujan of Cascade Xpress Carwash spays down a car as it enters the wash on Thursday in Durango. The business says it recycles 70% to 80% of the water it uses. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Water is a vital resource for the city of Durango and its inhabitants, but there’s only so much of it to go around.

Those who use the most are consuming it at rates well beyond the average – three to four times higher than lower-level consumers in some industries, according to Durango Sustainability Manager Marty Pool.

When it comes to excessive water use, people have different philosophies: One argument is people and organizations have a right to use as much water as they want, so long as they pay for it. A counter argument is that water is a collective resource, and being wealthy shouldn’t be a factor in deciding how much water one can use.

Pool said people’s opinions about water usage will vary depending on their values. It is up to the community as a whole to determine how it prioritizes water use and promotes conservation.

To help make informed decisions, the city’s sustainability office is collecting data and identifying trends about water use citywide.

Vehicles go through the Cascade Xpress Carwash on Thursday in Durango. According to an analysis of city water accounts by the city’s sustainability office, the most water-intensive car washes use about three times more water than less water-intensive car washes. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Pool said he launched the study after residents and city councilors began asking pointed questions about how the community uses water.

The study will help inform the answers to three important questions about water rates, cost of infrastructure and responsibility.

“What is the best way and the fairest way to charge residents and businesses for water?” he said.

The city of Durango has only two rate classes for water use – residential (single-family and duplex) and commercial, Pool said. Commercial water users include stand-alone businesses, schools, parks, factories and other uses.

The water consumption analysis will help inform what rates are appropriate in the years ahead, he said. But that conversation needs to be had in parallel with talks about the costs of maintaining the city’s overall water system and where responsibility falls on the city and the community collectively.

The study will also indicate where the highest water consumers can make adjustments and how the city can help, he said. That might entail large hotels converting their bathroom fixtures to more efficient equipment, for example.

Joshua Bradley, general manager of Cascade Xpress Carwash, and co-owner Mary Hert talk on Thursday about the water recycling system that was built into the business. The car wash recycles 70 to 80% of the water used. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Pool said the study is ongoing. So far, the results are “fascinating.”

The water consumption analysis has revealed the top 10% of public water utility account holders – about 700 of roughly 7,000 residential and commercial accounts – are responsible for about 70% of water usage, he said.

The top 50 single-family accounts consumed nearly 236,000 gallons of water per account in 2022 while the bottom 10% of accounts consumed about 18,000 gallons per account that year.

On the commercial side, the top accounts used about 2,477,000 gallons of water in 2022.

Total water consumed communitywide that year was 936,500,000 gallons. That is a lot of water, but to keep things in perspective, New York City supplies over 1 billion gallons to about 9 million people every single day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Survey data also reveals how social inequalities impact water consumption.

Pool said it is common across market areas for the highest water users to also be the most affluent and wealthy. They have bigger homes and use more resources. But low-income earners also use more resources than middle-income earners, he said.

Tanks buried in the ground at Cascade Xpress Carwash collect used water and filters and reuses about 70 to 80% of it. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Often, low-income earners have broken fixtures and they don’t have the money to replace them or upgrade them. In some cases, they don’t own their homes and have no incentive to install water-efficient fixtures, he said.

“It’s really interesting that typically we see the most efficiency (in water use) in the middle of property value or income,” he said. “And then the most expensive properties use the most water and other resources, energy, things like that.”

That brings everything back to the city’s rate structure, Pool said. He hopes the data being collected in the water consumption analysis will help inform community dialogue around water use. But he also wants to avoid those conversations spiraling into finger-pointing.

“When we get into these larger conversations about what’s fair or what’s right or how we want to structure pricing or who is responsible for what – as much as we can, it’s important to work together as a community,” he said.

Some residents think Durango shouldn’t have car washes because of how much water they use and because it is not a critical use – “and they are entitled to that opinion,” Pool said.

“And then there are people in the community who want to wash their car once a week and want to have a place to do that,” he said.

Mary Hert, co-owner of Cascade Xpress Carwash, said she and her husband’s car wash implements a water recycling system that reclaims up to 70% of the water used. The system reuses water and saves on the business’ water bill.

She said she wants to do her part in water conservation and hopes Cascade Xpress is living up to that cause. But the recycling system was not an insignificant business expense, costing around $100,000 to install.

Hert said she used to live in Durango West II where strict water restrictions prohibited people from washing their cars or watering with garden hoses.

“So I hope we're giving back,” she said. “... People like clean homes, they like clean cars. And, you know, it's fun to drive through a tunnel and get your car washed.”

The most water-intensive car washes were found in the study to use three times as much water as the least water-intensive car washes. Similar exponential trends are present in other industries, Pool said.

The most water-intensive hotels were found to use three to four times as much water as less water-intensive hotels. He said occupancy rates contribute to those differences, but factors like the kinds of sink, shower and bath fixtures, and outdoor water usage for irrigation, also make a difference.

Pool said looking at water use on a per-room basis is informative about the impact tourism and visitation have on the city’s overall water consumption. On average, hotels in Durango use 31,000 gallons of water per room per year.

He said that average is comparable to the average water use of a single-family home, which is about 55,000 gallons per year.

“At first that may seem quite alarming, but if you think about it, a hotel has many of the same water needs as a home,” he said.

The most water-intensive car washes were found in a water consumption study to use three times as much water as the least water-intensive car washes. Similar exponential trends are present in other industries. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

He said sinks, toilets, showers and even laundry appliances are found in hotels just as they are in single-family homes.

“In a sense, a hotel room that is occupied consistently year round has similar water needs as a home occupied year round,” he added.

The highest water use among hotels in Durango is 72,000 gallons per room per year, and the lowest water use is about 15,000 gallons per room per year, he said.

Outdoor irrigation also accounts for a significant amount of total water used, not just for hotels but for residential and commercial accounts communitywide.

Water consumption data for 2022 in Durango shows outdoor water use, including irrigation, makes up 61% of water usage. Indoor water consumption makes up the remaining 39% of use.

More recent data from 2023 shows the city’s use of water lines up closely with overall water consumption by the community. Eighty percent to 85% of water used by the city is used to irrigate public parks and open spaces, including at city facilities.


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