05.01.11Martha Golea

Are City-Dwellers Better Water Savers Than Suburbanites?

Phoenix and its neighboring suburbs.

Water conservation is a hot topic in the desert, with threats of brown-outs in the next few years and drought constantly looming. Or, at least I thought it was a hot topic until I went looking for water conservation rebates in Phoenix.

I found a few sites with comprehensive lists of rebates available around the Valley and was quite impressed as I scrolled through. The cities of Avondale, Chandler and Gilbert offer rebates for installing a smart controller on your irrigation system and for replacing turf with low-water-use landscape. Mesa refunds up to 25% for xeriscaping, Peoria gives credit for both…

But as I scrolled down to the City of Phoenix a little tumbleweed rolled across my computer screen and some crickets chirped, half-heartedly. Nothing. But that could be a page loading error, right? I decided to come back to it.

Scottsdale and Tempe both offer generous xeriscape credits and Scottsdale’s website provides in-depth info about their irrigation controller rebate program.

Scrolling back up, still nothing for the City of Phoenix. Don’t they want people to save water?

Apparently I’m not the first to wonder; a number of forums tout my question as an FAQ. Phoenix’s answer? Basically, we conserve enough water already that we don’t need to offer incentives to do more. If people want to install smart controllers or change out their turf to save water, they’ll do it with or without a rebate.

So why do the majority of our neighboring cities offer them? They all give the standard answer of encouraging environmental responsibility and conserving our limited water resource, some throw in the point that considerable resources go into moving and treating water to a drinkable level and therefore wasting it wastes more than just water.

The two less standard answers are what differentiate the city from the suburbs, though.

#1 The Arizona Department of Water Resources sets usage requirements and conservation goals for each city and most cities need help from their water customers to reach those goals. According to the City of Phoenix Water Services Department, Phoenix has achieved and surpassed its goal without offering any incentives, thanks to some incredible management practices. And a little help from their water customers.

#2 Phoenix is really big. The cities around it are really small, comparatively. If Phoenix provided rebates on a large scale, the amount that they would shell out to city residents for replacing irrigation controllers and turf would necessitate either an increase in water rates or a tax revenue subsidy.

The City claims that affordable water rates now and in times of drought are the natural incentive for living a low-water-use lifestyle, but water rates are the same for conscientious conservers and wanton wasters alike. It’s the financial equivalent of telling your kids they’ll get dessert whether they eat their lima beans or not.

So, as excited as I am about the fact that Phoenix is doing such an excellent job of conserving water that they don’t need to offer real incentives, I feel like the bar may be set too low for our conservation efforts. If we’re exceeding our goals so easily, why don’t we tighten the belt a little more?

Everyone agrees that water is a precious resource in the desert, one that we should do our best to conserve. But without offering incentives for sensible water usage, how are we supposed to get more people on board with saving?

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Martha Golea

A seasoned communicator and passionate water conservationist, Martha Golea tracks projects in progress and reports on usage of new and exploratory irrigation technology and water management strategies. Martha also regularly contributes content on water management and conservation to Lawn & Landscape Magazine.




  1. Thursday, 2:37 Alan Harris

    Seriously? If Phoenix wants cost to drive behavior, they need to significantly increase the amount they charge for water. For under $40 a month you get 15,708 gallons (21 units) of potable water delivered to a residence in Phoenix…and that is in the high season! My cable bill, internet bill and cell phone bill are all higher than $40 a month! I spend more on lunches in a week. $40 is about a ½ a tank of gas. So, if I reduce water consumption by 10% I will save $4. Wow…I can almost buy another gallon of gas.

  2. Thursday, 2:58 Martha Golea

    That’s a great point, Alan. Perhaps the negative incentive of a spike in water price is what we need to get people interested in conservation! If Phoenicians don’t care about saving water for the desert’s sake, they’re certainly not going to do it because of the cost savings. Personally, I think it will take a tangible water shortage (not just the threat) before Phoenix raises rates and residents start cutting back.

  3. Sunday, 7:57 Richard Restuccia

    I think on occasion Salt River project will offer some incentives for smart controllers for Phoenix. However, the time is very limited and not many people have taken advantage of the offer.

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