Dec. 29, 2004 - Ed Taczanowsky's two-story beige stucco home looks like many others in Oro Valley and his yard is filled with the typical array of succulents, cacti and native desert plants.
He enjoys his landscape with a modest front yard, gated side court and appealing rear retreat, complete with a sparkly blue pool.
And like many in the town, Taczanowsky has a full-time job, is often out of town on business and doesn't always have time to nurture his lot on Dragoon Springs Drive.
So he does what many in Oro Valley do: he sets his irrigation system up to water his plants automatically every day.
So it came as somewhat of a shock on a recent fall afternoon when Taczanowsky learned that every day of every week, all year long, when the drip irrigation and aerial sprays kick on for an hour to give his beautiful plants a drink, he is using 300 gallons of water. For those who have a tough time picturing it, that's six 50-gallon drums.
Landscaping is the biggest culprit when it comes to wasting the wet stuff, according to Oro Valley's one-person water conservation department, Kevin McCaleb. Since joining the town in the spring of 2002, McCaleb has been going to Oro Valley homes to perform free water audits, such as the one recently conducted at the home of Taczanowsky. During these audits, he takes a close look at how water is being used in the home and suggests ways it could be managed better.
What he found at Taczanowsky's home was "typical" in Oro Valley he said, although everyone has different practices and habits when it comes to water use.
Councilmember Conny Culver had McCaleb come to her house for a water audit earlier this year, after she took her seat on the council and learned that the town offered this service free of charge.
She said she thought she was doing a good job conserving water until that day, when she was advised of all the things she could be doing better.
She made a commitment at that point to change the way she was using water, and realized that if other people could see where they were going wrong, they were likely to make the same commitment to change.
After hearing announcements by Gov. Janet Napolitano about the importance of conservation earlier this year, and how conserving may even become mandatory in the future if something doesn't change, Culver said she began to think about what Oro Valley could do to ease the strain on the water coffers.
She said she doesn't want to "set off a panic" about the drought, but she believes people could be doing a lot more to conserve.
"We live in the desert, it's time for some of us to accept that we live in the desert," she said.
Education is part of it, but Culver believes the town can do more to encourage people to conserve, too.
McCaleb agreed that there is no reason to incite alarm about dwindling resources, but that his job is to look at conservation and management, and he has many ideas in the works to make sure Oro Valley is using only its fair share.
As the annual rainfall in Tucson has come in below the usual 10 to 14 inches during the last six years, those whose job it is to watch the use of water have begun to inspect closely how that resource is managed.
In Oro Valley, all water used is pumped out of the ground, and while there is a sufficient supply to meet the town's immediate needs, people like McCaleb look into the future and try to determine what the need will be down the road, and if there will be enough to go around.
"We have no indication of when, or if, the drought will end," McCaleb said. "We need to take the steps to make sure we are not misusing what we have."
Councilmembers Culver and Helen Dankwerth have taken particular interest in conservation issues and have several ideas about how to encourage better use of water. They are working to start a discussion between the council, the town's water conservation specialist and the people who develop in Oro Valley.
One example the two offered is to look at the possibility of giving a credit to homeowners who have water use audited and then follow up on suggestions to make their homes more efficient. They also have suggested giving homeowners an option of having gutters and down spouts that would allow them to harvest rain water to use it in watering plants.
Dankwerth said the council could even consider passing an ordinance that would mandate water harvesting and perhaps even give incentives back to builders who included the proper equipment on new construction.
She asked Taczanowsky, also the president of the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association, if he believes the home builders would be receptive to this idea.
Taczanowsky said he could not speak definitively to that idea, however, he said getting the players together at the table to see what could be done to manage water better is something to which he would be open. He said bringing commercial development into the discussion would also be necessary if the town was serious about overall conservation and management.
McCaleb said the discussion is a long time coming.
"We need to partner up like this," he said of the idea. "We need the builders to work with us and we can work with the builders."
The council members said they hope to have that discussion in the coming year, and look forward to a study session on the topic as soon as possible.
"I think it's great that the council is raising awareness," McCaleb said. In order to utilize this resource effectively, he said it will take not only awareness, however, but also commitment, funding and resources.
For now, McCaleb said the town is hoping education will do the trick when it comes to fixing some of these problems.
The water department in Oro Valley estimates that a single family residence will use 10,000 gallons of water per month. Forty percent of that is usually used for landscaping.
As McCaleb led the audit around the Taczanowsky residence, he pointed to plants that are natural desert dwellers, using the least amount of water, and those that don't do nearly as well in hot, arid conditions. He said encouraging indigenous plants means less water will be used in keeping them healthy.
He also suggests that if a homeowner is going to have potted plants, they be put on their own "zone," meaning that the irrigation lines running to them operate separately from others.
"The amount of water for a potted plant versus one in the yard is day and night," he said. Pots dry out faster, which means they need to be watered more often. But if the whole yard is watered because the potted plants need a drink, it is excessive, McCaleb said, and not always healthy for the plants.
There is such a thing as too much water for yard plants. If they are getting water everyday, trees, large shrubs and native cacti will not have to grow deep roots to reach the water, because it will always be right at the surface waiting for them.
During the winter months, he said, people can shut irrigation systems off completely, watering by hand only when the plants look like they need it.
"Watch them," he said. "If they need a squirt, give them a squirt."
He cautions against turning on the hoses for shorter periods of time, but still watering everyday.
"It's the wrong thing to do," he said. "You want more volume, less frequent." Again, because it helps that precious moisture reach down deep in the soil, encouraging healthy root growth. This practice mimics that of the natural monsoons of the area.
McCaleb suggested that Taczanowsky wean the plants off the steady water supply, because they have been "babied" for a year, and cutting off the water now could damage them.
He also sold Taczanowsky a rain sensor, part of another program the town is promoting. The sensors are installed outside and monitor rainfall so that when it rains, irrigation systems will not come on. The sensors cost $7.50 and are available through the town.
McCaleb admits that fixing irrigation systems to be more desert-friendly is "a big job", one that will cost money in order to redo the pipes and add additional valves. But he said the job is manageable and well worth the efforts, not only for the good it does the environment, but also for the money it will save over time on water bills.
But landscaping is only part of the work. McCaleb said changing personal habits also is important for some people who may not be aware of how they use water.
"It's really the difference between taking a 10 minute shower instead of a 20 minute shower or not letting the water run when you are brushing your teeth."
During his audits, McCaleb asks people a lot of questions about water use to see if they may have problems inside the house that go beyond landscaping. He asks if there have been any recent spikes in their water bill, something that may indicate an equipment failure, such as a leaky toilet.
McCaleb told Taczanowsky after a thorough look at his house that he could cut his $60 a month water bill in half by implementing these changes.
Taczanowsky moved to his home about a year ago from Modesto, Calif. where residents pay a flat fee for water, no matter how much they use.
He said education, and perhaps even a higher premium placed on the resource, could discourage people from abusing it.
As for his own usage, Taczanowsky said the audit was an eye opening experience for him and he hopes to be able to implement changes right away. He encourages more people to take advantage of the process.
"I know I am going to do things differently now," he said. "I don't want to waste water, that's important to me."