With a few simple clicks, individuals of Athens-Clarke County can pledge to save over 68,000 gallons of water in a year. But actions speak louder than that number.
During the month of April, ACC Mayor Kelly Girtz is promoting the Wyland National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation. In a video posted on the ACC government website with guest star Lily Anne Phibian — the county’s friendly-looking frog and water conservation mascot — Girtz encourages all to participate in simple tasks, such as fixing leaks and turning off lights after leaving a room.
Though a playful approach, it’s not all fun and games.
“Water’s a scarce resource and one that we always should be conscious of,” Girtz said.
The nation-wide water conservation competition pits cities against each other in a race to the top. As residents complete the online pledge, cities move up the ranks based on population categories. Athens, with a population of about 127,000, is ranked 194, according to the My Water Pledge website.
Girtz said part of his willingness to join comes from a friendly competition between himself and the mayor of Gainesville, Florida.
Participants who pledge have the opportunity to win prizes such as free utilities for a year, a package of eco-friendly home cleaning products or a gift card to a local home improvement store. Athens has participated in the challenge before, placing second behind Ventura, California, in the April 2016 challenge in the 100,000-299,999 population category.
The pledge is hypothetical. Four short prompts ask what an individual would do to save water and other resources, such as take shorter showers, use a refillable water bottle, recycle proper materials and abandon plastic straw use. Girtz said he recognizes people might not actively follow the pledge, but he hopes the public becomes “thoughtful and conscious” regarding water conservation.
Whether residents have adopted more conservative practices or not, ACC has reduced its water use over the years.
Laurie Loftin, water conservation coordinator in the ACC Public Utilities Department, is a strong believer in education as a means for change. For something like water conservation, she thinks teaching “constant reinforcement” of mindful habits regarding water efficiency is most beneficial when it starts at the bottom, with kids.
“I ask kids, ‘Would you ever go take two gallons of good fresh milk and pour it straight down the drain?’”
—Laurie Loftin, water conservation coordinator in the ACC Public Utilities Department
The water conservation office heads free informational programs available to ACC schools, as well as hosts the annual Athens Water Festival. Loftin said in 2018, her office interacted with about 8,000 children and 2,800 adults.
“We tend to take water for granted,” Loftin said. “I ask kids, ‘Would you ever go take two gallons of good fresh milk and pour it straight down the drain?’”
A greater overall understanding of the value of water goes hand in hand with state regulations in tackling community consumption. According to the Georgia State Amendments to the International Plumbing Code, toilets installed in all new construction or renovations cannot exceed 1.28 gallons of water per flush, following state standards effective since July 2012.
Georgia is also a partner in the WaterSense program, managed by the Environmental Protection Agency since its start in 2006. The program certifies water-using fixtures that use 20% less water than the federal minimum specified for different types of toilets, showerheads, urinals and faucets, as outlined by the 1992 Energy Policy Act.
million gallons of water were used
per day from April 1-7.
On a strictly commercial level, the ACC Certified Blue program aids businesses in a switch to water efficiency. Right now, 32 businesses are involved, most being restaurants and about half being bars and fast food establishments.
According to an analysis conducted on the participating businesses 12 months before and after becoming certified blue, restaurants had about a 10% decrease in water use while bars and fast food chains had about a 7% increase.
So where does Athens-Clarke County fall on the spectrum? Between April 1-7, 2019, about 11.97 million total gallons of water were used per day, Loftin said.
In 2015, ACC withdrew about 13 million gallons of water per day, according to the United States Geological Survey. In 1995, each person in ACC used about 218 gallons per day of public water supply — water is withdrawn and supplied to consumers from county departments and private companies, according to the USGS.
Plans in the pipes
As mayor, one of Girtz’s focuses is improving water quality through initiatives that will also cover water quantity.
Through a mass tree planting effort happening later this year, Girtz hopes to improve urban tree canopy cover. With more trees towering over impervious surfaces — exemplified by the concrete jungle that is downtown Athens — less water becomes runoff that collects chemicals and litter on its way to rivers, the main source of water supply.
Girtz estimates that in the next three to 10 years, ACC plans to incorporate purple pipes in its water management system. Purple pipes — distinct in their bright color — carry reclaimed wastewater to be used for irrigation, industrial and other uses where the use of potable water can be replaced.
The financial side isn’t as complicated as it may seem. Girtz said funds are being set aside for these projects.
“When it comes time to get a project off the ground, the money’s in the bank,” Girtz said.