U.S. Water News Online
RENO, Nev. -- The Truckee River rushes through wildly different worlds as it drops more than 2,500 feet in elevation on its 100-mile trek from the alpine waters of Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake on the desert floor.
Along the way, it traverses a microcosm of what the West has become in a century of development -- from upscale tourist communities in the Sierra, through downtown Reno, and finally to the farm irrigation canals of rural Nevada.
It seems the perfect place to study competing public attitudes about water conservation and environmental values in the West.
Or so was the thinking of a team of researchers who launched a study nearly four years ago to compare and contrast the three communities -- ``a water rich one, a rapidly growing metropolitan area in an arid climate, and an agricultural community struggling to maintain its share of dwindling water rights.''
They expected to find sharp contrasts, ``given the considerable differences across the watershed in terms of economic base and precipitation,'' said Craig W. Trumbo, the lead researcher now at the University of Wisconsin.
``But to our surprise, we found almost no meaningful differences across the three communities,'' he said.
From environmentally minded, outdoor-types atop the mountains around Truckee, Calif., to the dust-covered sheep ranchers near Fallon, Nev., most of the attitudes were the same. Among them:
Trumbo began the study -- ``Orientations Toward Water Conservation in the Truckee River Watershed'' -- in 1997 with grants from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He was on a temporary teaching assignment at the time at the University of Nevada, Reno's Reynolds School of Journalism.
The findings are being reviewed by a number of utility planners, government managers, and private consultants who work to spread the word of water conservation across the West.
``Orientation toward water conservation does not appear to be strongly related to individuals' general environmental ethic,'' concluded Trumbo, an assistant professor of communication who formerly worked as a news photographer
``Promotional messages need not, or may even best avoid, arguments that are couched in environmentalism,'' he said.
``Broad conservation efforts may not need to be tailored to the specific communities across the watershed.''
The snow melt that fills Lake Tahoe and neighboring reservoirs feeding the Truckee River is the primary source of water for Reno-Sparks and much of western Nevada.
At 6,228 feet above sea level, the lake surrounded by mountains is a mammoth body of water -- 21 miles long by 12 miles wide. Some 1,600-feet deep, it would cover the entire state of California with 14.5 inches of water.
About half of the water released from Tahoe down the Truckee is sent through the canals to the Newlands Irrigation Project, the first large-scale government project of its kind when it was built in 1905.
The water makes the desert bloom with cantaloupes and alfalfa around Fallon, where only 5 inches of rain falls a year compared with the 18 feet of snow annually at Lake Tahoe.
It's the source of continual political feuding over how much water should be divided for farming, residential use, historic trout runs, and endangered qui-ui fish in Pyramid Lake on the Paiute Indian tribe's reservation.
Some farmers and ranchers are defensive about what they say is a bad rap regarding their attitudes on water conservation. One local leader says the study might help clear the air.
``We get lambasted all the time by people who say that we hate conservation and that all we have done is waste water,'' said Jamie Mills of the Newlands Water Protective Association in Fallon.
``It's not true. We can't stay in business in the desert if we do that,'' she said.
Public attitudes about water are of particular concern these days because of the explosive population growth in the Reno area, which grew from 50,000 residents in 1950 to 190,000 in 1990, then jumped to 280,000 in 2000. Reno's population is projected to reach 400,000 by 2020.
The new study co-written by Garrett J. O'Keefe and Cindy T. Christen at Wisconsin found ``great concern about the growth rate of the community and the fairness of expecting longtime residents to pay more for water while building continues at a fast pace.
``There was also considerable dissatisfaction expressed about local water planning and about individuals who `cheat' on voluntary watering schedules,'' Trumbo said.
In other words, good old-fashioned peer pressure appears to be one of the best tools for spurring water conservation.
Janet Carson, director of water policy and water planning for Sierra Pacific Power Co., agrees. In Reno-Sparks, where rainfall averages 7.5 inches a year, residential and commercial water users are allowed to water their lawns only two days a week.
``There is a strong ethic not to waste water here,'' Carson said.
``Our angriest calls are usually from a customer who sees some neighbor wasting water,'' she said. ``They want something done about it.''
Sierra Pacific has been doing similar research into public opinion for years, Carson said.
``The findings we have come up with are fairly similar to what Trumbo found,'' she said.
One of the biggest public misconceptions, Carson said is that current residents think they pay for the water required for new development.
``One thing we've found over the years, that Trumbo reinforced, is that people don't like to conserve if they believe the conserved water is going for growth,'' she said.
But, in fact, that doesn't happen, she said.
``The challenge is to educate the customers that every new subdivision brings in a new water supply with it,'' Carson said.
``So their conservation is not going for growth. It helps to make the resource more efficient and saves on new facilities. In particular, the twice-a-week watering program helps reduce peaks in the summer.''
In addition, state and federal law requires that any water saved through water conservation be used for drought supply or to benefit the environment.
The Trumbo study was launched as an effort got under way to add water meters that will measure water use for Reno-area customers who traditionally paid a flat rate for unlimited residential use, within the confines of the daily watering restrictions.
Steve Walker, who worked for the Washoe County Water Resources division when the study was initiated and now is a private water consultant, said many newcomers are surprised the area had gone so long without water meters.
``But Sacramento doesn't have water meters. New York City just put in water meters. Denver went through a major transition,'' Walker said.
The policy in Nevada dates to legislation passed in 1913, he said. The idea back then was to help attract developers.
``The founding fathers and the Chamber of Commerce people wanted people coming to Reno to think that there was plenty of water -- that it was not desert,'' Walker said.
``They wanted to create a picture of a landscape that was more lush. And that attitude prevailed through the years.''
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