In 1989, when officials in Ashland, Oregon started discussing what to do about the expiration of a key water right in eight years, they realized they had a problem.
They called in a consulting firm, and the consultants told them yes, they had a problem, but it could be fixed by damming Ashland Creek, which would cost about $11 million. For a city of fewer than 20,000 people, the price tag was dismayingly high, and officials feared voters would never approve a bond issue to build such a dam.
While another town might have meekly submitted to the surgery, Ashland wanted a second opinion. Eight years earlier, the community had adopted a progressive set of energy-saving guidelines inspired by the writings of Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI) Amory and Hunter Lovins. That and a retrofit program sponsored by the local utility had shown local leaders that it was often cheaper to decrease the demand for electricity than to increase the supply. If it was possible to generate negawatts, was it possible to build a negadam?
In the West, where dams and diversions are the standard answer to water shortages, efficient toilets and low-flow showerheads are not typically considered serious policy alternatives. But city conservation manager Dick Wanderscheid, who had read Amory Lovins’s Soft Energy Paths, began poring through RMI’s literature for a precedent. He found one in Two Forks, a proposed dam outside Denver, which RMI had demonstrated in 1989 could be eliminated through simple efficiency – at a profit. The dam was cancelled.
The city commissioned a second study, this time by Synergic Resources Corporation of Seattle, to look into the feasibility of offsetting the lost water rights with efficiency measures. SRC’s conclusion: Ashland could save 500,000 gallons a day – the same amount of water as would have been provided by the dam – through a relatively painless community-wide efficiency program. Some of the proposed measures would "create" water even more cheaply than it was costing the city to provide existing water (70 cents per cubic foot); all would do it more cheaply than the dam’s $2.80 per cubic foot. The program would cost $825,000 – about one-twelfth that of the dam.
The city council approved the program in the spring of 1992, and by July, Wanderscheid’s department was conducting home water audits and issuing rebates for efficient toilets and showerheads. Now, two and a half years into the program, Ashland residents are saving 134,000 gallons a day – about a third of the town’s goal, and right on schedule for meeting it by the end of the decade. The program’s projected cost has actually come down as water-efficient technologies have become cheaper.
The dam, meanwhile, would have only gotten costlier. By 1992, its price had risen to $12 million. Worse, Wanderscheid believes that had Ashland proceeded with building the dam, the city would have had to charge so much for water that customers would have voluntarily curtailed their use – a "death spiral" scenario in which the dam, once built, would render itself unnecessary and unrepayable.
Water savings – and a freely flowing Ashland Creek – aren’t even the end of the story. Ashland’s negadam saves residents more than 500,000 kilowatt-hours a year on water heating, thanks mainly to efficient showerheads, and reduces waste water treatment volume by 43 million gallons annually.
Excerpted, with permission, from the Spring l995 Rocky Mountain Institute Newsletter, tel. 970/927-3851, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Dave Reed is editor of the RMI Newsletter.