Traffic continues to be huge air polluter – but local politics makes it hard to say no to new roads.

LOS ANGELES – Based on the annual 2018 “State of the Air” report from The American Lung Association, Los Angeles was ranked the top city spot for high ozone days out of 227 metropolitan locations.

Arizonans should be concerned too as the Grand Canyon state ranked eighth in the same category. And during the summer of 2018, Arizona exceded recommended ozone 49 times.levels and had a record 49 days of dangerous air.

Traffic combined with heat can create unsafe air and in many big cities in the west, air pollution and traffic combined are two of the biggest problems facing those areas. The problem is made worse by rapid growth, suburban sprawl and the “inversion affect,” which traps polluted area in cities near mountains.

The crux of the problem is alleviating the headache of heavy traffic while simultaneously preserving open space and endangered species.

Based on yearly transportation studies, Los Angeles is the most congested city in the country. Orange County, home to 3 million residents, connects to L.A. county and contributes to the load of traffic in the area.

With congested traffic as a main concern for most drivers in Southern California, the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) has established a project involving a route from Orange County, south of LA, to San Clemente, 60 miles south of LA. Orange County is one of the largest counties in the country, home to 3 million people.

Approximately 25 million people live in Southern California, an area where most destinations are not within walking distance.

To combat the escalating population in the 1980s, state transportation officials created four new highways in the Orange County region. The purpose was to create alternative routes to Interstate 5, one of the country’s busiest highways.

Today, the state owns 51 miles of highway throughout the county The plan TSA had in mind was to connect the 241 state highway in the south portion of the O.C. to Interstate 5 freeway. It would eventually merge in San Clemente.

The plan faced several obstacles over the years, most notable lawsuits from the San Onofre coalition, comprised of organizations including the state of California.

Phoenix, ranked lower than L.A., is the fifteenth most congested state in America, based on a 2017 report from the transportation analytics company Inrix. It revealed the city has over three thousand hotspots and the 2026 cost of congestion will be $9.5 billion.

The state is also working on expansion, adding 22 miles to the South Mountain Freeway. According to the Arizona Department of Transportation, the construction is projected to be finished by the end of 2019.

Green lite: Tucson saves water with desert landscaping, synthetic grass

TUCSON – This used to be a city of lawns. Patches of Bermuda grass lined residential neighborhoods, kept green — even in blazing summer months — with diligent watering. Over the decades, that has changed. Most Tucson residents eschew lush lawns in favor of landscaping more in tune with the city’s desert setting — although that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no green at all.

On a recent Friday morning, Hector Mendoza and his crew from the Artificial Grass Superstore, unfurled a patch of synthetic lawn on the driveway of a house in Oro Valley, a suburb of Tucson.

It was a little before 8 a.m., but they’d been at it for a few hours already.

“We like to start as early as possible,” Mendoza said. “Today’s going to be 109 (degrees) so we try to beat the heat as best we can.”

Over the next eight hours, his team would transform the backyard of this house from a dirt lot into an artificial green oasis.

Business these days is good, Mendoza said. Most of his customers come to him for one reason.

“Just the cost of the water and (lawn) maintenance,” he said. “We don’t foresee any cost on water going down.”

Since the 1980s, Tucson residents have replaced their green lawns with decomposed granite and opted for such plants as paloverde trees and cactuses that can endure drought and extreme heat. (Vanessa Barchfield/Arizona Public Media)

Whether or not they go the artificial route, Tucsonans have been ripping out their grass for the past four decades.

“It starts in the ’40s and ’50s, when we had a growth in Tucson, but not a lot of investment was made in infrastructure,” said Fernando Molina, a public information officer for Tucson Water.

During the 1970s, people who moved here from other parts of the country feel water stress for the first time.

“People were coming home at 4 o’clock, 5 o’clock, turning on their irrigation systems, probably doing their laundry as well,” Molina said. “Putting a big burden on the distribution system. And we simply couldn’t pump the water fast enough and deliver it to areas and meet these high demands.”

Tucson Water responded by launching a public information campaign called Beat the Peak, complete with television ads and jingles aimed at persuading residents to water their lawns less and at different points in the day.

“The original slogan was ‘Never Water Between Four and Eight,’” Molina said.

The Tucson City Council entered the fray in the late ’70s, adopting a new rate structure for water use: As people used more water, the unit cost would go up.

That move proved so unpopular all council members who voted for it were recalled. But the rate structure remains in effect today. Molina called the rate structure instrumental in nudging Tucsonans to change their landscaping.

“The desert-landscaping ethic has really taken hold here,” he said. “We are 10 years ahead of most communities in Arizona in terms of even thinking about that and 20 years ahead in terms of doing something about it.”

And that has driven down Tucson’s per capita water use from about 160 gallons per day in 1980 to just more than 120 gallons per day in 2017 — a 25 percent drop.

Pima County Master Gardeners, part of the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension service, is one of several organizations that promote low water-use landscaping and xeriscaping.

“The seven principles of xeriscape are common-sense things like design, using desert adapted plants, having an efficient watering system,” the program’s Eric Johnson said. “Those kinds of things that are no-brainers to longtime Tucsonans and really help to have a beautiful garden and help save a great deal of water.”

Johnson stressed that xeriscaping does not mean zero-scaping. And the Pima County Master Gardeners exists to teach residents about the desert’s rich landscaping options.

Even with no grass on the ground, landscape architect Steve Grede's home garden is an oasis of green in downtown Tucson. (Vanessa Barchfield/Arizona Public Media)

“One of the most visible ways we do that is with our demonstration garden that we have out here,” he said. “We like to think that it’s the biggest master-gardener demonstration garden in the Southwest.”

Visitors to the garden get ideas for their own yards.

“One is hesitant to be the only one on their street to take out a lawn and put in a rock and very different form of landscape,” said Steve Grede, a Tucson landscape architect.

“But in Tucson, it really took hold and it took hold in a major way,” Grede said. “So much of landscape is based on fashion.”

Although he’s an expert on desert landscaping, Grede said he “did have a very small lawn area that I stopped planting over a year ago, and I’ve just let it go totally dormant.”

His motivation for losing his lawn is closely linked to the water-rate policy implemented in the late-’70s.

“I am eager to bring my water bill down,” he said, but his reasoning went beyond his wallet. “It’s my sense of responsibility living in a desert environment. I would like to be a little bit more in harmony with this desert environment.”

This story is part of a collaborative series from the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, supported by a Walton Family Foundation grant, the Mountain West News Bureau, and Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between public radio and TV stations in the West, supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

One of the country’s fastest growing areas is SW Utah, where water is cheap

ST. GEORGE, Utah – Brooks Kelly stopped at a display of smart sprinkler-system controllers.

“This six-station timer — it’s got a rebate,” said Kelly, who works the plumbing aisle at the local Home Depot. “You buy it (and the) Washington County water district gives a $99 credit to your water bill. So this is free.”

A conservation ethic is growing in the nation’s second-driest state, which requires all 21 Utah water districts to set conservation goals and incentives, such as the rebates Kelly talked about, that discourage water use.

But Utah also is pushing forward with a plan to tap more water from the Colorado River to serve two counties in the southwestern corner of the state.

St. George is the center of the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country in the driest part of Utah. It’s an oasis in red-rock country where the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin and the Mojave Desert overlap. Its location and popularity present a big challenge: how to keep growing with limited water.

It’s a problem the Mormon pioneers who settled this area faced.

“They were sent down here and people told them they couldn’t survive — but they did,” Thompson said. “Told them they couldn’t grow cotton — but they did. Told them they wouldn’t stay — but they did. And that can-do attitude has permeated this culture here for 160, 170 years, and I still see it there.”

For Thompson, working together on conservation now is important. But he’s said for more than a decade that conservation alone can’t support growth here, which is projected to swell from a population of 165,000 to 500,000 by 2060.

That’s why Thompson has led efforts to build the Lake Powell Pipeline — basically a giant straw to draw Colorado River water over 140 miles of desert. The project would deliver enough water for around 99,000 households, more than triple the current number. It would cost over $1 billion.

Developers of the West’s big water projects like the Lake Powell Pipeline are sometimes called “water buffaloes.” But Thompson has his own take on the term.

“I’m not sure I know what a water buffalo is,” he said, “but if it’s someone who’s dedicated their life to water and realizes its importance to the economy and that it is fundamental to the quality of life we expect for ourselves and children, then I plead guilty.”

Pipeline critics see Utah’s water situation in a different light. They question whether the Utah lifestyle really requires so much water.

Looking at the numbers, it’s a fair question.

The average person in the seven Colorado River Basin states uses 164 gallons per day (GPCD). Meanwhile, the state of Utah’s GPCD is 214.

St. George, Utah, is the center of the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country, according to the Census Bureau.

According to Utah’s federal application for the Lake Powell Pipeline, the state is planning for the project based on 325 GPCD in the St. George area from 2010.

“The real elephant in the room is the price,” said Nick Schou, conservation director for the environmental group Utah Rivers Council.

He said Utahans would consume less if utilities charged what water’s really worth.

“We have the cheapest water that you’ll find anywhere in the United States,” Schou said.

KUER tested Schou’s assertion by comparing a prices in the Colorado River Basin. The question was: What’s the cost of 28,000 gallons of water, the average amount used by St. George residential customers in July?

In nearby Las Vegas, the bill would be $111 dollars. In Denver, $144. And in Tucson, it would be $235.

The picture in Utah is dramatically different. Salt Lake City customers are paying $75 for those 28,000 gallons in hottest month of the year. St. George water customers pay less than $61.

Schou said Utah is decades behind in conservation.

“We’re really looking at a legacy of destruction for water projects we don’t need,” he said. “And it’s really a shame, because we have so many alternatives, so many different options to have a really prosperous growing community.”

Back at the Home Depot in St. George, Roy Schell headed out of the garden section. He lives north of Grand Junction along the Colorado River and travels throughout Utah for his job as a tech consultant.

Schell said he’s surprised by all the turf he sees and all the gushing sprinkler heads.

“We don’t have enough water to not conserve,” he said.

Schell said he and his wife watch their water bills closely. This year he’s watched the water levels drop especially low on the Colorado River, the source residents of the seven Basin states rely on.

But here in southwestern Utah, people don’t seem as concerned. And he said that makes him “a little angry.”

This story is part of a collaborative series from the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, supported by a Walton Family Foundation grant, the Mountain West News Bureau, and Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between public radio and TV stations in the West, supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

From injured turtles to sustainable clothing: finding inspiration in unexpected places

LOS ANGELES — Like many accomplished football players, Glenn Love Jr. never worried much about life after the game. When he started playing professionally, however, the uncertainty set in.

That changed after a visit to the Turtle Rescue conservation program at the OdySea Aquarium in Scottsdale.

“They were like missing some limbs and I was like, ‘What happened? Why are they missing limbs’? ” said Love, a former Chandler Hamilton High School standout who plays linebacker for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.

Love learned the turtles had been injured by plastic debris, including plastic water bottles in the ocean. The aquarium had to remove their limbs in order to save the turtles from dying.

Around that same time, in May of 2017, Love launched IInner Vision Apparel company, a sustainable clothing line. He wanted a business that could also make a social impact. Inspired in part by the turtles, the apparel is made from 95 percent recycled material, and shirts specifically are constructed from five to 10 plastic bottles, recycled cotton and eco-friendly water-based ink.

Plastic that is not recycled often ends up in a landfill or ocean. According to a study by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, plastic takes about 450 years to decompose into the earth. If it lands in the ocean, it can potentially add to an island of trash debris in the Pacific that has grown up to 600,000 square miles, according to a study in the Nature the International Journal of Science, which is twice the size of the Texas.

Glenn Love Jr. plays linebacker in the Canadian Football League. He was a standout at Hamilton High. (Photo courtesy Glenn Love Jr.)

In addition to the harmful effects of plastic, the fashion industry has a significant impact on the environment, experts say. Whether it is the practices used overseas to grow cotton or the transportation used, the apparel industry leaves a substantial carbon footprint. That motivated Love to focus on recycled cotton.

“The carbon footprint is seen in transportation and where it’s grown and how it’s grown. Most fibers are being grown with pesticides,” said Nicole Darnall, a professor of management and public policy at Arizona State’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. “They are chemically grown. And most synthetics fibers are derived from petroleum.”

Before Love had a passion for sustainable fashion, he was a football standout at Hamilton High. He lettered in four sports at the varsity level and holds the school record for most interceptions in a season (10). He also secured a 5A MVP title and a state championship.

After graduating from Hamilton, he played four seasons at UCLA where he was converted from defensive back to linebacker. He is playing his seventh season in the Canadian Football League.

Once Love started his professional career, he said he felt it was his duty to show that athletes can make a positive impact on society.

“I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just me that (my future) was affecting but it was affecting other people, too, in a positive way,” Love said.

A visit to an aquarium gave him direction.

“Seeing those things swim sideways because it had one arm, that’s because of us not because of them. They didn’t do anything wrong,” Love said. “It is because of us. Millions of sea creatures and sea life dies because of us. That really changed things.”

Love was looking for a manufacturer to produce his clothing line around the same time he visited the aquarium and found Brett Matheson, the owner of Yoganastix, a company in Arizona that produces clothing material from recycled plastic bottles.

Glenn Love. Jr. works out in clothing made from IInner Vision Apparel, the sustainable clothing company he owns. (Phot courtesy Glenn Love Jr.)

“He (Matheson) really showed me some materials … polyester, cotton, the blends and all that kind of stuff. Last one he showed me was like recycled bottles so I am like, ‘what’? ” Love said.

In that moment Love knew what he was going to do.

“When you see those turtles and me seeing this material, it was meant to be,” he said.

Although it is a good start to becoming more sustainable, it does have unintended consequences, said George Basile, a senior sustainability scientist at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. Microfiber pollution, which is the shedding of microplastics from synthetic fabrics used to make clothing, can occur.

“It’s not a bad step. You’re building a business on the idea of cycling, and cycles and surfaces and recycling. … That may position you better for using other materials that need to be recycled that are OK that leak into nature,” Basile said. “I think overall it’s a good step toward where you want to go but it’s incomplete. We want business that are interested in heading toward completeness but also are not trapped by having to be perfect.”

More than a year has passed since Love launched IInner Vision Apparel. The company has expanded from being online only to being included in Kalloni’s Closet Boutique in Gilbert.

“Immediately, he reminds me so much of myself just from his personality. Just like out how he operates,” owner Keller Ziegler said. “This is absolutely going to work out.”

The lack of a business background and fashion acumen created a few setbacks for Love, who has struggled to adjust to unexpected obstacles.

Glenn Love Jr. wears items from his clothing line. Recycled plastic bottles are used to make his shirts. (Photo courtesy Glenn Love Jr.)

“Now I’ve got to learn how to deal with people overseas, that when I was going to bed they were getting up,” he said. “So I was getting up at 3 in the morning. You cannot speak the same language and you might say one thing to someone from here and they might interpret it as something else.”

This has not deterred Love, who hopes to one day have his own brick and mortar storefront for IInner Vision, as well as be a distributor for other apparel companies looking to use sustainable materials for their clothing. He is looking to develop a business relationship with fitness brand SoulCycle and to expand into Canada.

“Maybe have a store where its all eco-friendly brands. Might be local. Might be from Zimbabwe,” Love said. “It doesn’t matter.”

“I want to have eco-friendly clothes so everyone can see that we can compete with the rest of the world with making good quality clothes.”

Water just right: HOAs strive for green fields and conservation

PHOENIX – Jose Alvarez, a supervisor at R. H. Dupper Landscaping, stood up from changing a sprinkler nozzle on a large grassy field at a homeowner’s association in Chandler, Arizona. He surveyed the turf, a patchwork of green and brown.

“It looks terrible,” he said. “The sprinklers, they don’t have enough pressure, and they spray, like, a little bit.” He noted the rings, like miniature crop circles, created by uneven watering.

Josh Dupper said they get a lot of business fixing this kind of problem.

“Their water bills were through the roof because they were essentially flood irrigating,” Dupper said. “It still looked bad, even while they were spending a ton on water. And their landscaper just did not know what to do.”

Revamping the irrigation plan is the first step. Then, Dupper’s company uses historical evapotranspiration data and homemade software to determine how much a field gets watered. He has crews come to each site monthly to take readings and adjust settings based on the forecast.

Josh Dupper of R.H. Dupper Landscaping in the Phoenix area says his industry lags behind in the technical knowledge needed to finely-tune water use to weather conditions. (Bret Jaspers/KJZZ)

It’s a Goldilocks approach to landscape watering: not too much, not too little, but just right.

Lawns and landscaping are polarizing symbols when we talk about water use in the desert. Some communities are paying homeowners to rip out their grass. Others, like this Chandler HOA, are trying to save water on the green fields that residents adore.

In nearby Gilbert, Arizona, Jeff Lee is trying to nudge HOAs to look at watering that way.

Lee, a water conservation specialist for the town, traces an HOA’s landscape area using Google Earth Pro, converts that to square footage, then uploads the HOA’s monthly water usage to a vendor. The vendor, Waterfluence, analyzes the data using that month’s actual weather — not the historical weather conditions Dupper uses. HOAs and landscapers can see the results on a web portal.

“We can actually show them the cost comparisons,” Lee said. “How many dollars they should’ve spent on water and how many dollars they actually did spend on water based on what the landscaper was doing.”

Lee doesn’t want HOAs to underwater their large fields, trees and shrubs. The point is to let them know if they’re hitting that Goldilocks volume of water that maintains lush grass with low levels of water waste.

This homeowners' association in Chandler, Arizona overspent on water and still had patchy results. (Bret Jaspers/KJZZ)

The Gilbert program is free for HOAs and voluntary. Lee said about 30 percent of the town’s 205 HOAs are enrolled. He estimated Gilbert saves over 200 million gallons of water a year through the program.

If you’re using too much water, though, getting on track can be expensive.

Kayte Comes is a board member of her HOA in Peoria, northwest of Phoenix. When her community, the Village at Vistancia, chose a new landscaper, they hired a firm that prioritizes conservation. Upon that firm’s recommendation, the board decided to replace parts of their irrigation system.

“Not every HOA, unfortunately, has the funds to do that,” she said. “But it’s gonna save your HOA in the long run.”

She added that a lot of businesses are willing to work with customers to help them afford upfront costs.

Some HOAs and landscapers are turning to so-called “smart controllers,” devices that adjust watering levels automatically. But Lee, Dupper and others say the smart controller is only as smart as the landscaper who programs it. Landscapers in Arizona can get a license if they pass two exams and have four years of experience.

“Part of the problem with the industry is it’s not advancing as fast as it should in the technical aspect,” Dupper said. “Because there’s no accountability or requirement to have it.”

The state of Arizona puts a water limit on HOAs in so-called “active management areas” in the middle of the state. Even then, it only applies to those with ten acres of landscaping or more. But with an increasing awareness of tech tools and water scarcity, more HOAs may be looking for that Goldilocks volume.

This story is part of a collaborative series from the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, supported by a Walton Family Foundation grant, the Mountain West News Bureau, and Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between public radio and TV stations in the West, supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Ode to the toilet, a champion of water conservation

Throughout the Western U.S., water conservation is in the toilet.

And that’s a good thing.

Since the 1990s, a strange phenomenon has played out in arid Western urban areas. Populations are booming while overall water use is staying the same or going down. The trend is clear in Denver, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, San Diego and Phoenix: Cities are growing and using less water in the process.

It’s impossible to give credit to one single solution, but one could make a strong case that the M.V.P. award for water conservation efforts should go to the modern toilet.

The toilet is the single largest user of water in the home. It uses more than the washing machine, the dishwasher, the shower or the kitchen faucet. About a quarter of all water that enters a home will flow through the toilet according to a 2016 study. Each day the average toilet will use about 33 gallons of water.

That might sound like a lot, but it’s a big improvement. In 1999 the average toilet guzzled more than 45 gallons of water daily.

The story of how the toilet became the unsung hero of water conservation includes an act of Congress, a concerted effort to hunt down old models, logs of miso paste and some serious elbow grease.

Out with the old

Theresa MacFarland lives in an historic two-story home in Longmont, Colorado with her husband and two kids. Built in 1928, it has all the vintage touches: hardwood floors, big windows, wood detailing and one really old toilet.

A little stamp on the bowl says it was built in the 1950s. MacFarland points it out to her 4-year-old daughter Althea.

“That toilet has been there longer than daddy and I have been alive,” she says. “Probably longer than grandma and grandpa have been alive.”

As aging toilets are wont to do, it started acting up. This vintage model wasn’t pulling its weight and McFarland started shopping around.

She called Resource Central, a Boulder, Colorado-based conservation group and asked for help to put in a new, more water-friendly model. Pretty soon Neka Sunlin showed up with the latest in toilet technology. Sunlin oversees the group’s toilet replacement program, Flush for the Future.

“We guesstimate this one is using about 5 gallons a flush,” she says about the old toilet. “The new one uses less than one.”

In Sunlin’s years with Resource Central, this is the oldest toilet she’s condemned to the local recycling center. By swapping it out, the McFarland family could see a significant dip in their water bill, she says.

A fast-growing alternative to high-priced Boulder, the city of Longmont has an interest in what happens in the MacFarland family’s bathroom. Water saved from their home is water that can be put to use somewhere else.

That’s why the city, along with a handful of other water providers on Colorado’s Front Range, subsidizes the cost of high-efficiency toilets and their installation. MacFarland is paying $175 for the toilet itself, the cost of installation and removal of the old toilet. Her new model retails for $160.

Sunlin says it’s an easy switch with a big pay off. With other conservation programs you first have to convince people to use less water.

“But a toilet is a toilet,” she says, “and it’s no behavior change whatsoever you literally just save water with every flush.”

In the last three years Resource Central has upgraded 2,000 toilets, which they calculate out to 500 million gallons of water saved when looking at the average lifespan of the toilet at 30 years.

“Most people don’t realize that if their toilet is more than 10 or 15 years old replacing their toilet or upgrading their toilet is one of the most impactful ways they can save water,” says Neal Lurie president of Resource Central.

The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides support for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

“It can save between 200 and 300 thousand gallons of water over the life of that toilet,” he says.

In with the new

The road to high-efficiency toilets began back in 1992. The concern was less about water scarcity in the West and more about overwhelmed sewage systems on the east coast.

Congress was feeling pressure to pass national standards for water use and came up with the Energy Policy Act, a law that spawned a generation of low-flow fixtures.

For the plumbing industry, it was a huge deal.

“Absolutely, it was an extremely watershed moment, no pun intended,” says Pete DeMarco with the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials.

Resource Central technician Max Hartmann installs a high-efficiency toilet in this Longmont, Colorado home. (Luke Runyon/KUNC)

The law mandated that toilets only flush using 1.6 gallons of water or less. Throughout the 1990s, low-flush toilets flooded the market. DeMarco says even though the regulations received input from toilet manufacturers, the new models received heaps of scorn from users who complained that their new and improved toilets performed worse, unable to finish the job in a single flush.

“There were some poor-performing products back in the mid-90s. I think the regulation caught some manufacturers off guard,” he says.

In many cases, DeMarco says, manufacturers had simply reduced the amount of water a toilet used without making significant changes to its inner workings. A lower flow just couldn’t cut it.

The frustrated customers sent toilet-makers back to the drawing board. A new test from a company called Maximum Performance allowed manufacturers to demonstrate that their low-flow toilets could actually evacuate the bowl with one flush. In simulations, toilets would be loaded up with logs of miso paste to show their effectiveness.

DeMarco says toilets can’t take all the credit, but this one innovation is a big reason why cities have been able to grow and still keep their water use in check. Indoor use dropped 22 percent nationwide between 1999 and 2016, much of that due to swapping out old fixtures.

In recent years some states with water scarcity problems — like Colorado and California — have passed even tighter regulations on how much water toilets can use.

“So you basically have these high-efficiency toilets now as a matter of course. You cannot go out in a store in Colorado, in California, and buy an old toilet,” says Drew Beckwith with the environmental organization Western Resource Advocates.

The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides support for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

Beckwith says conservationists have been a victim of their own success. With national standards in place and active replacement programs throughout the country, there’s not much more they can do to limit water use inside homes. All new developments are putting in high-efficiency toilets because there’s no other option in the market. And when existing homes have their old models crap out, the only replacement they’ll find will be a high-efficiency option.

“We’ve sort of done our business with respect to toilets,” Beckwith says. “And it’s time to, you know, maybe get off the pot and move on to outdoor water use which is more the focus of urban water efficiency today.”

Fixing the flush

Back at the MacFarland home, the transition is complete. The nearly 70-year-old toilet is loaded on a van bound for the recycling plant. The brand new high-efficiency toilet is hooked up and the water is flowing.

“This is going to be a huge improvement,” Theresa MacFarland says. “And it feels like with very little effort, which I’m very excited about.”

Even though some conservationists feel like the indoor water use fruit has been plucked, a 2017 Alliance for Water Efficiency study found that more than 13 million non-efficient toilets — those that flush more than 1.6 gallons — remain installed in five states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia and Texas.

Theresa MacFarland and her daughter Althea, 4, decided to scrap their 1950s-era toilet for a high-efficiency model in an effort to make their historic home more environmentally friendly. (Luke Runyon/KUNC)

A nationwide push to rid the country of old toilets could have a significant effect.

If all toilets were high-efficiency indoor water use could drop an additional 35 percent to below 40 gallons per person per day, the study projected.

MacFarland says she loves the character and charm of her historic home, and says she’s focused on making it environmentally-friendly. But it takes time, energy and money to make it happen.

“We’ve been slowly trying to figure out ways to have just less water usage in this home,” she says. “Knowing in Colorado it’s such a precious resource, and we want our kids to grow up here and also recognize what comes with living in Colorado and trying to do our part.”

The Resource Central technicians ask for a practice flush to make sure it’s working right before they depart. The honor of the first flush goes to McFarland’s daughter Althea.

“Check it out. There’s this new button,” MacFarland says as she motions to her daughter. “Kind of the same as the other one, except inside the tank this is so different than the other one. This one just uses a little bit of water.”

“And it’s cleaner,” Althea says.

“And it’s cleaner, way cleaner,” MacFarland says.

This story is part of a collaborative series from the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, supported by a Walton Family Foundation grant, the Mountain West News Bureau, and Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between public radio and TV stations in the West, supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Feds to reconsider yellow-billed cuckoo’s threatened species status

WASHINGTON – Federal officials said they will re-evaluate the threatened species status of the western yellow-billed cuckoo, after petitions from Arizona miners, ranchers and other groups argued that the species is no different from thriving eastern populations of the bird.

The notice Wednesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service comes in response to a May 2017 letter from the groups who argued that the 2014 decision to declare the bird threatened was a mistake. They also said that threats to the bird’s survival “do not now and never have risen to the level that protection under the ESA (Endangered Species Act) is warranted.”

But environmental groups said they will fight any move to remove the cuckoo, which they said “plays a unique role in an ecosystem, being up there in the canopy and ambushing caterpillars and other small invertebrates.”

“These tenacious, beautiful birds play an essential role in balancing nature in areas, but they also build a metric for how well we conserve beautiful areas that we all value,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said that while the yellow-billed cuckoo is found throughout the eastern and central U.S., the western subspecies of the bird is disappearing over much of the West. They prefer dense wooded areas with water nearby, but much of its habitat in the West has been lost to farming and housing, the government said.

It also said that the birds, as long-distance, nocturnal fliers, are “vulnerable to collisions with tall buildings, cell towers, radio antennas, wind turbines and other structures.”

The National Park Service said the western yellow-billed cuckoo has nearly vanished in the Pacific Northwest, with most of the remaining birds found in “isolated patches of riparian habitat along rivers in Arizona, California, and New Mexico.” It is found in limited numbers in every county in Arizona, according to Fish and Wildlife.

The Center for Biological Diversity said the cuckoo’s western population was “first identified as needing federal protection in 1986,” and the center first petitioned to have it listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1998.

But opponents – including the Arizona Mining Association and Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, among others – are challenging the listing of the western birds as a separate subspecies. Their petition said that based on “both new data and new interpretations of previously available information,” they believe the western populations of the bird are no different from the eastern segments.

The government has said that there is enough new evidence for it to begin a review.

“The crux of the petition is questioning the differentiation between the eastern and the western (yellow-billed cuckoo),” said Jennifer Norris, the field supervisor at the Sacramento office of Fish and Wildlife. “The petition was to delist it. If we got through this long process and agree with that proposal, it would be taken off the list.”

Over the next year, Fish and Wildlife officials will collaborate with state agencies and other authorities to complete a comprehensive species status assessment, looking at the fundamentals about the species and its status and threats.

But agency officials stressed that this is just the first step in what could be a long process.

“The western (population) of the yellow-billed cuckoo will remain listed as threatened pending what is realistically a two-year scientific process,” said Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife

Mowers in sheep’s clothing: Flock works at solar panel farm

WILLCOX, Arizona – It was time to bring the sheep in for a drink.

“Go to water, go to water!” shouts Rusty Cocke, who owns about 200 head of sheep that act as living lawn mowers on a solar farm about 20 miles west of Willcox, Arizona.

The sheep have spent the morning munching through mesquite saplings and tall grass. They come in slowly, stepping among rows of solar panels that are harvesting the sun’s energy to power 20,000 Arizona homes.

Rusty Cocke herds his sheep to water after a day of munching grass around solar panels. (Photo by Tayler Brown/Cronkite News)

Once their water break is over, the sheep go back to work on the Red Horse II solar and wind farm, eating vegetation that could grow as high as 7 feet and cast shadows over the solar panels, decreasing their efficiency. The sheep essentially work for food and a place to stay.

Sheep, cows and goats are being used to clean up invasive vegetation on lands in Arizona and other states because, supporters say, it’s cheaper and environmentally friendlier than using machines. Cocke estimated his four-legged landscape operation is 30 percent cheaper than professional landscapers, which can cost $70,000 to $100,000.

Shepherd Rusty Cocke rents out his sheep to clear vegetation growing around solar panels at Red Horse II solar and wind farm. (Photo by Tayler Brown/Cronkite News)

Goats have grazed the grassy areas along Loop 202 in the southeast Valley, according to the East Valley Tribune. In Idaho, the federal Bureau of Land Management is researching whether cattle can graze in areas susceptible to wildfires. And there’s an Arizona website devoted to wildlife landscapers that touts the small carbon footprint of goats and the benefits of turning cattle into “weed managers.”

Machines, goats won’t work

The solar farm tried using people to mow the grass, said Eric Heim, who manages the Red Horse II and other solar and wind farms in the Southwest. But humans and their machines proved to be problematic.

The landscaping equipment was clunky and difficult to maneuver between the rows of solar panels, and it kicked up rocks and debris that could damage the solar arrays. The time investment was another issue.

“Before, it would take someone over 250 hours to mow the plants in between the panels every couple of months,” Heim said.

He considered using goats, but because goats will eat just about anything, they likely would chew the wires hanging underneath the solar panels. And cows are so big they’d rub against the panels.

Sheep solved the problem.

Cocke, the shepherd of the solar-farm herd, said sheep can handle most plants that nature provides. At the solar farm, Johnson grass, tumbleweed and mesquite trees can shade or overgrow panels if they’re not controlled.

At Red Horse II, which is owned and operated by a Houston company and contracts with Tucson Electric Power to provide renewable energy, the land tells the story of where the sheep have grazed. Red dirt is exposed, dotted with clumps of green near the panels. Elsewhere, golden sweeps of Johnson grass create a sea beneath some solar panels, awaiting hungry sheep.

“The sheep work perfectly symbiotic with the solar panels,” Cocke said. “They cruise through. They eat all the grass. I’ve had so much good luck with them right here.”

Johnson grass can grow 7 feet tall and impede solar-energy harvesting. (Photo by Tayler Brown/Cronkite News)

Cocke raises his sheep off the vegetation they eat at the farm and sells the sheep’s wool and meat for added profits. He would not say how much he was paid for the annual contract at Red Horse II.

Cocke wants to expand his sheep project into other ventures, perhaps even partnering with vineyards in southeastern Arizona.

Cattle prevent forest fires

Kathy Voth of Tucson, who runs the website Livestock for Landscapes and edits a weekly online magazine about agriculture practices, said livestock landscaping has been around for at least a decade. There’s little data on the practice, but she says it’s growing.

“Every year I get more and more emails about people interested in using animals for landscaping,” said Voth, who put together a handbook on CD, now out of print, with a cover photo of a goat clad in firefighting gear.
In Boise, Idaho, the Bureau of Land Management is researching the use of cattle for “targeted grazing” to reduce the severity and destruction of wildfires in the state, BLM spokesman David Walsh said.

The bureau considered cattle rather than sheep or goats because it feared those animals would spread disease to the vulnerable bighorn sheep population in the area, said Lake Okeson, the acting BLM field manager for the targeted-grazing project.

“This is the kind of stuff BLM should be doing all the time,” Okeson said.

The partnership is fantastic for local cattle owners to fulfill a need within the community and access extra grazing land, he said.

Voth said other commercial landscaping operations, such as Eco-Goats, which rents goats for landscaping in Maryland, have become more popular.

Voth’s website includes a database to connect people interested in goat landscaping with local shepherds who can provide the service.

Grassroots group works to save wild horses on parched Navajo Reservation

NAVAJO RESERVATION – Glenda Seweingyawma plucked quarters from a giant pickle jar and dropped them into the water-station vending machine to fill up a large plastic barrel. It’s a common scene: About 40 percent of Navajos living on the reservation have to haul their drinking water.

But this water wasn’t for humans. It was for wild horses, which have come to depend on it.

“We took one load,” Seweingyawma said. “By the time we get back over there, it was already all gone. And then we get another load of water. And then we go back again and then it’d be gone. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we can’t keep up with these horses.'”

Two weeks ago, Seweingyawma and her friend Paul Lincoln woke up to a group of horses outside their trailer.

“When we first saw them, their heads were down and (they were) walking really slow,” Lincoln said. “They were just kind of like zombie horses. And that’s when we saw these ones drop in front of us, and then we said, ‘That’s it. We better start with buckets of water.’ ”

Last month, more than one hundred wild horses were found dead, stuck in thick mud surrounding a dried-up stock pond on the vast Navajo Reservation.

The images, some of the most alarming we’ve seen of the drought, have prompted many people — both on and off the reservation — to take action.

Thanks to donations, including food and water from people all over Arizona, volunteers now are able to leave alfalfa and fill several water tanks. About a dozen people are taking care of about 200 horses.

Lincoln drove his truck over dirt roads to the first stop, a clearing protected by boulders and dry scrub brush in the high desert of northeastern Arizona.

Volunteers work to unload hay from Tracy and Buddy McDonald’s trailer. (Photo by Laurel Morales/KJZZ)

We came around a bend and there they were — a couple dozen horses that appear more spirited on this day, like the powerful symbols of freedom they’ve come to be known as. But Lincoln noticed a new one — a skinny speckled-gray stallion whose ribs you could count.

He whistled at the herd. “Hey, where you guys going? Come get some water.”

Usually they’d run from any sign of humans, but not lately, not when they haven’t seen rain in months. Navajo officials said this year has been the driest in 15 years of drought.

Bidtah Becker, director of Navajo Natural Resources, said the tribe flew over the reservation two years ago to get an accurate count and found at least 30,000 free-ranging horses in an area the size of West Virginia.

“It’s as much a range-management issue or grass-availability issue as it is a horse issue,” Becker said. “Horses compete with the livestock that Navajo people raise on the range.”

One horse eats 32 pounds of forage and drinks 10 gallons of water per day.

Becker has asked the tribal council for $1 million to support a plan that would partner with outside groups to round up horses for adoption, as well as administer contraception. But Becker said that would require yearly inoculations and staff or volunteers who can wrangle horses.

“Community support and getting the community not just on the Navajo Nation but surrounding the Navajo Nation to work together to address the number of feral or free-ranging horses on the nation is critical,” Becker said.

Many Navajo are concerned the horses will be taken to slaughterhouses, a method that was supported by the previous administration.

Becker said that is not part of the current plan because Navajos believe horses to be sacred.

That’s why Paul Lincoln has felt so strongly about saving them.

“They’ve been around longer than we have, so they’re sacred,” Lincoln said. “A lot of our traditions, we’re barely holding on to them.”

And, he said, he feels like the horses have come to him, asking for his help — and he’s able to give it.

Lincoln and Seweingyawma drive a second tank of water to another site next to a broken-down windmill. Tracy and Buddy McDonald show up from Flagstaff with water and hay. Everyone pitched in to unload it. They had read about the “horse heroes,” as they’ve been called, on social media.

“If you’re out here, there’s nothing to eat,” Tracy McDonald said. “And there’s thousands of horses. We need something to control these feral horses so we can continue to have them. It’s part of who we all are. But there’s such an overpopulation there’s no where near enough water or food.”

How water access is raising home prices: The view from Colorado

GREELEY, Colorado – When Nancy and Steven Innis built their new home in Greeley, an hour northeast of Denver, they equipped it with the latest in water conservation tech.

The automatic kitchen faucet shuts off with the wave of a hand. A drip irrigation system keeps yard plants hydrated without the wasteful runoff. Hi-tech toilets save water with different settings for big and small flushes.

Nancy Innis said she had to educate herself about how valuable water is in this part of the country.

“It was a huge factor,” she said. “It’s something we were very conscientious about.”

While all those innovations may help with the monthly bill, it doesn’t do much to curb the cost of getting their water service in the first place. They had to pay the city $38,000 up front for their building permit, which included water plant, meter and sewer fees.

These days, that’s an average price tag for water service to a new home in northern Colorado.
Record-high prices of water rights in the state are driving up the costs. This year, the market price of one unit of water, which is roughly enough to supply two single-family homes each year, from the Colorado-Big Thompson Project hit $30,000, according to the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

Cities and towns are gobbling up those water rights to feed their growing populations and in turn are charging tens of thousands of dollars for individual building permits to offset the expense. That cost is passed directly onto customers, according to Greeley builder Jay Jensen, the man behind the Innis’ new Greeley home.

“As the cost of water goes up, the cost of a house goes up,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
When Jensen first started building homes in Greeley in the 1980s, the cost of tapping into the water supply hovered around $7,000, he said. As the cost has grown over time, he’s seen it become more of a barrier to building a new home.

“(Customers) all think, ‘Oh we’ll spend, you know, $200,000 on a house,’” he said. “Well, you’re more than likely going spend $40,000 to $60,000 before you even start building.”

After realizing that, he said, some potential customers walk away.

Not just new homes

The higher cost of water for new homes has a ripple effect throughout the housing market.
Imagine a city street. On one side, there’s a house that was built 10 years ago. On the other, a new home.

In this scenario, the old home’s water tap cost $17,000. The new home’s, $32,000.

According to Bob Sutton, a long-time realtor in Fort Collins, the new home’s pricier water tap drives up the value of the older home by the same amount of money. That’s because the value of the water tap changes as the market rate changes, he said.

“What happens is you have a new home development come in and those homes are priced at $500,000,” he said. “The existing or resale homes around that are going to be reflective of that in some way.”

While the average home costs vary, prices are creeping up in nearly every northern Colorado community. In May, the median sales prices in Fort Collins, 90 minutes north of Denver, hit $420,000, according to industry database Information and Real Estate Services.

A number of factors are contributing to that trend, according to Sutton, such as new tariffs on construction materials, land values — and water prices.

“Fort Collins continues to grow (and) we have the same amount of water we’ve had for many, many years,” he said. “And, so, it’s just a simple supply and demand.”

‘It’s getting harder and harder to find water rights’

Cities and towns know how difficult it is to compete for water rights and they don’t want it to scare off potential developers. Northern Colorado’s population is set to double in the coming decades and the region needs new homes to keep up.

So communities are looking for ways to make building easier.

The Town of Windsor, Colorado, has recently changed its policy to give builders a break. The town will allow developers to pay up to half of their raw water requirements in the form of cash and the city will take care of finding the water rights. That way, the developers don’t have to compete on the open market.

Dennis Wagner, head of engineering for the town’s public works department, said it’s proven to be a very popular option.

“A lot of developers are doing that, because, first of all, it’s getting harder and harder to find water rights,” he said. “So, any time they can pay cash instead of going out and finding it on their own, they will do that.”

Greeley is also considering a full cash-in-lieu of water policy. If put in place, it would allow builders to hand cash over to the city instead of actual water rights, taking the burden of competing on the open market off the developers’ shoulders.

Currently, the city requires new residential development to dedicate three acre-feet of water to the city for each acre of proposed development. Most builders must bring those water rights to the table when looking to build, with some exceptions for smaller projects.

A survey commissioned by the city in 2015 (done every five years) looked at the policies held by the 21 fastest growing communities in northern Colorado. It found a wide variety of approaches to developer-city relationships, from cash-only to water-only.

It also listed the average cost of bringing water service to a new home in each community.

Greeley builder Jay Jensen agrees that cash-in-lieu policies make things easier on the building process. But in his opinion, that doesn’t help with the rising cost of the water itself.

“More people using a finite resource means more people wanting the same thing,” he said.