What I Learned From The City's Top Water Wasters
By Blake de Pastino
Right now it's 5:07 in the evening, and I'm sitting on some stranger's front lawn, trying to get my bearings. It's eerie. Everything looks muddled. Overhead, the sky is a ruddy brown, almost gauzy. The way a band-aid looks after you've worn it in the shower. The sun is a little lesion in the clouds. And the lawn I'm sitting on--this is the first time I've really understood how bluegrass got its name. It's a Frank Sinatra blue, deep and impenetrable. Sitting here under this muddy sky, on a lawn the color of the heavens, it's enough to make me think that everything is upside-down.
And maybe it is. For the past six hours, I've been tracking down the three most egregious water wasters in Albuquerque, the only three people who have been cited more than once for excessive water use. And in all truth, I only wanted to know where all that water was going, whether they knew about ways to save. But I have found few answers to these questions. Instead, I have been stared down, debated with and--after a fashion--threatened by someone's physical presence. I have been treated with disdain, and I have--for a brief moment--been certain that I was going to be murdered with a rolled-up newspaper. In the end, I've learned that, to most Albuquerqueans, water is a uniquely cherished possession. So valuable that it almost makes us panicky, so precious that we guard it the way one might guard a pile of cash or a covetous spouse. Just bringing up the subject has inspired defensiveness, remorse, a certain brand of passion and even anger.
Considering all this near-religious fervor, though, it's surprising how careless we are with our water. Because the fact is we consume more than 40 billion gallons of it each year. That's one of the highest rates of any Southwestern city, even among cities bigger than us. And although we'd like to blame this on some computer-chip plant or breakfast-cereal factory, the truth is that 70 percent of Albuquerque's water is used in the home. By you and me. City officials figure we're using about 250 gallons each per day.
So our unslakeable thirst has begun to take its toll. Water is being pumped up so fast from the aquifer--the subterranean lake below us--that the land on top is beginning to give. In the North Valley and the Heights, roads are starting to crack and foundations are beginning to blister. And what's more, we're sucking up water twice as fast as nature can replace it. So it's a losing battle. And all we've done is dream up different stop-gap measures, from raising the cost of water to skimming off the brackish, shallow eddies of the Rio Grande.
What I've come to suspect, though, is that Albuquerque's real water crisis has little to do with where it comes from, or even who uses it. It's what it means to us. Our culture, our habits, even our personalities have gone awash with our love for water. And as residents of a desert city, that seems almost pathological. At least it seems so to me, but this is all I've been thinking about.
Now there's only one more water waster I have to interrogate, out here in the shadows of the petroglyphs. But even if I were to stop now, the things I've seen would speak volumes about our passion for water. Read on and see for yourself. But know this: None of it is a joke. This is our story, in all its uncomfortable truth.
DELAMAR STREET NE
It began in the fleshy midsection of the Northeast Heights, where everything is strip malls and cinderblock bungalows. I was in my car, waiting for my first subject, the No. 1 Water Waster in Albuquerque. Last year, this guy used more than 535,000 gallons of water--over four times the residential average. In fact, during the month of June alone, he used as much water as a typical household consumes in an entire year. There was something about that that I found scary. So I steeled my nerves as I waited. His son--a big lummox with a half-moon of steel through his nose--had told me he'd be home any minute.
But while I was waiting, another house across the street began distracting me. It was an out-of-place two-story ranch, a mini-plantation of white porch columns and nappy green lawns. Out front, nine sprinkler heads were sprouted up, and they were hissing out these tall megaphones of mist. It was near noon, and most of the spray was blowing away in the hot wind. The rest of it puddled up and then seeped out, as if from an open wound. It looked like the land was hemorrhaging, losing so much water that the street was slick with it.
This, it turns out, is exactly the definition of water waste. In 1995, the city government officially defined "waste" as any water flowing onto a street or sidewalk, or anytime it "ponded" on some solid surface. To enforce this new rule, the city created a small cadre of water cops to tool around town, writing citations and videotaping waste. And it also drew up a list of fines for them to mete out: $20 for the first offense, $50 for the second, $100 for the third. Upon the eighth violation, I learned, the city actually installs a "flow restriction device" on your water meter, to limit the amount you can use. But so far, that hasn't happened to any resident.
The place I was casing had the record for household waste: three citations. Unlike its neighbor, though, it was not bleeding onto the street. In fact, it had just a little snippet of crabgrass for a lawn and a bunch of junk in the driveway. I was beginning to rethink the whole ordeal.
But what I'm about to tell you next is entirely true: As I sat there waiting for Mr. Waster, a guy about 20 years old stalked out of the house, stopped at the end of the driveway and stared at me. And I mean gave me the Evil Eye. I wondered if waving would ease the tension. But then he got into a car, pulled around and--just as he idled by--gave me the most menacing look I've ever gotten. Like he had my number. Like I was lucky that there were two layers of Nippon Safety auto glass between us. Then, he did a K-turn and drove by again. This time, his mouth was a little rictus of pure hatred. His eyes gunbarrels of ill will. I decided not to wave. The kid ended up parked in front of me, keeping one eye on the street and one eye in his rearview mirror. All I wanted to do, I kept thinking, was talk about water.
We stayed in this standoff until Mr. Waster drove up. That's about when the kid bolted out of the car to the house. So after swallowing hard, I stepped into the wet street and sauntered up to meet the man in his driveway.
Everything that followed took place entirely through the window of his little sports car. Waster was a thin, wispy man with a pencil mustache and a manner that was as businesslike as his suit. Yes, he said, he'd gotten a couple of violations last year, but the person I should be talking to was his son. He left the hose on in the backyard a few times. The runoff went into the neighbor's yard, and they called the water cops. I explained that three afternoons of garden-hosing could hardly add up to a half million gallons. Then he dummied up. No, he wasn't running a business out of his house. Yes, he did have a pool, but that wouldn't account for it either. He was sure it was some mistake, he said. He just couldn't help me with my article. Sorry. He bade me a good afternoon, and I headed back to my car.
This is probably where I should tell you that I'm not like a lot of writers my age. I mean, I'm not one of these stunt-journalists you read about. But here I was questioning Albuquerqueans about their use of water. And I'd never felt so much in danger. So this will explain why, when a white Suzuki Samurai suddenly came peeling around the corner--peeling with that steel-belted squeal that you haven't heard since "The Rockford Files"--followed by a long white object flying out of the Samurai window, tomahawking right towards my head--I really shouldn't tell you this--I fell to the ground. And I mean hit the dirt like some flunky in a John Wayne war movie, who thinks that the Japanese are bombing when really a Jeep is just backfiring in the compound. The thing went whizzing by, and when I turned around to see what it was, I saw a newspaper sitting in the neighbor's wet front lawn. Wrapped up in plastic to keep it dry. An early edition of a local daily paper.
I was sure it was some sort of plot.
INDIAN TRAIL NE
It wasn't until I visited my second subject, up in the foothills of the Sandias, that I had fully recovered from the newspaper attack. Maybe it was the adrenaline. Or maybe it was the strawier, thinner air. But in the end, everything in the Far Heights seemed more clear.
Emboldened by my encounter, I made the second interview more straightforward. A round, apple-faced woman came to the door, her hair piled up in an impossible bouffant. Through the iron bars I fed her a business card, which she grabbed and frowned at. After some pleasantries, I inquired about her waste, and she was almost downright nice. Seems her lawn sprinklers had been leaking--kicked off by some kids at the bus stop--so water seeped onto the street a couple times. But they had been fixed, and the trickling stopped. End of story.
Everything was going swimmingly. But then I had to go ruin it. I mentioned the city's initiatives to help people save water. And then she snapped. "I'm never changing my toilet," she said. It was like I had made an ungentlemanly proposition. If it weren't for the wrought iron, she might have slapped me. When I asked why not, she said she knew all about those low-flow toilets. They had them at work, and sometimes she had to flush them more than once, "you know, to get everything down." This was particularly a problem, she said, when the women in the office were menstruating. "It's a big mess," she began. And apparently, this is where I lost control of the interview.
But the message was clear: Change is only for the weak of spirit. An admission of guilt. Maybe this is why the city's toilet rebate program has, so far, met with such indifference. Only 10 percent of us have taken up the challenge to install low-flow toilets. But the fact of the matter is, if you replace your old unit, the city will give you $100. To be honest, it's not all that convenient--a plumber has to come in to verify, and you have to pay him--but that's what the rebate is for. And even if you do have to flush it twice (which I, at least, never have), at only 1.6 gallons per flush, you're still saving water over those 3-5 gallons-per-flush types. But she would hear none of it. She was still busy describing the effects of menorrhagia.
If I wanted to talk about saving water, she ended up telling me, I should see the man across the street. He was "actually xeriscaping his yard," a yard which in those parts was famously verdant and comforting. "So ask him." She pointed.
He was standing in his driveway, staring at his front yard, which was now just a broad swath of soil, completely barren. In the middle of it, there was this short, fratty-looking guy with unfeasibly large, Popeyesque forearms. He was hoeing the dirt, hacking at it like he was really mad at the earth. The chucking sound his hoe made kept time behind our conversation.
"Your neighbor says you had the best lawn on the block," I told the homeowner.
"Yuh," he said, showing his teeth. "The best."
"Why'd you tear it up?"
"My back hurts; the cost of water is going up; I'm on the road a lot." He wiped the back of his neck as if he were actually working. "I'd come home from some trip, first thing I'd do is mow the lawn."
I asked Popeye what was going in place of the grass.
He straightened up. "Gravel."
I blinked, expecting something more. He began hoeing again. "Anything else?"
He thumbed over his shoulder. "And an island of Santa Fe Brown over there."
"Ah. That's some kind of grass?"
"No," he said. "Brown gravel."
See, this is another problem. We're so convinced that saving water is some kind of sacrifice, we don't realize that it can be painless, even creative. That's why we assume that xeriscaping means rocks and railroad ties, when really it just involves using more drought-tolerant plants, including some kinds of grass. And the city will pay you up to $250 to xeriscape, too. Again, it's kind of an ordeal--you have to draw up plans and then have them approved--but think of it this way: Of all the water we pump up each year, almost half of it goes towards landscaping. So to xeriscape may be the most effective way to save water and money. But the point is, no one's asking you to go to extremes. Razing your yard to put in a parcel of gravel is going too far, and it won't get you a rebate, either.
So finally that was done. But on my way back down from this second encounter, where Indian School begins diving toward the river, I witnessed a scene that made me stop. It was a fountain in front of a church, bubbling with water. Next to it was a life-size bronze of a sitting woman, her open hand gesturing anointedly towards the little plumes burbling up. She had an epiphanic look on her face. Like the answer to all life's problems was percolating right in front of her. On the brim of the fountain was a legend in huge letters: Come to the Waters. It was blissful.
And I thought, That's it. That's it exactly.
CLEGHORN STREET NW
So you see why things seem kind of topsy turvy to me. I look for answers, but I get attitude. I think I'm trying to help--in my own effectless, left-handed way--but all people see is effrontery. I live in a desert, but all I see is water.
However, I'm almost through. Only one waster remains. Now I'm in a maze of patio homes on the West Side. Their front yards are coated with creek stones or--like the one I'm crouching on--truly blue bluegrass. Down the street, in an abandoned park, there's an empty pool with vomity water caught at the bottom. Songbirds swoop down to nib at it.
I stride up the path and rap my knuckles on the door. Inside, the TV is turned up ear-bleedingly loud. I knock harder. When I'm about to turn away, the door opens a sliver. And there is an eye looking at me. Just a regular eye, I guess, a blue-green-brown eye. Could be any one of us. I think it is a woman. Just as I open my mouth, the door chunks shut, and I hear a bolt sliding and a chain rattling into place. The interview is over.
OK. There's something I've not told you. The last time anyone came out here to talk to this person about her water use, cops had to come as back up. The night before that, they had been called in because of gunfire inside. It was her. According to reports, she thought someone had been poisoning her backyard with herbicides, trying to kill her grass. That's why she kept flooding her yard, to flush out the toxins. And on the night of the incident, she thought she heard the poisoners. So she opened fire on her own property. When I asked a friend in city hall about it, all he said was, "Apparently, her lawn is very important to her."
Now if I were more of a wag, I might find this amusing, in the complexly cynical way that my kind is often accused of. Maybe I'd find an excuse to use it as a closing image: a woman in her quilted housecoat, perched on the pitch of her roof in the coma of night, perhaps some spotlights circling around her like fireflies, as she snipes at invisible intruders to save her lawn. But it only strikes me as sad. On many levels.
Yet, it remains fair to say that there's something essentially key about Albuquerque in all this. The scene is by no means typical, but there's still something vital in evidence here. Maybe it's that cultural drive that makes us want to fight rather than change our habits. Or the attitude that's so out of step with the elements. Or our fanatical kind of selfishness. Something.
But whatever it is, it's not just about one lonely woman, or three particular people. The key to our water problems is in how we all think and act. I now know that to be true. Standing here--among yards that are either all grass or all stone, within sight of a swimming pool that may never be used, in front of a household that has defended its lawn the way others might defend their families--it now seems is abundantly clear to me. I have seen it with my own eyes.
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