Denver resident Peggy Chiu has squelched water waste in her four-person household: Xeriscape instead of lawn, low-flow toilets and washer, turning off taps while brushing.
She and her husband, Kevin, honed water-saving habits while working in Honduras. When they rinse fruit or refresh the dogs' water dish, they catch the wastewater and pour it on plants.
"It's not like we're doing anything crazy," she said. "Our goal is just to live efficiently."
The family averages 37 gallons per person a day - less than half Denver's norm.
They are the model as utilities and conservationists ramp up campaigns to compel Westerners to live more in sync with their arid, changing environment.
As the federal government finalizes a long-awaited study on water supply for the West, The Denver Post obtained the latest utility data on how much people are using. Water-saving efforts already have dropped metro Denver residents' overall average daily usage to 85 gallons, down from 104 gallons in 2001.
Yet south suburban Parker residents still use 123 gallons a day (large green lawns likely are the culprit) - most of it pumped from dwindling underground aquifers. Grand Junction residents use 111 gallons.
Around the West, utility data show residential sector water use remains elevated in Scottsdale, Ariz., (219), Salt Lake City (117), Phoenix (110), San Diego (136) and Los Angeles (123). Only one major Western city beats Denver: Albuquerque at 70 gallons a day.
For population growth to continue, water managers warn, Westerners must use less - and probably spend billions on high-tech recycling and desalination plants. That's because the Colorado River Basin that spans Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming and is the source of water for 30 million people is increasingly over-allocated.
"Social pressure"Urban expansion is worsening the current imbalance between the 15 million acre feet of water a year in the river system and the amount being siphoned for households and farming.
Preliminary results from the three-year U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study show that, within 50 years, the annual water deficit will reach 3.5 million acre-feet.
An acre-foot has been regarded as enough to sustain two families of four for a year.
Colorado conservationists have launched a basin-wide campaign to reduce daily consumption use by city dwellers in all seven states to 90 gallons by 2020. Coordinators of the "90-by-20" campaign at Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates say if that goal is reached, the water gap could be narrowed by 1 millionacre-feet.
Tactics include "a bit of social pressure," said Drew Beckwith, WRA's water policy manager.
Water activists recently dressed in fuzzy trout and duck costumes and demonstrated in Parker, urging suburban homeowners to swap their lawn sprinklers for low-water versions.
Worldwide, billions of people in low-income countries get by on less than 20 gallons a day. Australian city-dwellers facing droughts cut residential use to around 30 gallons.
Americans easily could live on 50 gallons a day, said Colorado State University civil and environmental engineering professor Sybil Sharvelle. "If every home were to be retrofitted, and people really used caution in their irrigation, 50 seems very much doable."
Some critics contend targeting urban households is misguided, pointing out that agriculture uses more than 80 percent of the water diverted from the Colorado River.
"But the agricultural sector is not the one that is growing," WRA's Beckwith said. "It is the municipalities who are the new users. So more of the responsibility falls on municipal users to prove they are using the water they have efficiently."
Which raises another dilemma. Municipal water utilities traditionally have collected more money when city-dwellers use more water. Utility officials say increasing long-term costs of developing and delivering new water supplies - as competition for water intensifies - complicates revenue equations. Most have adopted tiered rate schemes that penalize heavy consumers and reward conservation.
"It makes sense to use less water in Albuquerque. But, yes, it does hurt our revenues," said Katherine Yuhas, conservation manager for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority. Her agency offered rebates for purchases of water-saving appliances and sprinklers and paid residents $20 to attend a one-hour water conservation class to help drive down use.
Similarly, Denver Water offers rebates for water-saving appliances and ceaselessly blitzes 1.3 million metro Denver residents with billboards and other propaganda urging everyone to "Use Only What You Need."
This helped cut Denver water use over the past decade to 85 gallons - surpassing conservationists' goal before it was set.
"The fact that we've already achieved that feels really good," said Greg Fisher, Denver Water's manager of demand planning. "Of course, that does not mean we stop our conservation programs."
In Las Vegas, where people use about 125 gallons a day, the Southern Nevada Water Authority recaptures wastewater from homes, cleans it, and pumps it back into Lake Mead along the Colorado River.
Then people use it again.Aurora program
The recycling offsets Las Vegas' relatively high 125-gallon average to 75 gallons, SNWA spokesman Scott Huntley said.
Aurora residents have spent $700 million on a water recycling and treatment system that gives a similar capability - yet they have also cut their average use to 89 gallons through conservation. Denver Water also is embarking on water recycling.
Near the end of the river, San Diego County Water Authority board members are considering spending nearly $1 billion to participate in a ocean water desalination project that could supply 50 million gallons a day.
"Not, by a long shot, would it eliminate our need for imported water" from the river, spokesman Mike Lee said.
Using less can be difficult.
Denver resident Liz Gardener, 65, ran Denver Water's conservation programs for 23 years before retiring last month. She and her husband implemented nearly every water-saving trick in their home - catching gray water in buckets, installing low-flow shower heads and toilets that use only 0.8 gallons per flush. But they were stunned this week when they checked their water bills and calculated average use of 197 gallons a day. Each.
The problem: food production on 4,000 square feet of raised garden beds. They grow enough tomatoes, corn, cucumber, squash, kale, herbs and carrots to meet their needs for three months.
They swapped out micro-spray irrigation nozzles for a version that shoots rotating streams, and ripped out surrounding lawn and replaced it with Xeriscape. Yet their irrigation control box ran the system too much.
"I take full responsibility. Irrigation systems don't waste water. Humans waste water," Gardener said. "We over-watered the vegetable seeds. I was so excited about growing heirloom tomatoes that I screwed up."