email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Last Drop
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"I conserve water because I feel the planet is dying, and I don't want to be part of the problem," she says.

You don't have to be as committed an environmentalist as Pape, who edits a climate-change news service, to realize that the days of cheap and abundant water are drawing to an end. But the planet is a long way from dying of thirst. "It's inevitable that we'll solve our water problems," says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a nonpartisan environmental think tank. "The trick is how much pain we can avoid on that path to where we want to be."

As Gleick sees it, we've got two ways to go forward. Hard-path solutions focus almost exclusively on ways to develop new supplies of water, such as supersize dams, aqueducts, and pipelines that deliver water over huge distances. Gleick leans toward the soft path: a comprehensive approach that includes conservation and efficiency, community-scale infrastructure, protection of aquatic ecosystems, management at the level of watersheds instead of political boundaries, and smart economics.

Until the mid-1980s, the city of Albuquerque, some 60 miles southwest of Pape's home in Santa Fe, was blissfully unaware that it needed to follow any path at all. Hydrogeologists believed the city sat atop an underground reservoir "as big as Lake Superior," says Katherine Yuhas, conservation director of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. The culture was geared toward greenery: Realtors attracted potential home buyers from moist regions with landscaping as verdant as Vermont; building codes required lawns. But then studies revealed startling news: Albuquerque's aquifer was nowhere near the size it once appeared to be and was being pumped out faster than rainfall and snowmelt could replenish it.

Duly alarmed, the city shifted into high gear. It revised its water-use codes, paid homeowners to take classes on reducing outdoor watering, and offered rebates to anyone who installed low-flow fixtures or a drip-irrigation system or removed a lawn. Today Albuquerque is a striving example of soft-path parsimony. Across the sprawling city, a growing number of residents and building owners funnel rainwater into barrels and underground cisterns. Almost everyone in town uses low-flow toilets and showerheads.

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