Water shortages inspire novel community-conservation measures

Each year many US communities face serious water shortages. For the most part , their responses are predictable:

* Costly new wells and reservoirs.

* A curb on use.

A few communities, however, are trying a different approach by cutting millions of gallons in water consumption without sacrifice. Their strategy is to run communitywide programs to install low-cost, water-saving devices.

While specific items vary from community to community, most include low-flow shower heads and faucet restrictors as well as toilet ''dams'' to reduce the volume of water in the tank.

The New Resource Group, a New Hampshire nonprofit company, which helped this town achieve significant savings in the amount of water it uses, now is negotiating with more than 40 other communities in many states that are interested in similar approaches to the problem.

George Atkins, president of NRG, says that using less water doesn't require discomfort, an important point in convincing people to take part in the program. ''We don't talk about low-flow devices, but about high performance,'' he says. ''Our motto is 'savings, not sacrifice.' ''

Patrick Hyland, town manager for Stoughton, Mass., heard Mr. Atkins speak in 1980 and invited him to advise the town.

A bedroom town south of Boston, Stoughton has had serious water shortages for more than 30 years. Population growth was halted for several years, in fact, by a moratorium on water hookups; and recently the town has had to rely on a temporary tie-in with adjacent Canton.

The only permanent answer seemed to be another well and treatment facilities, estimated to cost at least $2 million for an additional yield of 300,000 gallons of water a day. Mr. Atkins convinced town officials that a systematic conservation program could yield a similar volume through reduced consumption. Instead of $2 million, the cost was put at $50,000.

Celia Tomaselli, a town employee, directed the town's involvement and used her home as a laboratory in which to do comparative tests between a variety of shower heads, faucet restrictors, and toilet dams. The town then assembled 6,000 kits, enough for 80 percent of the homes, at a cost of approximately $7 apiece (compared with $20 or more at retail), using water department funds, and distributed them free to townspeople last April.

All but 50 of the kits have been distributed.

While public reaction to the program has been enthusiastic, Tomaselli and Hyland are conservative in estimating how much individual homeowners and the town as a whole have saved through the program, noting that a wide range of factors, including family living habits and weather conditions, affect usage.

Tomaselli, however, says that her family of four has cut its water consumption by 40 percent with no discomfort. It already had been lower than average because of prior conservation.

They estimate that besides water savings, an average family can expect a major fuel saving because of the reduced demand for hot water. The savings vary from $160 for gas and $180 for oil to more than $300 for electricity. There is also a savings in sewer fees.

Other communities that have had successful similar programs include Hamilton Township, N.J., and Elmhurst, Ill.

Mr. Atkins feels that recent cuts in federal public-works spending will stimulate further communitywide water-conservation programs.

''On one hand,'' he declares, ''the federal government requires communities to clean their sewage, but on the other hand they have cut funding. Reducing the amount of sewage to be treated by cutting water use seems the only economical approach.''

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