In a town where people love their lawns as much as people anywhere, water conservation seemed like an ambitious goal, but Hammonton has proven that residents can cut consumption without turning their yards into dustbowls.
The Pinelands town slashed water use in its municipally owned system by more than 20 percent between 2012 and 2013 by helping its 15,000 residents understand that they can still have green lawns without watering them for hours. It also restructured its water-rate system so that heavier users pay a higher rate.
In the first six months of 2014, Hammonton’s monthly pumped-water totals were significantly lower than for the comparable period of 2012 before the program went into effect.
The initiative has driven down Hammonton’s per-capita water consumption from 93 gallons per day in 2010 to the current 73 gallons per day, close to the statewide average of 75-80 gallons per day, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.
The changes were made in response to a water-conservation order issued after the DEP found that the town exceeded its former 77.5 million gallon-a-month allocation in July 2008 and again in July 2010.
The DEP sets allocations for any water system, whether privately or municipally owned, that uses at least 100,000 gallons a day. Since that consumption typically serves about 650 people, this means the allocations apply to virtually every water system in the state.
If an allocation is exceeded, it may lead to an enforcement action in which the DEP will prevent a community from connecting any new users to its water system, said Steve Doughty, a research scientist with the DEP’s Division of Water Supply and Geoscience.
Doughty declined to say how often such actions are undertaken but said it is “not unheard of” for water systems to exceed their monthly allocation.
Hammonton is one of a limited number of New Jersey communities that are initiating programs to address growing pressures on water supply, Doughty said.
“They are on the road to addressing potential water-use inefficiencies and curtailing unnecessary water loss, and this is something that we would like to see more water systems around the state employ,” he said.
Other local systems that are using the same techniques include Southeast Morris County Municipal Utilities Authority, Washington Township in Gloucester County, and East Orange, Doughty said.
Although the DEP encourages water-conservation measures of all kinds, there is no statewide initiative to adopt the measures that have been undertaken by Hammonton and the other communities, said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the department.
In 2011, the DEP denied Hammonton’s request for a big increase in its water allowance but agreed to a smaller rise in recognition of the town’s growth since the previous permit was issued 10 years earlier.
Effective April 1, 2012, state officials raised the allowances in two phases to the current 95.6 million gallons a month and 650.8 million gallons a year, on conditions that the town imposed alternate-day yard-watering restrictions, and set up the new rate structure.
Hammonton’s old system of water rates perversely rewarded heavy users by charging them a lower rate for higher consumption, helping to make the town one of the biggest water users in the state for a town of its size, according to local officials.
Starting in the second half of 2012, town managers upended the old rate structure, forcing relentless lawn-waterers and other profligate users to pay higher rates.
“People in town really love their lawns,” said Jerry Barberio, the town’s Business Administrator and Public Works Manager. “They weren’t aware that they could cut back on their water usage and still have the green lawn that they needed.”
While a few folks whined about intrusive government, and said they would pay the higher bills rather than reduce consumption, most residents got with the program, and sought officials’ advice on how to use less water, Barberio said.
“Homeowners really have no way of gauging if they are watering too much,” Barberio said. So he and Mayor Steve DiDonato went door-to-door with advice on how to cut consumption. “Instead of watering for 45 minutes, let’s try watering for 15 minutes, and see where your lawn is,” they told residents.
Through word of mouth, town council meetings, and local media announcements, Barberio offered to help any homeowner whose lawn deteriorated following the reduced watering. He received about 80 phone calls and offered advice on how to take care of lawns with less water.
“I was able to help them through it,” he said.
Officials also offered the financial incentive of lower rates in return for lower water use. The new tariff charges homeowners $32 per 1,000 cubic feet for users of 3,001 to 5,000 cubic feet over six months, rising to $36 per 1,000 cubic feet for any usage over 10,000 cubic feet. One thousand cubic feet equals 7,500 gallons.
In contrast, the old system set lower rates for heavier users, charging $9.99 per 1,000 cubic feet for 100,000 or more, and $13.05 per 1,000 cubic feet for less than 100,000 cubic feet.
In response to the rate adjustment and public education, the town’s usage dropped to about 52 million gallons in July 2013, some 32 million gallons lower than a year earlier, while August consumption declined by about 21 million gallons over the same period.
For all of 2013, water consumption dropped 22 percent to 417.6 million gallons, well below its allocation, from 538.2 million gallons in 2012, town records show.
This year, summer consumption edged up from that of the rainy summer of 2013, but was still significantly below 2012 levels when the program was just beginning, officials said. July and August of 2014 showed the lowest water consumption for 10 years, except for those months in 2013.
The program trimmed water bills for the average household by about $100 over the 12 months of 2013, amounting to $512,000 in savings town-wide, officials said.
As another incentive to reduce water consumption, the town in January began a tax-rebate program for the purchase of water-saving devices. Rebates include $100 for the purchase of a water-smart lawn irrigation system, and $50 for an Energy Star dishwasher.
Meanwhile, the town is working to eliminate its discharge of treated waste water into nearby Hammonton Creek, in compliance with an order from the Pinelands Commission, the officials said.
Until now, the creek has received any treated water exceeding the capacity of a lagoon and a series of trenches that take the bulk of treated water. To divert the excess water, the town has now developed a drip irrigation system that distributes the water over a 26-acre woodland. The work represents the first phase of the project, which cost $500,000, and was financed by a bond issue.
In a second phase due for completion by next April, the drip system will be extended beneath the surface of nearby soccer fields. By using treated water for this purpose, it will further reduce the town’s demand for potable water, Barberio said.
Hammonton’s efforts to conserve water represent an “unusual” integration of public education combined with incentives and rate-structure reform that could become a model for other towns grappling with water-conservation issues, said Daniel Van Abs, a Rutgers University professor of human ecology who has worked on water-related issues with the Department of Environmental Protection, the Highlands Council, and the Passaic River Coalition.
While other towns focus only on residents, Hammonton also includes commercial users and examines ways of improving the water-supply system such as stopping leaks, he said. “They are going in a direction where they can become a model,” Van Abs added.
The better use of water also improves the town’s economic growth outlook by making it more likely that it will be able to provide sustainable water supplies to new businesses, he said.
But it’s too early to conclude that the measures will deliver the desired results in the long term, Van Abs argued. A five-year period including a hot, dry summer — unlike the relatively mild conditions of 2014 — would be a better indication of whether the water-reduction goals can be sustained, he said.
Supporters of the program include Jim Donio, a Hammonton businessman and resident who owns about 8,000 square feet of lawn around his town-center home. He said he has cut back his water use over the past 18 months in response to the campaign, and has offset the higher rates by consuming less.
The campaign has helped people understand that water can’t be taken for granted, a lesson that can be passed on to the younger generation, Donio said.
Donio said he waters his lawn just a few minutes a day compared with around 45 minutes before the town began its water-use campaign. “The awareness wasn’t there,” he said.
The DEP’s Doughty called Hammonton’s cut in water use “progress in the right direction” but said it is too soon to conclude that the reduction is sustainable in the long term.
“We certainly appreciate that they seem to have embraced these measures, and are implementing them,” he said.