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As people become more aware of water’s scarcity, the less they use

I call them “my crazy rain barrels.”

There are three on the north side of my house, connected to a network of rain gutters to catch the runoff from my northeast Albuquerque roof, 600 gallons capacity. It takes about an inch of rain to fill them.

The wave of monsoon rains we had during the first 10 days of August were enough.

In the great scheme of things, that’s not a lot of water. If I weigh the cost of the barrels against the cost of the water saved, this sounds like it doesn’t make a lot of economic sense.

But the value of water is a complicated thing, not fully captured by the dollar amount on my monthly Albuquerque bill.

We are at an interesting turning point in our relationship with water in the arid western United States. In city after city – Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Denver, Albuquerque – water use is going down, even as population continues to rise.

This runs counter to a common narrative, made most famous by Marc Reisner in his epic book “Cadillac Desert,” that we overbuilt the farms and cities of the West in the 20th century and that we as a result are headed for a crash because there is not enough water to serve them.

For much of the time I wrote about water and the environment in the pages of this newspaper, I embraced that narrative, one of crisis and coming catastrophe.

But as the drought of the 21st century lingered in New Mexico – all but two years since 2000 have seen below average flow on the Rio Grande through Albuquerque – I came to realize that something else was going on.

Rather than a crash, we were seeing adaptation and resilience.

When people have less water, I came to realize, they use less water.

Economists have a fancy word for this – “decoupling.”

Increasingly in the United States, water use has decoupled from population and economic growth. No longer can we simply assume that more people means a need for more water.

Part of the explanation is a combination of technology and regulation. The Energy Policy Act of 1992, signed by President George H.W. Bush, mandated low flow toilets, faucets and other fixtures. Other regulatory regimes, at the federal, state, and local levels have pushed the standards further.

In the decades since, essentially every new appliance installed in the United States uses less water than the one it replaces.

It goes beyond this.

Home Depot has big display marketing a toilet that goes beyond the current standard, saving even more water. Low water use has become a marketing tool. Every toilet on display at Home Depot uses less water than the federal standard requires.

This is the less tangible change. Across the West, attitudes toward water have shifted, from a belief in abundance to a recognition of scarcity.

That’s the point of my crazy rain barrels.

University of New Mexico engineering prof Bruce Thomson, former director of UNM’s Water Resources Program, likes to show students a slide of his own crazy rain barrel.

He makes self-deprecating fun of its terrible economics. But its real value, he then adds, is the awareness they create. They make us think about our water.

As I pad around the backyard in my flip flops and shorts these late summer mornings, moving the rain barrel hose from plant to plant, I think about the water – a lovely green back yard without draining Albuquerque’s aquifer or importing water from the distant Colorado River Basin.

So maybe not crazy after all?

Former Albuquerque Journal staff writer John Fleck is the author of “Water is For Fighting Over: And other Myths of Water In the West,” published this month by Island Press.