SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Something unexpected is happening in the West's biggest cities. Population is booming, but water use is staying the same or in some cases, actually going down. From member station KUNC, Luke Runyon reports on what to credit for all that savings.
LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Theresa MacFarland, her husband and two kids live in an historic two-story home in Longmont, Colo., just outside Boulder. It has all the vintage touches - hardwood floors, big windows, wood detailing, and one really old toilet. MacFarland points it out to her four-year-old daughter Althea.
THERESA MACFARLAND: That toilet has been there longer than Daddy and I have been alive.
NEKA SUNLIN: Yeah.
MACFARLAND: Probably longer than Grandma and Grandpa have been alive.
RUNYON: A little stamp on the bowl says it was built in the 1950s. Lately, it's had some trouble getting the job done. And that's why MacFarland contacted a local conservation group called Resource Central to find a more water-friendly model. Neka Sunlin oversees the group's Flush for the Future program and helped install McFarland's new toilet.
SUNLIN: We guesstimate this one's using about five gallons a flush. The new one uses less than one.
MACFARLAND: It's amazing.
SUNLIN: It's 0.8 gallons per flush. So you're going to be saving probably four gallons of water per flush.
RUNYON: In an average month, a toilet uses more water than any other fixture in a home - more than your washing machine, your occasional long shower and way more than your dishwasher. People flush between five and eight times a day. Since the 1990s, people have been replacing a lot of toilets throughout the country. Back then, Congress created national standards for water use. They mandated toilets use only about one and a half gallons for each flush. For the plumbing industry, it was a huge deal.
PETE DEMARCO: Watershed moment - no pun intended.
RUNYON: One of the people who helped write the low-flush rules was Pete DeMarco. He's with the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials.
DEMARCO: And it wasn't just toilets where flows were being reduced, but showerheads, kitchen faucets, lavatory faucets and urinals were also being regulated.
RUNYON: DeMarco says this is a big reason why cities have been able to grow and still keep their water use in check. Indoor use dropped 22 percent nationwide between 1999 and 2016 - much of that due to just swapping out old fixtures. And recently, states with water scarcity problems have passed even tighter regulations.
DREW BECKWITH: And so you, basically, have these high-efficiency toilets now, as a matter of course. You cannot go out in the store in Colorado or California and buy an old toilet.
RUNYON: Drew Beckwith is a water policy expert who works in suburban Denver. He says conservationists have been a victim of their own success. With national standards in place, there's not much more people can do to limit water use inside homes.
BECKWITH: We've sort of done our business with respect to toilets. And it's time to, you know, maybe get off the pot and move on to outdoor water use, which is more - I see - the focus of urban water efficiency today.
RUNYON: Back at the MacFarland home outside Boulder, the brand new toilet is hooked up.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOILET RESERVOIR FILLING)
RUNYON: And water is filling the tank. The honor of first flush goes to Theresa MacFarland's daughter Althea.
MACFARLAND: Check it out - there's this blue button. (Unintelligible). Give it a shot.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOILET FLUSHING)
RUNYON: Didn't think we'd get through this whole story without hearing at least one flush, right? For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Longmont, Colo.
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