According to the Citizen’s Guide for Colorado Water Conservation, upgrading your toilets, showerheads, and faucets to WaterSense-labeled models can save a boatload of water and a nice chunk of change on your water bill. However, for people who have trouble affording rent and other necessities, upgrading to more efficient water fixtures can be cost-prohibitive, even if it would save money in the long run. There are many water conservation audit and assistance programs around the state that can help, including the CU Environmental Center’s new FLOWS program. The Foundation for Leaders Organizing for Water and Sustainability or FLOWS seeks to partner with low-income communities in the City of Boulder to conserve water, energy, and money.
“FLOWS is a partnership between community members and students,” says Michelle Gabrieloff-Parish, the program manager. “We’re working together to build capacity in low-income communities around green jobs and engage community members in sustainability. The idea is not to come into the community to provide for them but work with them instead.”
The initial FLOWS pilot project wrapped up earlier this summer and involved two main aspects: an intercultural focus group in addition to water and energy audits. The former sets FLOWS apart from similar initiatives in Colorado. The focus group brought a diverse group of community members together to discuss sustainable traditions from cultures around the world, highlighting tenants’ existing water conservation knowledge. “The goal was to help people see how they’re already sustainability leaders,” says Gabrieloff-Parish. “In these discussions, we looked at native water traditions in Colorado and the Americas; India; Bali; and others. Some ingenious water conservation techniques are already out there; we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.” In addition to watching the Watershed documentary, the group covered topics like the use of ollas (pronounced oy-yahs) for efficient irrigation in arid landscapes and the recognition of the importance of trees for watershed health in the Chipko movement of India. “I’ve talked about (these topics) in my classes where a lot of students come from various indigenous communities,” says Angela Ortiz, a FLOWS technician and urban agriculture educator in Denver. “They have a lot of knowledge that has just gone dormant because when you migrate, it can be easier to forget.”
What makes FLOWS special is that it’s an initiative that comes from within the community, empowering neighbors to build community around sustainability. “In the classroom training (to be a FLOWS technician), it wasn’t only CU Boulder students but also my neighbors. Talking about global issues and how to come up with local solutions has helped us get to know each other on a deeper level, which builds a stronger community,” says Ortiz. “I hope in the future FLOWS will be able to provide more training and opportunities for us to exchange knowledge within the community.”
The other part of the pilot program involved water and energy audits that were conducted in a 35-unit housing complex that belongs to Boulder Housing Partners (BHP), an organization that builds, owns, and manages affordable housing for low and moderate income residents in Boulder. BHP is currently FLOWS’ main partner. The team of FLOWS technicians, which included seven community members and seven students, finished training workshops followed by several days of installations within the complex. Interested tenants could sign up for an audit, which involved discussing their sustainability habits with a technician, while another technician checked for toilet leaks; insulated hot water pipes; and checked faucet water temperatures. Technicians installed water efficient showerheads and aerators; CFL and LED light bulbs; and more. Tenants were also provided with a green cleaning product and a Zip It drain cleaning tool, both of which can save tenants valuable time and money while keeping harmful cleaning substances out of the water supply.
While we are still waiting for the numbers from the FLOWS pilot to show how much water and money the upgrades will save tenants, SCORE, the program that FLOWS is modeled after, already has a proven track record. SCORE is a service that offers similar benefits to CU Boulder and Naropa University students in rental properties in the City of Boulder. The installations implemented in the spring 2016 semester through that program will save approximately 506,144 gallons or 1.5 acre feet of water annually and thus significantly reduce tenants’ water bills.
In addition to Boulder Housing Partners, FLOWS has also partnered with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) and Kohler for funding. BEF provided most of the seed funding for the pilot program and Kohler recently donated seventy-five of their WaterSense-labeled High Efficiency Toilets (HET). The toilets will be available to 75 households through FLOWS as the program grows.
Since the program is still in its infancy, FLOWS is only available for residents living in BHP properties in the City of Boulder during the rest of 2016. Starting next year, they hope to offer this resource to other low-income communities within Boulder beyond BHP properties. With more community involvement and more technicians, the program will have more flexibility to offer a wider range of scheduling options. That is, audit appointments will be available throughout the week and not be limited to the span of a few days per month for each housing complex.
Although FLOWS is unique, several other organizations in Colorado offer similar programs to help low-income households increase their water efficiency and save money. One example is Colorado Springs Utilities. In 2013, they partnered with several organizations “to help low-income and non-profit housing providers improve efficiency with WaterSense retrofits.” They have continued to help their community lower its water footprint by “supporting apartment owners and managers in property upgrades, helping builders incorporate WaterSense certification, and educating customers through events, classes, and a K-12 education program.” In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) named Colorado Springs Utilities one of its WaterSense Partners of the Year in recognition of their water conservation accomplishments. To learn more, check out Patrice Lehermeier’s blog post on Colorado Springs Utilities.
Another example is the Center for ReSource Conservation’s (CRC) Slow the Flow program. The CRC has partnered with twenty-four Front Range water providers to offer free indoor water and outdoor sprinkler consultations to qualifying customers. You can check which water programs you qualify for here.
A lot of great work is being done in Colorado to help communities understand and lower their water footprints while saving money on their bills. FLOWS brings some new elements to the field by encouraging participants to recognize and use water conservation wisdom that they already have through its neighbors-helping-neighbors model. It will be exciting to see how the program grows in the coming years. “It helps to be reminded that there are more people like me pushing for change and it’s nice to see people from all walks of life working for this unique purpose,” says Ortiz.
Learn more about water conservation and conservation programs in CFWE’s new Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Conservation, now available to flip through or order here.