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Spotlight on Los Alamos: One drop at a time

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By Katy Korkos

Sure, we can take shorter showers, only water the garden every other day and stop running partial loads of dishes or laundry, but how many of us can say we have saved 100 billion gallons of water?The county’s new water and energy conservation officer Matt Dickens can.As a water auditor for the company Smartuse, contracted by the city of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County, Dickens helped residents, businesses and government reduce their water usage by 30 percent, saving about 100 billion gallons of water over three years with the program.Dickens has just come on board with the Department of Public Utilities as the county’s first conservation officer, tasked with helping the county reduce water usage by 12 percent, and conserve electricity and natural gas as well. He will be working with both large and small water users, from county operations and large users, like the schools and hospital, to individual homeowners.Along with his wife Sara and their two children, Jonah and Tate, Dickens recently moved to Los Alamos and is still finding his way around. The couple has enrolled their children at Barranca Mesa Elementary and his wife is working from home as a learning consultant.To familiarize himself with the county, Dickens has been studying data and aerial photos of the area, looking for usage patterns and ways to save.  He said that the water usage within the county is not abnormal, but that he especially enjoys working with the people he has met so far because of their exceptional interest in conservation.“This community is about on par with other communities in the Southwest,” Dickens said. “The people here are very aware of consumption.”Dickens’ path to becoming a conservation officer was not a direct one. As a teenager, he hoped to become a professional baseball player, going so far as being asked to try out for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization. After he was not picked up by the Dodgers, he decided college might be a better way to go, and enrolled at TVI in Albuquerque (now Central New Mexico Community College). He served as student president there before transferring to the University of New Mexico, where he majored in history and political science. He worked as a legislative intern with Danice Picraux, D-Bernalillo, before getting a job with Smartuse. He worked in that company’s programs in Phoenix and Durango before returning to Albuquerque.Dickens did have second thoughts about his chosen profession. While working in Phoenix in 105 degree heat, he said he found himself face down on the street, head inside a manhole, with his hands wrapped around a piping-hot water valve. He thought to himself, “I’m always going to be working in the desert. Do I really want to do this?”But his “common-sense conservationist” side won out, and he stuck with it – both at work and at home.“I apply all of the measures to myself,” Dickens said. “I drive a hybrid vehicle, and I’ll be using xeric landscaping in my yard.”He said that reducing water usage in landscaping and lawns does not mean replacing greenery with rocks.“It’s not my job to kill plants,” Dickens said. “It’s my job to help people keep their yards green and do it with less water. It’s important to have greenery. One of my greatest pleasures is to see kids sitting on a patch of grass. I’ve worked with a lot of people who weren’t keen on the idea of xeriscaping, or who thought that xeric landscaping was just rocks, confusing xeriscaping with “zero-scaping.”He commended the utilities department on its Waterwise Gardening program, which it conducts together with the NMSU Extension office.The county’s conservation program is still in the development stage, but once it’s up and running, the program will include leak detection, measuring faucet and showerhead flow rates, demonstrating how to read meters and evaluation of irrigation systems, Dickens said.“Water conservation is the primary goal,” he said, adding that by simply reducing water use, energy use will be cut because of the energy needed to heat water and to pump it to this altitude. Consumers can expect to see lower utility bills as a result.“We expect to provide exceptional customer service,” Dickens said. “Yes, we’ll help people lower their bills, but we really want people to know that they can be comfortable while they use less energy.”He added that county operations, particularly parks and public works, were among the first users he will audit.“One of the initial parts of the program is to green the county, so we can lead by example,” Dickens said.