Over 300 restaurants in Santa Fe use more than 635 million gallons of water each year. That's a lot of water down the drain in a city where every drop counts. But the city's efforts to reduce use by 20% have positioned Santa Fe as a national leader in water conservation strategies for the commercial sector.

This month, Green Builder magazine, a publication that focuses on sustainable development, named Santa Fe as a 2020 Sustainable City of the Year in recognition of the city's Restaurant Water Conservation pilot program that audited and updated appliances in 30 restaurants in 2018. According to Christine Chavez, the city's water conservation manager, her office plans to expand the pilot program to another 100 restaurants this year.

"We want to save water as much as possible with Paper Dosa," says Paul Raj Karubpasamy, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife Nellie Tischler. "I definitely think it is important for the city to be helping restaurants because we were already doing very many things to save water, but the city helped us to save even more."

The city installed aerators on the kitchen and bathroom sinks of the restaurant to reduce water use. But Karubpasamy says the restaurant does not know exactly how much water has actually been saved since the measures kicked in, because it is not metered separately from the other businesses in its building.

"Most of the restaurants exist in strip malls or master-metered properties where they are not individually metered, so the biggest challenge was that restaurants had no idea how much water they were actually using," Chavez tells SFR.

In its first year, the program identified more than 1.5 million gallons of potential water savings, according to Chavez. Among those with individual accounts, participating restaurants reduced their actual water use by 450,000 gallons, with more actual savings on the horizon as the restaurants put in the recommended water saving measures and appliance upgrades.

The city collaborated with the manufacturers of Phyn, an AI leak-detecting "smart meter" technology, to pilot a device that measures individual appliances' use patterns in six of the 30 participating restaurants.

The device works by constantly monitoring each appliance for irregular or high water use, then notifying the restaurant owners of potential leaks and wasteful consumption habits. It has revealed some surprising outcomes. At Ecco Gelato & Espresso, the appliances expected to use the most water were sinks and coffee machines. But the device showed that the most water-intensive appliance was actually the water well the cafe uses to rinse gelato scoops, says Chavez.

The other restaurants with Phyn devices are Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen, Joe's Dining, The Ranch House, Restaurant Martin and The Pantry.

In the first round of the pilot, the city installed Phyn in restaurants that had unique appliances, such as the water well, to collect specific data for the development of a commercial meter. The city plans to expand on this by installing the device in 30 of the 100 restaurants participating in the second phase of the project.

Jacinta Sauve, general manager at The Ranch House, tells SFR the city installed about 20 Phyn devices on water-using appliances in the restaurant. She says Phyn is still in the process of collecting data and hasn't yet become fully functional, but it is already proving useful. Earlier this month the restaurant suffered a leak. Though the system could not yet identify where the leak started, the device immediately notified managers it was outside the restaurant.

"Before, if water use went up, it was just a guessing game of checking where we might or might not have a leak," says Sauve. "With Phyn there will be a point in time when the system will be able to tell us exactly where the leak is right away."

Eventually, Chavez says the data will be used to create a device specifically tailored to commercial industries that could be installed in every restaurant facing issues in metering its water use.

"This solution was one of the really positive outcomes of these partnerships that really elevated the program," says Chavez.

The city Water Conservation Office also partnered with the Santa Fe Community College's New Mexico Energy Smart Academy and the Santa Fe Green Chamber of Commerce on the project.

Chavez says the auditing process itself presented an equal challenge when the entire water conservation office staff spent almost every day for a month examining leaky appliances because they could not find any professionals certified to audit restaurants.

That's partly because vocational training programs for this specific certification did not exist, says Chavez. So the office contacted the Santa Fe Community College for help. In response, SFCC's Energy Smart Academy developed a program for water auditing in the commercial sector.

"This is an extremely new concept," says New Mexico Energy Smart Academy director Amanda Hatherly, adding that Atlanta, Georgia, is the only other city in the country to have attempted a similar commercial auditing project, "but I expect that this is going to open up opportunities all over the country because restaurants use so much water and we have such an issue with water and climate change."

Hatherly tells SFR the college got help from a National Science Foundation Grant awarded to Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, to develop the curriculum for an online degree program focused on water efficiency. SFCC's Energy Smart Academy partnered with the Oregon college to develop the commercial water auditing course for the curriculum here.

So far, the city has contracted with six auditors trained and licensed by the school. Chavez says the second round of the pilot will cost the city $50,000. But in the long run, she says, the water saved will translate to dollars saved for the city.

Looking beyond that, she hopes to expand the program to the hospitality industry by beginning audits of Santa Fe's hotels and motels.