One load of laundry at the Gardner home used to guzzle 45 gallons of water.

Then Shoreview resident Paul Gardner signed up for the city's WaterSmart program, which promotes water conservation through knowledge of household usage, and was surprised to learned that his 1993 washing machine was a "water hog."

The Gardners now run their entire household on about 60 gallons a day thanks to new appliances, fixtures and practices adopted through the program — and they don't even feel the difference.

"We are not living off the grid. We wash our dishes in the dishwasher. We flush every time," Gardner said. "You can have a standard suburban lifestyle and not waste water."

Shoreview launched WaterSmart three years ago to promote good water stewardship. The city provides 700 million gallons of water annually for its residents via a handful of ground wells, and it won a League of Minnesota Cities sustainability award for the effort this year.

It's part of a growing group of Minnesota cities that have adopted an environmental ethos, said Philipp Muessig, program coordinator for Minnesota GreenStep Cities, which has 120 participating locales pursuing sustainability goals, from water conservation to energy efficiency. Some have been calling Shoreview staff to ask about WaterSmart; other efforts include storing stormwater and using it to water parks and playing fields and offering residents rebates for high-efficiency, water-saving appliances.

"We are seeing more of this creativeness. How do we help shape public and private behavior?" Muessig said. "More and more, we can show that these environmental things are really just common sense."

The Shoreview program gives residents a household water report so they know how much they use, how they stack up to neighbors and areas where they can save, and even points out a potential leaky faucet or toilet. The reports are available online or by mail.

Early on, the city even handed out wireless meters to some residents, including Gardner, to measure water usage for individual appliances and faucets.

Shoreview and Water­Smart, its private San Francisco-based software partner, estimate residents have conserved 10 million gallons of water as a result of the program, also branded as "Know Your Flow." That's about 1,000 swimming pools' worth of water.

"The energy industry has been doing this for awhile. The water industry is now just starting," said Shoreview Public Works Director Mark Maloney.

About half the city's 8,000 households with water accounts have received a WaterSmart report online or by mail. About 1,500 have registered so far through WaterSmart's online portal so they can check on their usage through a computer or smartphone app.

"We are blessed here with all these natural resources," said Maloney, noting the city has nearly a dozen lakes. "This is a great place to try new things and do things for water conservation."

Lessons from a neighbor

Recent debate and a lawsuit about water levels at nearby White Bear Lake and groundwater usage also inspired city leaders to further promote conservation.

"We have been on this trajectory for a long time. The White Bear Lake discussions have shined a light on these efforts," Maloney said.

But WaterSmart was initially met with pockets of hostility, said Ellen Brenna, Shore­view's natural resources coordinator. About a dozen residents called, incensed that the city was starting a conversation about water conservation.

"There are people who just want us to leave them alone," Brenna said. "They believe it's their right to use as much water as they want."

City officials stress the program is voluntary. It's tapping into that growing desire to be good environmental stewards in residents' everyday lives.

"They find it helpful, and they like having more frequent information on their water usage," Brenna said.

New standard for lawns

One of the biggest changes happening in suburbs as this new water conservation ethos takes root? Accepting that your lawn doesn't need to look like a putting green, Maloney said.

"People are transitioning parts of their property to things that need less water," Maloney said. "This goes hand-in-hand with the pollinator push" to provide habitat for bees.

In addition to making indoor changes, Gardner said he has transformed his lawn to conserve water and keep his basement dry.

About one-third of his front yard is a rain garden with native plants that need minimal watering and suck water from the soil, preventing saturation and water in the basement. He now has several rain barrels to store runoff from his roof that he uses for his outdoor watering — and new wildlife attracted by the changes.

"We now have bees, butterflies and dragonflies in there," said Gardner, who has long worked in recycling and waste management and took over as the administrator for Minnesota's Clean Water Council in 2019.

Neighbors often stop by to ask questions. Gardner said he's happy about the cost savings, but in the end, the lessened environmental impact motivates his family: "My wife and I are interested in leaving our house and our community in better shape than we found it."