HAYS — Approximately 35 years ago, Hays had a population of approximately 17,550 and used nearly 1.2 billion gallons of water in 1983. By 2014, population had topped 21,000, but annual water use dropped significantly, totaling approximately 636 million gallons.

Hays' conservation efforts were the topic of a statewide meeting Friday in Hays, hosted by the Kansas Water Office. Nearly 40 people — many of them representing other western Kansas communities and state agencies -- gathered to learn about the city's initiatives.

"When we talk about water conservation, at least in my community, our reference is to Hays and everything they're doing," said Martha Tasker, who is chairperson of the Smoky Hill-Saline Regional Advisory Committee and works for the city of Salina. "We think they're the leader in that."

The reason Hays residents have worked so hard to save water is simply because they have to, said Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty.

There are 34 counties in Kansas with a population of more than 15,000. Ellis County is the only one that does not have adequate surface or groundwater supplies. Efforts are underway to secure more water from a city-owned ranch in Edwards County, but conservation remains a high priority.

On average, Hays residents now use 94 gallons of water per person per day, and the conservation efforts continue regardless of temporary climate changes.

Water conservation issues were intensified one dry summer in the early 1990s, when one of the city's wells started "sucking air," meaning it no longer was producing water, said Rep. Eber Phelps, D-Hays, who previously served on the Hays City Commission.

Measures were put in place to reduce outside watering, such as banning outside use on summer afternoons and passing an ordinance that makes wasting outside water a ticketable offense.

Realizing not every resident was using a large amount of water for gardening, city officials also began focusing on efforts to reduce household water use, Phelps said.

"What can an individual do, what can a family do, what can a water customer do that makes an overall huge effect when you look at the end of the year water usage, and obviously it was very noticeable," he said.

Today, the city offers a variety of incentives to help reduce domestic water use, including rebates for high-efficiency toilets, washing machines and urinals. Free, low-flow shower heads and faucet aerators are available at city hall.

And the city's water use rate structure essentially was turned upside down, meaning residents now face increased fees the more water they use.

Another effective initiative involves city officials visiting elementary school children to educate them about the importance of saving water, Phelps said.

"Go to the schools, and the old adage there is to teach the kids. They go home and teach the parents," he said. "As commissioners, we had people telling us time and time again that they'd go in the shower, and their son or daughter would be outside timing them."

A significant focus at Friday's meeting was the city's efforts to encourage homes and businesses to implement "water smart" landscaping. Another city rebate program, known as Cash for Grass, offers up to $1,000 in rebates to convert lawns to warm-season grass, artificial turf or xeriscaping.

Those attending the water meeting spent the afternoon on a yellow school bus on loan from Hays USD 489, touring the city to see examples of drought-friendly lawns and public spaces. The tour included examples of homes and businesses that have been recognized by the city for conservation efforts.

Stops included Aubel Bickle Park, recently converted to buffalo grass, Hays Medical Center's nature trail and Great Plains Dermatology. Dr. Donald Tillman of the dermatology clinic has received recognition for his xeriscaping, which includes a variety of grasses and native, drought-resistant plants. The garden also is watered using recovered rain water and has two underground cisterns.

Xeriscaping was of particular interest to Ellis City Council member Jolene Niernberger, who said she'd always thought that term implied a yard consisting mostly of rock. Ellis also is facing water issues and looking for a long-term source.

"We're searching for water, but also I think we're really trying to promote our community as well and beautify it," Niernberger said while touring Tillman's garden. "Xeriscaping, this is what I think is the most fascinating, because I've always thought of (rock). I'm really pleased to learn more about how it can look like this."