A water crisis is here, the West must act aggressively, collectively

A billboard in St. George urges residents to use less water – “Utah is in a drought.”

Artwork by Angel Boligan, El Universal, Mexico City, CagleCartoons.com

Artwork by Angel Boligan, El Universal, Mexico City, CagleCartoons.com

Other nearby billboards in Washington County advertise one of the largest outdoor swimming pools in the world and a soon-to-be luxury surfing community with three man-made lakes.

It certainly doesn’t feel like this arid city — home to the nearby headwaters of two major Colorado River tributaries — is in a drought. At least a dozen lush golf courses dot the sandstone desert. Residents were watering turf lawns at midday in recent temperatures of 108 degrees. Old-fashioned sprinkler irrigation systems on farms sprayed at the same time.

Contrast that with what Mayor Mike Coffman and the City of Aurora are proposing – an aggressive ban on new water-thirsty grass development, including for golf courses, front yards, sidewalk buffers and common areas. not functional. Additionally, the mayor, a Republican who served in Congress for 10 years, is proposing a cool-weather lawn size limit in new backyards and an incentive program for existing residents to transform their landscaping with aquatic plants.

“I think that’s really not what needs to happen from the city of Aurora, but what needs to happen from the state of Colorado, if not the region,” Coffman told the Denver Post editorial board. “I mean that’s just the reality we live in, and I think a lot of our residents are quite surprised by this proposal. They think it’s quite dramatic. And I think our job is to educate them that these are not normal times that we live in and this is not a temporary situation that we live in.

“Use less water” should resonate throughout the West, as does the mantra to emit fewer greenhouse gases in order to slow aridification. Both tasks – conserving water and reducing our carbon footprint – are going to be difficult.

Lake Powell and Lake Mead (as well as crucial supply dams upstream) reached record highs. Our aquifers are simultaneously depleted. Snow cover is, on average, below historical levels, and even in a good snow year, it is melting too quickly. Less water is available than ever before, as evidenced by the Colorado River Crisis story by Conrad Swanson of the Denver Post in July.

And yet, the lower basin states greedily exceed their water allocations while the upper basin states show a criminal reluctance to conserve for fear of losing their unused allocated water rights. The result is disastrous for the wildlife and people who depend on the Colorado River.

The conservation message is diluted by a counter-productive and childish water fight.

For example, while many communities in Washington County, especially Santa Clara, have adopted smart water conservation plans that regulate new car washes and prohibit future recreational land uses like golf courses who use a lot of water, St. George’s City Council passed a weakened decision. version of the regional water conservation plan recommended Thursday. The ordinance does not limit golf courses or other recreational uses as long as they acquire their own water rights, shifting tough decisions to the highest bidder.

A man comes out of...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

A man exits the pool at Desert Color, a newly built community surrounding a large beach-like pool, July 10, 2022, in St. George, Utah. The US Geological Survey shows that in Washington County, where St. George is located, residents use an average of 306 gallons per day. In Phoenix, the per capita average is 111 gallons per day. Desert Color advertises that it is sustainable because the water in the lagoon comes from an aquifer with brackish water that needs to be treated.

For example, the new 2.5 acre pool uses treated brackish water from the aquifer, but the aquifers are often non-renewable finite resources. Realistic limits on water use protect consumers, especially homeowners who are making the biggest investment of their lives and who may one day find their assets considerably cheaper when a well dries up.

Infuriating as the golf courses of Phoenix and Utah are, Colorado should lead the way by offering to keep our water use stable despite booming growth and technically owning the water rights for a greater great expansion in the ridiculously over-allocated Colorado River Compact of 1922. In exchange, lower basin states must reduce their water usage across the board with the kind of reductions that will force wasteful water users like golf courses, car washes that don’t recirculate and conserve water, and wasteful recreational and non-recreational water elements to go dry.

Maintaining our use of the Colorado River and its many tributaries that begin in the Rocky Mountains will actually feel like cuts to most users, especially as those relying on dwindling aquifers in the coming decades (for example, Highlands Ranch) are forced to find other sources of water. But it won’t be as painful as the forced cuts downstream where desert landscapes have been turned into oases.

We are not alone in calling for drastic political restrictions upstream and downstream of water use. Science Magazine published a study by Brad Udall with Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center and five other leading researchers, which concluded: “Our results show that although current policies are inadequate to stabilize the Colorado River if drought millennium continues, various use strategies can stabilize the system. However, these measures must be implemented quickly. While such concessions by the two basins may seem unthinkable at present, they will be necessary if recent conditions persist.

It makes no sense to hold a grudge against Central Arizona’s reckless canal project when the Front Range has been carrying much more water over the Continental Divide for longer. No one wins the game of who sinned first.

Cotton grows in a field on...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Cotton grows in a field July 9, 2022 in Yuma, Arizona. With some of the oldest water rights for agriculture in the Colorado River Basin, Yuma, despite its arid climate, has become one of the nation’s largest agricultural producers.

Let’s acknowledge here that Denver and some of its suburbs have done a remarkable job of water conservation. In Denver, even though the population has grown by more than 200,000 people since 2000, the city has used millions of gallons less water than at the turn of the century.

Approximately 25% of Aurora’s water comes from the Colorado River Basin, 25% from the Arkansas River Basin, 5% from groundwater, and 50% from the upper South Platte River Basin.

Aurora has already conserved water aggressively, including with one of the state’s largest water reuse programs that cleans and recycles inland water back into the river for reuse.

Since about 2000, Aurora’s per capita water consumption has decreased by 36%, while the city’s growth has slightly exceeded this reduction.

“We’re about to offset that growth with those savings…but I don’t know if we can save another 36% over the next two decades,” said Marshall Brown, water manager for the City of Aurora. . He noted that Aurora is half-developed and demand for housing within the city limits remains strong.

However, municipal conservation and non-agricultural water reduction cannot do much. In many places that draw water from the Colorado River Basin, agriculture consumes about 80% of the region’s water.

Many Colorado farmers and ranchers have been model citizens – abandoning unnecessary flood irrigation for targeted sprinkler or drip irrigation systems. But more can be done, including piping or lining traditional channels and reducing diversions to levels that meet consumption.

It’s controversial, of course, but necessary. Urban residents can help farmers by conserving water themselves and also supporting compensation programs that reward conservation and transitions to water-efficient crops. Encouraging farmers and ranchers to continue producing food, but more efficiently, is a win, a win for everyone that will keep food prices low.

Some Arizona farmers have already been forced to fallow, and experts in Pinal County estimate that 40% of farmland dependent on the Colorado River will be forced to stop growing in the coming years. Everyone will feel the effects of reduced food production in the West, as California farmers have laid aside about 400,000 acres, an area that could double in the coming years.

Booming cities need water, yes, but they also need food. Prices will go up if we don’t all act collectively. And most farmers recognize that water-intensive crops, especially alfalfa, can be grown in wetter parts of the country that don’t face a mega-drought.

We share the frustration expressed by Joanna Allhands, digital opinion writer for the Arizona Republic, that municipal water entities are not pushing conservation comprehensively and effectively. Allhands wrote this week: “I regularly hear from exasperated people who don’t know what they are supposed to do now.”

This is the case even though the Federal Bureau of Reclamation has counted Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming to cut a total of 2-4 million acre-feet of water in 2023 to maintain the river and electricity. .

Acting now can lessen the pain in the years to come, and if the millennial drought takes an unplanned, unexpected, but very welcome break, we can use the plan of shared sacrifice for generations to come.

Coloradons will do their part if downstream communities like St. George do too. We are all in there.

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