As Climate Change Reduces Colorado River Communities Must Prepare

Santa Fe has taken steps to slash its per capita water use. Photo: Joe Enenbach, My Shot

Now that a red flag has been raised by the Colorado River Basin Study – a federal and state cooperative analysis published in late 2012 – that there will be water shortages across much of the U.S. Southwest, the handwringing has started.

Our cities, farms, and rivers face a slow-motion disaster; what are we going to do about it?  Suggestions submitted to the study include:

  • The controversial and expensive:  towing icebergs, operating large-scale desalinization plants on the Pacific coast, and importing water hundreds of miles and lifting it more than 2,000 vertical feet from the Missouri River (see Brian Richter’s recent post on these schemes)
  • The politically challenging:  making whole-cloth changes, or even modest tweaks to Colorado River laws and policies (known as the Law of the River) to address aspects of 21st century water needs – including the needs of rivers – impacted by climate change (although these were considered generally too challenging by the report’s authors); and
  • The low hanging fruit:  water conservation in every sector, re-use in urban settings, and watershed management.

Despite listing out plans for “Next Steps” in the Basin Study, the federal and state authors have yet to take discernible action to encourage any of these approaches.

Fortunately, some communities aren’t waiting for advice, and they certainly aren’t waiting to get caught unprepared by a dry future.  Leaders in these forward-thinking places have already taken real steps to add resiliency to their water supply in anticipation of the havoc that climate change will wreak.

A new report on “smart choices” from Carpe Diem West documents progress on this front in ten communities across the West.  Much of what these communities are doing falls in the category of the low-hanging fruit, and could be implemented broadly – without delay – by Colorado River water users:

  • San Antonio has reduced per capita water use by 42% since 1994 – well exceeding the goal of a 1% annual decrease in per capita use that cities using Colorado River water reportedly find challenging.
  • Santa Fe took on water conservation with even greater gusto, reducing per capita use by 40% in just ten years.
  • In Colorado, water users and the Colorado Water Trust cooperated to provide ‘drought emergency’ instream flows for the Yampa River and avoided negative impacts to hydropower generation and the businesses that depend on healthy river flows, and even managed to provide additional water for irrigation use downstream. (See Sandra Postel’s recent post on the Yampa project, part of our Change the Course campaign).
  • Salt Lake City found a way to bolster protections for their local water supplies by investing in watershed management.  They accomplished this by adding a surcharge to their water bills.  Ratepayers are charged an additional $1.50 a month, and the money goes to purchase lands and development rights in local watersheds from willing sellers so that they can be managed to increase water supply resiliency.

The federal and state officials responsible for the Colorado River Basin Study would do well to study these “smart choices” and make some of their own.  Instead of more studies they should implement “next steps” that create incentives for more communities to invest in solutions that are immediately available. 

Human Journey

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Jennifer Pitt is the Colorado River Project Director for Environmental Defense Fund. She works with Colorado River water users throughout the Colorado River basin—including seven states in the United States and two in Mexico—to develop practical programs to restore river habitats and to dedicate water to environmental resources. She has worked as a park ranger and a Congressional aide, and has a Masters degree in Environmental Studies from Yale University.