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.”

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

Illustration 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-arrive luxury surfing community with three artificial lakes.

It certainly doesn’t feel like this arid city – hosting the nearby headwaters for two important tributaries to the Colorado River — is in a drought. At least a dozen lush golf courses mark the sandstone desert. Residents were watering turf lawns at noon in the recent 108-degree temperatures. Old-fashioned sprinkler irrigation systems at farms were spraying at the same hour.

Compare that with what Mayor Mike Coffman and the City of Aurora are proposing — an aggressive ban in new developments of water-thirsty turf grasses, including for golf courses, front yards, sidewalk buffers and non-functional common spaces. Additionally, the mayor, a Republican who served in Congress for 10 years, is proposing a limit on the size of cool-weather turf in new backyards and an incentive program for existing residents to transform their landscaping with water-wise plants.

“I think that this is really not what just 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 this is just the reality we are living in, and I think that a lot of our residents are pretty surprised by this proposal. They think it is fairly dramatic. And I think that our job is to educate them that these are not normal times we are living in and this is not a temporary situation that we are living in.”

“Use less water” should reverberate across the West as should the mantra to emit fewer greenhouse gases so aridification will slow. Both tasks – water conservation and reducing our carbon footprint — are going to be hard.

Lake Powell and Lake Mead (as well as crucial upstream feeder dams) have reached record lows. Our aquifers are simultaneously being depleted. Snowpack is, on average, lower than historic levels, and even in a good snow year, it is melting too fast. Less water is available than ever before, as documented by The Denver Post’s Conrad Swanson’s Colorado River crisis story in July.

And still, Lower Basin states are greedily exceeding their allocations of water while Upper Basin states show a criminal reluctance to conserve lest they lose their unused allocated water rights. The result is dire for both the wildlife and the people who depend on the Colorado River.

The message of conservation is getting diluted by a water fight that is counterproductive and childish.

For example, while many communities in Washington County, especially Santa Clara, have adopted smart water conservation plans that regulate new car washes and ban future recreational land uses like golf courses that are water-intensive, the City Council in St. George passed a weakened version of the recommended regional water conservation plan on Thursday. The ordinance does not limit golf courses or other recreational uses as long as they acquire their own water rights, passing the hard decisions off to the highest bidder.

A man steps out of the ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

A man steps out of the pool at Desert Color, a newly built community surrounding a large beach-like pool, on July 10, 2022, in St. George, Utah. The U.S. Geological Survey shows that in Washington County, where St. George is located, residents use an average of 306 gallons per day. In Phoenix the average per resident 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 must be treated.

For example, the new 2.5-acre swimming pool uses treated brackish aquifer water, but aquifers are often finite non-renewable resources. Realistic limits on water use protect consumers, especially homeowners making the largest investment of their lives who might someday find their assets worth significantly less when a well runs dry.

As infuriating as golf courses in Phoenix and Utah are, Colorado should lead the way by offering to hold our water use steady despite booming growth and technically owning the water rights for more expansion in the laughably over-allocated 1922 Colorado River Compact. In exchange, Lower Basin states need toreduce their water use across the board with the kind of cuts 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 features to go dry.

Holding our use of the Colorado River and its many tributaries that begin in the Rocky Mountains steady will actually feel for most users like cuts, 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 cuts forced downstream where desert landscapes have been made into oases.

We are not alone in calling for drastic upstream and downstream political restrictions on water use. Science Magazine published a study performed by Brad Udall with the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University and five other distinguished researchers, that concluded: “Our results show that although current policies are inadequate to stabilize the Colorado River if the Millennium Drought continues, various consumptive use strategies can stabilize the system. However, these measures must be applied swiftly. Although these concessions by both basins may seem unthinkable at present, they will be necessary if recent conditions persist.”

It makes no sense to hold a grudge over the foolhardy Central Arizona Project Canal when the Front Range has been piping much more water over the Continental Divide for longer. No one wins in a game of who sinned first.

Cotton grows in a field on ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Cotton grows in a field on 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 country’s biggest agriculture producers.

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

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

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

Since roughly 2000, Aurora’s water use per capita has decreased by 36%, while the city’s growth has slightly outpaced that reduction.

“We are pretty close to offsetting that growth with those savings … but I don’t know if we can save another 36% over the next two decades,” said Marshall Brown, the director of water for the City of Aurora. He noted Aurora is about halfway developed and demand for housing in city limits remains strong.

Municipal conservation and reductions of non-agricultural water can only achieve so much, however. In many places that pull water from the Colorado River basin, agriculture consumes around 80% of the water in the area.

Many Colorado farmers and ranchers have been model citizens – moving away from wasteful flood irrigation to targeted sprinkler or drip irrigation systems. But more can be done, including piping or lining traditional canals and reducing diversions to levels that meet consumptive use.

This is 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 keep producing food, but in a more efficient way, is a win, win for everyone that will keep food prices down.

Some farmers in Arizona have already been forced to go fallow, and experts in Pinal County estimate 40% of farmland relying on the Colorado River will be forced to stop growing in coming years. Everyone will feel the effects of a reduction in food production in the West, as farmers in California have fallowed an estimated 400,000 acres, an area that may double in coming years.

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

We share the frustration expressed by Joanna Allhands, the digital opinion editor for the Arizona Republic, that municipal water entities aren’t pushing conservation in a comprehensive and effective way. Allhands wrote just this week, “I regularly hear from exasperated folks who aren’t sure what – if anything – they are supposed to be doing now.”

That is the case even as the Federal Bureau of Reclamation has tallied that Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming must cut a combined 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water in 2023 to keep the river and electricity flowing.

Acting now may reduce the pain in future years, and if the Millennium Drought takes an unforecasted, unexpected, but very welcome break, we can use the blueprint of shared sacrifice for generations to come.

Coloradans will do our part if downstream communities like St. George will too. We are all in this together.

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