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Planning for population growth and water scarcity in the West 

SimpliCity

'We are booming," says Jorge Figueroa, water policy analyst for Western Resource Advocates. In population, that is. But there's a problem: "You can't have growth if you don't have water."

According to a 2014 Colorado Department of Local Affairs report, Colorado is expected to see an additional 2.5 million people by 2040. And throughout much of the West, even a subtle mention of "drought" sparks talk of impending doom.

But we've survived drought before.

"The West has been experiencing drought on and off for as long as we have information about rainfall," says Sally Thompson, University of California at Berkeley professor and hydrologist. Through a detailed study of the oldest living trees in California, scientists have analyzed drought records that date back almost 5,000 years. Supplementing this study are thousands of additional precipitation data sets collected with modern meteorology equipment.

"Every data source we have suggests that droughts are a natural part of the climate of the Western USA," Thompson says.

And some water advocates argue that the gap between the water available and that which growth will demand can be closed with increased preparation efforts, including conservation.

"Drought is also going to compel us to make those changes even if we are not willing to," Figueroa says.

The timing for implementing change couldn't be more perfect, with Colorado developing its first statewide water plan, a first draft of which became available Dec. 10 at coloradowaterplan.com. According to the website, it hopes to illuminate "a path forward for providing Coloradans with the water we need while supporting healthy watersheds and the environment, robust recreation and tourism economies, vibrant and sustainable cities, and viable and productive agriculture."

It's a daunting challenge, as California's case makes clear. According to a 2014 report from the California Department of Water Resources on its current extreme drought, water allocations to State Water Project users have been decreased to zero. This includes cutting off water to approximately 750,000 acres of irrigable farmland. One of the most productive agricultural regions in the world has been left to fend for itself.

Can Colorado avoid making similar harsh decisions? Figueroa remains optimistic.

"If you do smart water infrastructure projects, if you do [agriculture]-urban cooperation," he says, "you maximize reuse and conservation, you would not only fill the gap for the Front Range but you would have water in excess. Conservation is the fastest, cheapest way that you can help cities deal with drought and with climate change."

River conservation activists have raised concerns about the consideration of any new infrastructure projects in Colorado, which could include dams, reservoirs, diversions and pipelines. The draft of Colorado's Water Plan makes mention of several of those, including the Northern Integrated Supply Project, Windy Gap Firming Project and Moffat Project, as well as mention of another possible major trans-mountain diversion.

"We have serious concerns about the process and product of this Draft Colorado Water Plan," Gary Wockner, director of the river protection groups Save the Poudre and Save the Colorado, says in a press release. "Colorado's rivers are already severely depleted and oversubscribed, and this Draft Plan would make them all worse. Governor Hickenlooper needs to change course and focus on collaborative solutions that do not pit stakeholders against each other and would not launch multi-decade court battles and water wars over dam and river destruction projects."

Wockner advocates for investments in water conservation, efficiency, reuse and recycling in addition to growth management and water-sharing agreements with farmers. Household conservation can include such methods as installing low-flow showerheads and toilets, replacing lawns with native vegetation and being increasingly conscious about everyday water use.

Extending beyond the household to the regional scale, the West should focus its attention on its thriving agricultural industry. According to a 2010 report by the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, 86 percent of Colorado's water goes to agriculture.

"One part of it is making irrigation more efficient, but then there's the whole other question, from a systems perspective, of what crops are we growing and what crops should we be growing," says Joseph Kasprzyk, University of Colorado Boulder professor and water resources specialist.

Small improvements in irrigation efficiency integrated with smart crop management can have substantial impacts on regional conservation.

As cities expand, new opportunities arise to facilitate water cooperation between agricultural and urban sectors. Cooperative agreements encourage sharing unused water instead of wasting it. A 2012 Filling the Gap report released by Western Resource Advocates in collaboration with Trout Unlimited and the Colorado Environmental Coalition states that "voluntary and compensated ag/urban cooperative water sharing arrangements can provide 129,000 acre-feet of new supply for the Front Range annually by 2050 without permanently drying irrigated acreage."

The same report projects that through maximizing opportunities for water reuse, the "Front Range will have approximately 246,000 acre-feet of reuse water available annually in 2050."

What's necessary to make these changes come to fruition?

"A good beginning would be funding," Figueroa says.

Preparing for growth through adaptive water management will require a commitment from a diverse group of contributors, Kaspryzk adds. "This is an integrated problem that requires a lot of people to collaborate to find solutions."

A version of this story first appeared in the Boulder Weekly.

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