Adrift in the sea of denial

Forty years ago this month, I sailed aboard a 56-foot wooden ketch on a voyage from the Galapagos to the Marquesas. It was one of the longest legs of what would eventually be a six-year circumnavigation.

There were five of us aboard the Paisano -- she was a comely, if not particularly fast vessel, built in 1924 along the lines of a Gloucester schooner. From Tower Island in the Galapagos to Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas, we'd have to sail almost 3,000 nautical miles. We were on our own, with no intermediate stopping point and no radio.

For this trip, we carried 225 gallons of fresh water. We made our landfall in the Marquesas after 20 days, having picked up the Southeast Trades a couple of days out of the Galapagos. We still had 40 gallons of water aboard, having conserved our limited supplies rigorously.

The rules were simple -- fresh water was for drinking and cooking.

It took about 10 gallons of water daily to meet the basic needs of five active people. Admittedly, we used seawater for washing and bathing, but we could have made do without.

Let's compare the above with Castle Pines Village, an upscale community south of Denver, whose residents use 151,662 gallons per person annually. In other words, they're using 200 times more water than was needed to sustain life.

At 70,000 gallons annually, Colorado Springs does better than Castle Pines. But not because we conserve -- we're just poorer, with smaller lawns, smaller houses, and lots of folks in apartments.

But however you look at those figures, you've got to figure that there's plenty of room for conservation.

That's why it was so discouraging to read Utility CEO Phil Tollefson's op-ed piece in the G last week.

He began commendably enough, by praising the conservation efforts of the city and its citizens, but then focused exclusively on the supply side. According to Phil, "we have solid plans for the future water needs of Colorado Springs at least through 2040 ... the wheels are in motion to quench our thirst ..."

And hey, everything's gonna be fine -- as Phil says, we'll "have to work hard to conserve water until [the drought] ends" (italic added).

Let's be optimistic and assume that the drought will end in the next year or two. Under Phil's scenario, we'll simply go on our merry way, soaking our lawns twice daily, and expanding our verdant suburban oasis right out to the Kansas line. What happens when drought reappears?

No one knows. Phil's rosy scenario for a damp and happy future is based on two hopeful assumptions. One is that the drought will end soon, and not recur in the near future. The second is that future city councils/Utility directors will find some miraculous new source of water, which will enable the city to grow throughout the century.

That's unlikely. According to the EPA, snowmelt, which supplies virtually all of the region's water, is likely to diminish substantially in this century, thanks to global warming.

We'll be competing for water not just with Aurora, Pueblo and Denver, but also with Arizona, California and Nevada. In such a competition, you can forget prior agreements, such as the interstate compact of 1922, which allocated flows from the Colorado River.

As water shortages become endemic, numbers rule -- as in how many people, how many electoral votes.

Working on the supply side is fine; we need to develop our existing water rights as effectively as possible. But absent a sustained, permanent conservation program, we're just setting ourselves up for a catastrophe when the next drought comes around.

To that end, our city ought to make major investments in conservation, as so many other cities have.

It's not enough to spend a few thousand dollars on PR and fund a pilot program or two. We need to look at the potential savings from conservation as equivalent to building a major water delivery system -- and fund it accordingly.

That could mean, for example, subsidizing homeowners to replace their existing toilets, showerheads, dishwashers and washing machines with water-efficient devices. It could mean city-mandated and Utility-subsidized installation of drip irrigation systems throughout the city.

And above all, it'd mean that water conservation would be a permanent and unavoidable part of living in Colorado Springs.

In a closed life-support system like the Paisano, everyone conserves, because the consequences of overuse are immediate and dramatic. In the larger world, you can get away with taking more than your share for a while.

But not, as we're finding out, forever.

-- jhazlehurst@csindy.com


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