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Colorado River water managers could lower demand to solve drying crisis

This story is one part of a broader series about ways to save water from the drying Colorado River. See the full project here.

There’s lower case demand management and then there’s upper case Demand Management, an official policy, John Berggren, a water policy analyst for the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates, said.

The former is “the way of the future,” Berggren said. Most of the biggest ways to save Colorado River water, from fallowing fields, changing crops and replacing Kentucky Blue Grass lawns, boil down to demand management in one way or another.

Finding ways of encouraging people, farms and cities to use less water should be the highest priority in the basin, Jay Famiglietti, director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan said.

One approach, he said, would be to create a national water strategy, rather than depending on disparate approaches for different river basins and water sources.

Dan Beard, former U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, suggested that U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland could raise the price of water to incentivize conservation.

Farmers in California’s Imperial Valley told the Voice of San Diego that for the past decade they’ve consistently paid about $20 per acre-foot of Colorado River water, a fraction of the cost for neighboring farmers. With water so affordable, there’s less reason to conserve the resource.

Higher rates would change that, Beard said.

“That’s the quickest, easiest and, as far as I’m concerned, one of the best solutions,” he said.

If officials do raise the prices of water they should ensure those increased rates don’t fall on those who can least afford it, Famiglietti said.

“You have to make sure families have enough water to do all the things they need to do,” he said.

And there are many other ways to influence the demand for water, Famiglietti said, and government officials should do everything they can in that regard before depending on other projects like pipelines or desalination plants.

“We need to do everything we can on the demand side before we do any of these things,” Famiglietti said.

And then there’s upper-case Demand Management strategy, which is an official approach upper-basin states are considering but haven’t yet enacted, Estevan López, the Upper Colorado River Compact Commissioner for New Mexico, said.

Part of that strategy amounts to paying people not to use their water, which Berggren said is a short-term strategy merely to “prevent the system from crashing.”

The System Conservation Pilot Program, which Congress passed in December, fits into that category. It’s a revival of an effort that ran from 2015 to 2018 and dolled out about $8.5 million to volunteers willing to forgo their water use.

The first run of that program saved a little less than 50,000 acre-feet. But now much more money – $125 million – is available thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act.

Colorado’s U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, one of the sponsors of a standalone bill to revive the program, said the water savings could be ten times greater than before.

“It’s obviously a first step,” Hickenlooper told The Denver Post in December. “This does not solve the problem.”

Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, hedged during a panel discussion in Las Vegas, discussing how he would define success for the program this time around.

“I, quite frankly, don’t have any sense of how many folks are willing and able to participate,” Cullom said. “Success is broad participation, broadly distributed across four states, among water users, municipal, industrial and agricultural.”

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