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Colorado Basin Shortages Indicate Need for State Action

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This year’s declaration of unprecedented shortages for the Colorado River is expected to galvanize all states in the Colorado Basin to redouble their efforts to reduce unnecessary and unnecessary uses of water and build more resilient communities. The matter becomes urgent with the realization that next year is unlikely to bring significant relief. Actions are now needed to maintain the supply of drinking water in 2022, 2023 and beyond.

Irrigation overspray in California

While agriculture uses the majority of the Colorado River’s water, the major metropolitan areas in each of the basin states all rely on Colorado water. And in six of the seven states (all except Nevada), major cities that take water from rivers are outside the basin and are not returning any returns. Thus, most of the urban uses of Colorado River water are completely exhausted, with no possibility of reuse in the basin.

States have the primary responsibility for monitoring water use to prevent waste and support health, public safety and economic growth. Many important policies to promote efficient water use have been developed in the Colorado Basin states, but most are not universally applied. Technologies and practices that save water are well known and available today. States do not need to wait for approval from the federal government or other basin states before taking action to ensure water is used more efficiently. All that holds them back is inertia, inattention and indifference.

Here are nine opportunities to make real progress –

  • Remove all non-functional sod. Kudos to Nevada for just promulgating a ban on the use of Colorado River water to irrigate sod in public and commercial places where grass is not needed for a playing surface or other public use. active. Taking effect in 2027, this action will remove approximately 4,000 acres of unnecessary irrigation. If applied by all states in the basin, the total would far exceed 100,000 acres and could save over 300,000 acre-feet of water each year. Other states are expected to follow Nevada’s lead.
  • Adopt more stringent efficiency standards for plumbing and equipment. Colorado, California, and Nevada all have strict state standards for plumbing products. Nevada recently adopted efficiency standards for commercial dishwashers and California for spray sprinklers. There’s little to no price premium for water-efficient products, and despite the ex-president’s rants, you can get a really good shower with a new water-efficient shower head. What’s blocking Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming?
  • Require utilities to report leaks and meet standards for reducing water loss from their pipes. All water systems are leaking – some a little, some a lot. These losses add costs to all customers and can be compared with standardized audits and reports that have been approved by the drinking water industry. California and other states outside the basin (Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Tennessee) are requiring standardized water loss audits and are starting to set performance targets to reduce water loss. Colorado River water is leaking from pipes in all seven states as you read this. But how many? And what do the owners of this infrastructure intend to do?
  • Demand that all new cityscapes be water efficient. They say that to get out of a hole, you must first stop digging. With today’s robust housing construction comes new irrigated landscapes that will thirst for more water in the warmer decades to come. Statewide standards requiring water efficient designs for all new landscapes are a starting point. Southern Nevada has had landscape requirements for years. California statewide regulations are a flawed model, but without them the state would be worse off today. States can adopt simple standards that can be easily enforced by local building officials.
  • Ensure existing buildings are water efficient when sold or rented. Your home can be your castle as long as you live there, but selling or renting a property is an activity already regulated by states and localities. Los Angeles and many other cities have long demanded a “refurbishment for resale,” a requirement that inefficient plumbing be removed from existing structures before or within a specified time after a real estate settlement. If extended to new leases, the policy could have an even greater impact by ensuring a faster transition to high-efficiency plumbing and appliances.
  • Require water meters accurate enough to detect leaks. About 12% of all indoor water use is leakage, and these are leaks large enough to be recorded and billed by a water meter. The dirty secret of metrology, as it’s called, is that the runoff from a slow leak cannot be accurately recorded by most water meters, even when such leaks reach 1000 gallons per month or so. more. Meter accuracy standards have long been established by a committee dominated by meter manufacturers. It is time for states to demand better and to demand that all new meters accurately capture the small flows resulting from leaks. New and existing technologies are available to better record and bill for water consumed by leaks, thus encouraging their repair by customers.
  • Invite low-income households to the table. Water providers across the West have a lot of experience with water saving incentive programs, but few have been successful and consistently involving their low-income customers in the effort. . Although water use increases with income, even low income households can become more water efficient, but lack the income to purchase water efficient plumbing fixtures and appliances. Raising trusted community partners and designing programs to lower bills is essential. States should ensure that water conservation programs have equitable results, saving money as well as water for customers in all zip codes. Keeping water affordable is as important as keeping it available.
  • Reduce discharges of treated fresh water from cities to the ocean. This one is in California, the only state in the basin with a coastline, although Utah may also be a candidate. Legislation was introduced, but not enacted, to phase out the discharge of municipal wastewater into the ocean, thus maintaining a constant supply of fresh water for reuse. The policy could be met through a combination of water efficiency, wastewater recycling, and reduced seepage and inflow into sanitary sewers, each of which is beneficial in itself. Achieving zero releases may not be possible for the foreseeable future, but cutting releases in half within 10 to 15 years is a worthwhile goal that would reduce California’s dependence on Colorado and other sources of fresh water.
  • Price of water (and wastewater) wisely. We hear many government officials talk about the “value” of water, but in most states the price of water and sanitation service is left to hundreds of local councils and city councils that are generally under-funded. expertise in pricing. Left unattended, drinking water tariffs often misalign costs and benefits and promote water use, rather than rewarding water efficiency. And in many areas, the wastewater service is based on a flat rate, unrelated to volume, making marginal use essentially free. Few states, let alone utilities, would want all water and wastewater tariffs to require state review and approval. But states could certainly require local tariff-setting boards to specifically conclude that their tariffs do not contain promotional features and that basic indoor uses remain affordable, while discretionary outdoor uses bear more of the costs of running the system for a while. peak demand periods. The price signal is a powerful tool that is often overlooked in our drinking water management.

Lake Powell with low water level

Photo attribution to Jay Huang

No more excuses

Adapting to the effects of a changing climate will involve many challenges and difficult choices. But the steps outlined here to protect our essential drinking water supplies are NOT difficult choices. It is not a “struggle” for a state agency to change its plumbing code to require more water efficient plumbing in new buildings. It is not “heavy” to demand new water meters to be more precise or new landscapes to be less thirsty, using existing technology and know-how. And it is not a “hard choice” to require water utilities to disclose their leaks and plans to reduce them. Water efficiency is a proven route to water reliability, and the tools are at hand if we choose to use them. Los Angeles uses less water today than 50 years ago, while supplying a population that has grown by almost 50%. Yet even cities and states that have led the way in key areas of water efficiency still have to catch up in others. Now is the time to act on all available options and ensure that our demand for drinking water does not exceed our declining supply.


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