The challenges facing the Colorado River Basin are varied and significant. In particular, population growth, drought, and climate change all are likely to further strain the regional water budget unless our management of water uses evolves to match our expertise in managing water resources. Fortunately, there’s also no shortage of viable, cost-effective solutions, and the many reforms enacted during the past decade have opened a short window of opportunity for basin residents to consider what a lasting solution might look like. It’s clear that any real solution must take advantage of the many inefficient water uses that persist throughout the basin, which are every bit as much of an opportunity to embrace as a problem to lament.
In providing “the case” for conservation in the Colorado River Basin, we are explicitly rejecting a few of the common myths that surround and burden the concept. We find that the popular characterization of water conservation as implying a sacrifice, an added cost, and a loss of productivity or opportunity is, at best, misleading and is arguably the direct opposite of the reality we face in the basin. Additionally, the notion that an increase in population must equate to an increase in consumption is not only inconsistent with the water use statistics, but when treated as fact, can become a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy that pushes the region toward ill-advised supply-side options. While it’s true that some of the low- hanging fruit of water conservation has already been captured, there’s nothing to suggest that we are close to exhausting the urban conservation potential, and the potential for significant agricultural conservation is exciting as long as it’s married to a commitment to protect the economic and social viability of rural communities.
We also appreciate that urban users fear losing their green spaces, while rural areas fear a loss of productive acreage. But that is not always the cost of conservation, and when it is, such reductions in irrigated land can be selected in a strategic and limited manner if rules and programs are created for that purpose. And what is the alternative? Further draining streams, reservoirs and aquifers to a point of collapse? Spending billions to import or desalinate new supplies (if available, and only after decades of work)? Without creative solutions, market forces and crisis scenarios will inevitably dry-up irrigated agriculture in unplanned ways that create undesirable third-party impacts.
As people that live, work, and recreate in the Southwest, we think the path forward is obvious: we should pursue the options that offer the greatest bundle of benefits for the lowest bundle of costs, that are easily scalable and can be done relatively quickly, that offer the lowest risks, and that leave the door open in the future to other approaches should they prove necessary. That is the case for conservation.
More Colorado River Basin coverage here.