#Water Cuts Are Coming for the West — Stateline

Lake Powell, just upstream from Glen Canyon Dam. At the time of this photo, in May 2021, Lake Powell was 34% full. (Ted Wood/The Water Desk)

Click the link to read the article on the Stateline website (Matt Vasilogambros):

Conservation should not feel like belt-tightening but like an opportunity, said Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based think tank. She and her colleagues found in a recent study that California could reduce urban water use by more than 30% by making sustainability investments, tripling water reuse and recycling and recapturing rainwater.

The American West’s culture around water must become more realistic, she said. Climate change is making the region—already two decades into the worst megadrought in 1,200 years—hotter and drier. Adopting sustainable practices and investing in new infrastructure not only will save water, but also cut greenhouse gas emissions that worsen climate change, Cooley said.

“We can still wash our clothes. We can still have beautiful landscapes. We can still shower and flush the toilet,” she said. “We just need to do it efficiently.”

Throughout the West, grassy outdoor landscapes don’t match the native arid ecosystems, said Amanda Begley, associate project manager for the Water Equity Program at TreePeople, an environmental education program serving Southern California. Native plants and trees such as sage brush and oak use less water, cool neighborhoods and attract biodiversity, butterflies, birds and bees.

“Now that we’re up against a wall, we can’t really ignore the climate we’re in anymore,” she said. “Are lawns the best use of our drinking water? I think no.”

But replacing lawns costs money. Communities throughout California provide rebates to incentivize new native landscape investments, but many people can’t afford the upfront price tag, said Bruce Reznik, executive director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper, an environmental advocacy group. Direct-install programs can lift the financial burden for low-income households, he said.

“It’s doable,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be cheap. But it’s going to be doable.”

‘We Should All Do Our Part’

States and cities across the West have taken steps in recent years to account for drought, which has devastated the Colorado River and drastically lowered water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

Water regulators in southern Nevada are increasing rebates for homeowners and business owners to remove their grass, adding to a successful lawn-removal program in the region. Turf already is banned for new developments. Nevada lawmakers last year passed legislation that prohibits Colorado River water to be used on “non-functional” grass at commercial properties, apartment complexes and street medians. The law goes into effect by 2026.

Some cities in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Utah also have lawn watering restrictions in place. Colorado lawmakers this year passed a bill that pays residents to remove their ornamental lawns.

Cities generally are using less water than ever before, even with booming population growth, said Mark Squillace, a professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado Law School. Tackling water shortages means changing the way states manage water, he said, especially for infrastructure projects that divert limited Colorado River water and for agriculture, which accounts for around 80% of water use in the West.

Drinking water sometimes is used to grow water-intensive crops such as alfalfa, he pointed out, most of which are exported to other countries. He finds this “insane.”

“We should all do our part, but we should recognize that we’re not going to solve our problems on the backs of our cities,” he said. “We should be more conscious about using water in our lives and in our homes. But at the end of the day, it’s not going to be enough.”

While statewide water restrictions may be inevitable, Squillace is hesitant to say they’ll solve water shortages. Solutions should be tailored for their communities, he said.

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License (CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0).
Story by: Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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