A century ago in #ColoradoRiver Compact Negotiations: Turning to Murky Details — InkStain #COriver #CRWUA2022

Delphus Carpenter. Picture courtesy Colorado State University library

Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (Eric Kuhn and John Fleck):

As the Colorado River Compact Commission negotiators returned to their discussions for a short 8 p.m. Sunday evening meeting Nov. 12, 1922, they began trying to dive into the details of how to divide up the great river.

In trying to make the broad concept of dividing the river between a newly proposed “Upper Basin” and “Lower Basin”, they found devils in the details:

  • Where should the measurement be taken that formed the basis for the split?
  • How would a division cope with the inherent variability in the river’s annual flow?
  • Would an “Upper Basin” reservoir be needed in addition to the one being contemplated in Boulder Canyon?
Delph Carpenter’s original map showing a reservoir at Glen Canyon and one at Black Canyon via Greg Hobbs


After Saturday’s long meeting where they heard various proposals for a compact, Sunday’s gathering was short.  The focus immediately turned to the Delph Carpenter’s two-basin proposal and most of the questions came from Arizona’s Winfield Norviel. Norviel first asked the basis for Carpenter’s proposed 50/50 split based on the river’s flow at Yuma. Carpenter, while acknowledging that it was somewhat arbitrary, said he chose Yuma to make sure the tributaries below Lee’s Ferry were included in the division and that that an equal division of the use of the river was an “equitable” division. He noted that he used the Yuma gage flows to determine how much water the upper river would have to deliver at Lee’s Ferry to achieve a 50/50 division.


Norviel then turned his attention to Carpenter’s proposed 62.64 million acre-feet every ten years delivery at Lee’s Ferry. He voiced concerns that the ten-year provision would not provide the lower river enough certainty – noting that the upper division would have complete control over how much water was delivered in any one year. Carpenter responded that if Norviel was concerned that they could deliver no water for seven straight years then delivering it all in three straight years, such a delivery was ‘not in the range of my thought.” Carpenter went on to note that a reservoir at (or just above) Lee’s Ferry would naturally be a “stabilizing influence for the lower territory,” but such a reservoir “would essentially be a lower division reservoir.”  At this point Nevada’s James Scrugham suggested “wouldn’t the possible objection be solved by including with the amount, a minimum flow in second feet?” Carpenter responded that he would have no objection “if you made it low enough.”


Concerning the proposal that each division deliver an equal 50% share of any future treaty delivery to Mexico, Norviel asks “is any estimate to be made of the loss by evaporation or percolation between Lee’s Ferry and the point of diversion to Mexico?”  Carpenter responded no – “it was thought that the power benefits and other benefits that would run to the lower country would offset the loss.”

The discussion of losses prompted Herbert Hoover, the Commerce Secretary and Commission chairman, to ask Carpenter if his plan “conceives a sort of fifty-fifty division of the river as it was before white man began to divert it?”  Carpenter, perhaps confused by the question, responded “it would probably result in that conclusion.”


Reclamation’s Arthur Powell Davis then took the opportunity to provide the commissioners with his Reclamation Service’s data on existing irrigation above Lee’s Ferry and in the Gila River drainage. According to Davis, about 1.53 million acres were being irrigated in the upper river and over 400,000 acres in the Gila, including the Salt River Project. Davis went on to conclude that at an average of 1.54 acre-feet of consumptive use, the total use above Lee’s Ferry was about 2.35 million acre-feet annually. He had no similar total for the Gila but noted that the average consumptive use per acre on the Gila was much higher than in the upper river.

Davis went on to point out that Carpenter’s estimate of 14% for the lower tributaries was too high because it included rivers that Davis thought would be in Carpenter’s upper division such as the Escalante, the Dirty Devil, and the Paria Rivers. He suggested Carpenter use 11%. Perhaps Davis was hoping that Carpenter would adjust then adjust his proposed ten-year delivery (the adjusted number would have been 67.86 million), but Carpenter remained silent.


At the end of the meeting, Hoover asked for a vote on the concept of apportioning water between two basins. Six of the seven, all but Norviel, agreed to proceed with that approach.  Norviel said that he wanted to take more time to think about it. They adjourned until tomorrow morning at 10 AM.

September 21, 1923, 9:00 a.m. — Colorado River at Lees Ferry. From right bank on line with Klohr’s house and gage house. Old “Dugway” or inclined gage shows to left of gage house. Gage height 11.05′, discharge 27,000 cfs. Lens 16, time =1/25, camera supported. Photo by G.C. Stevens of the USGS. Source: 1921-1937 Surface Water Records File, Colorado R. @ Lees Ferry, Laguna Niguel Federal Records Center, Accession No. 57-78-0006, Box 2 of 2 , Location No. MB053635.

It’s never too late to save a river — Writers on the Range

Click the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (Rebecca Lawton):

Rebecca Lawton

An old river-running motto says, “Old boaters never die, they just get a little dinghy.” And some never lose their passion for keeping rivers wild.

Consider California’s Stanislaus River. In the 1970s, people of all ages and abilities reveled in running its 13 miles of rapids bearing scary names like Widowmaker and Devil’s Staircase. Not far from Sacramento and San Francisco, the limestone canyon offered renewal and adventure to people nearly year-round.

But back in 1944, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation authorized 625-foot-high New Melones Dam for the Stan, though filling it would drown the beloved canyon. Dam construction began in 1966, and spirited opposition grew, giving rise to the grassroots organization Friends of the River. Advocates argued that a smaller, existing dam could meet flood control and energy production needs, without drowning the wild stretch of river.

Despite actions ranging from citizen’s initiatives to lawsuits and even a favorable Supreme Court ruling, New Melones Dam was built.

As water in the reservoir rose in 1979, Friends of the River co-founder Mark Dubois chained himself to bedrock below the high-water line to force dam operators to stop filling. Fifteen-year-old Sue Knaup also went to work, “rescuing wildlife day and night for two months from flooded trees and islands.” But she could not save them all, and Dubois could not hold back the reservoir.

The river canyon and priceless prehistoric and historic cultural sites were inundated.

Now, with New Melones logging its fourth decade of broken promises in water delivery, flood control and energy production, hundreds of river advocates from the old campaign hope to reclaim the Stan. In their teens and twenties back then, and today in their sixties and seventies, they believe the timing has never been better.

“It’s now a matter of ‘well, of course,’” says Dubois, vice-president of the new nonprofit Restoring the Stanislaus River. “National momentum is growing for dam removal and expanding economically and ecologically wise floodplains.”

Knaup, president and chief instigator of the new group, has moved her activism into filmmaking. “When Mark wanted the Stanislaus story to be told as it should be—in pictures—I offered to create a movie about the 1970s fight.”

Beginning work on the film reawakened their long-held dream of reclaiming the river, so now, members are proposing a full-watershed approach: revegetating reaches of the upper river, removing sections of New Melones to maintain lower reservoir levels and working with downstream farmers to protect floodplains.

Promoting the deconstruction of large dams attracts plenty of media attention. Think of the Klamath River in California and Oregon, and the Snake and Columbia rivers in Washington. Taking down smaller dams receives less fanfare, though some 1,100 small dams have come down in the past 20 years in the United States alone.

As California becomes ever drier, many people agree that the New Melones Dam should go. Only 26 percent full today, the reservoir has been near capacity only five times since first filling. Power-production capabilities, based on 40 years of in-flow data, have never been achieved. Even Interior Department engineers admit they underestimated the river’s drought and demand cycles “by a significant amount.”

Roy Tennant, a former Stanislaus River guide and now secretary for Restoring the Stanislaus River, acknowledges that successful full-watershed restoration will “take a ton of work and money … but we have to begin while we’re alive and have the passion to do it.”

Kevin Wolf, former river-guide organizer for the 1970s campaign and current treasurer of Restoring the Stanislaus River, says billion-dollar ballot measures might be what it takes to change the state’s water infrastructure, but “big ideas like taking dams down start with small groups of wild-eyed activists moving ideas forward.”

Dubois, whose civil action in the 1970s inspired many river protection efforts, adds that it’s time “to repair the good intentions of the outmoded dam-building era — to restore the wild rich abundance that rivers have always been.”

As for Knaup, she says “healing has already begun as both the film and the push to restore the Stanislaus River have come alive.” And the river? “I have total faith that it will know what to do.”

Becca Lawton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. A former Grand Canyon River guide and ranger, she began as a Stanislaus River guide and advocate.

Map of the Stanislaus River in Central California, USA. Shaded relief from US Geological Survey data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46852917

4 signs of progress at the UN #ClimateChange summit — The Conversation #COP27 #ActOnClimate

Developing countries are calling for more funding and for changes at the World Bank. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Rachel Kyte, Tufts University

Something significant is happening in the desert in Egypt as countries meet at COP27, the United Nations summit on climate change.

Despite frustrating sclerosis in the negotiating halls, the pathway forward for ramping up climate finance to help low-income countries adapt to climate change and transition to clean energy is becoming clearer.

I spent a large part of my career working on international finance at the World Bank and the United Nations and now advise public development and private funds and teach climate diplomacy focusing on finance. Climate finance has been one of the thorniest issues in global climate negotiations for decades, but I’m seeing four promising signs of progress at COP27.

Getting to net zero – without greenwashing

First, the goal – getting the world to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to stop global warming – is clearer.

The last climate conference, COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, nearly fell apart over frustration that international finance wasn’t flowing to developing countries and that corporations and financial institutions were greenwashing – making claims they couldn’t back up. One year on, something is stirring.

In 2021, the financial sector arrived at COP26 in full force for the first time. Private banks, insurers and institutional investors representing US$130 trillion said they would align their investments with the goal of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius – a pledge to net zero. That would increase funding for green growth and clean energy transitions, and reduce investments in fossil fuels. It was an apparent breakthrough. But many observers cried foul and accused the financial institutions of greenwashing.

In the year since then, a U.N. commission has put a red line around greenwashing, delineating what a company or institution must do to make a credible claim about its net-zero goals. Its checklist isn’t mandatory, but it sets a high bar based on science and will help hold companies and investors to account.

Reforming international financial institutions

Second, how international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are working is getting much-needed attention.

Over the past 12 months, frustration has grown with the international financial system, especially with the World Bank Group’s leadership. Low-income countries have long complained about having to borrow to finance resilience to climate impacts they didn’t cause, and they have called for development banks to take more risk and leverage more private investment for much-needed projects, including expanding renewable energy.

That frustration has culminated in pressure for World Bank President David Malpass to step down. Malpass, nominated by the Trump administration in 2019, has clung on for now, but he is under pressure from the U.S., Europe and others to bring forward a new road map for the World Bank’s response to climate change this year.

Standing together in a meeting room, Mia Motley speaks and gestures while Ursula von der Leyen listens intently.
Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados and an advocate for international finance reform, speaks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the climate summit in November 2022. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, a leading voice for reform, and others have called for $1 trillion already in the international financial system to be redirected to climate resilience projects to help vulnerable countries protect themselves from future climate disasters.

At COP27, French President Emmanuel Macron supported Mottley’s call for a shake-up in how international finance works, and together they have agreed to set up a group to suggest changes at the next meeting of the IMF and World Bank governors in spring 2023.

Meanwhile, regional development banks have been reinventing themselves to better address their countries’ needs. The Inter-American Development Bank, focused on Latin America and the Caribbean, is considering shifting its business model to take more risk and crowd in more private sector investment. The Asian Development Bank has launched an entirely new operating model designed to achieve greater climate results and leverage private financing more effectively.

Getting private finance flowing

Third, more public-private partnerships are being developed to speed decarbonization and power the clean energy transition.

The first of these “Just Energy Transition Partnerships,” announced in 2021, was designed to support South Africa’s transition away from coal power. It relies on a mix of grants, loans and investments, as well as risk sharing to help bring in more private sector finance. Indonesia expects to announce a similar partnership when it hosts the G-20 summit in late November. Vietnam is working on another, and Egypt announced a major new partnership at COP27.

Kerry gestures with one hand as he speaks with Scholz amid other seated people.
U.S. Special Climate Envoy John Kerry, who proposed new carbon offsets to pay for clean energy, speaks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Michael Kappeler/picture alliance via Getty Images

However, the public funding has been hard to lock in. Developed countries’ coffers are dwindling, with governments including the U.S. unable or unwilling to maintain commitments. Now, pressure from the war in Ukraine and economic crises is adding to their problems.

The lack of public funds was the impetus behind U.S. Special Climate Envoy John Kerry’s proposal to use a new form of carbon offsets to pay for green energy investments in countries transitioning from coal. The idea, loosely sketched out, is that countries dependent on coal could sell carbon credits to companies, with the revenue going to fund clean energy projects. The country would speed its exit from coal and lower its emissions, and the private company could then claim that reduction in its own accounting toward net zero emissions.

Globally, voluntary carbon markets for these offsets have grown from $300 million to $2 billion since 2019, but they are still relatively small and fragile and need more robust rules.

Kerry’s proposal drew criticism, pending the fine print, for fear of swamping the market with industrial credits, collapsing prices and potentially allowing companies in the developed world to greenwash their own claims by retiring coal in the developing world.

New rules to strengthen carbon markets

Fourth, new rules are emerging to strengthen those voluntary carbon markets.

A new set of “high-integrity carbon credit principles” is expected in 2023. A code of conduct for how corporations can use voluntary carbon markets to meet their net zero claims has already been issued, and standards for ensuring that a company’s plans meet the Paris Agreement’s goals are evolving.

Incredibly, all this progress is outside the Paris Agreement, which simply calls for governments to make “finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.”

Negotiators seem reluctant to mention this widespread reform movement in the formal text being negotiated at COP27, but walking through the halls here, they cannot ignore it. It’s been too slow in coming, but change in the financial system is on the way.

Rachel Kyte, Dean of the Fletcher School, Tufts University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

This week in #water: Did the Midterms Reveal an Emerging “Green Wave”? — H2O Radio #ActOnClimate

Click the link to go to the H2O Radio webiste. Here’s an excerpt:

Last Tuesday’s election was really good for the climate. Voters did not generate a massive red wave that could have swamped efforts to combat global warming. Instead, there could be an emerging green wave supporting climate action.

Among the winners was the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed by Congress in August, which combines decreasing greenhouse gas emissions with economic development and supports electric vehicles and renewables. Not a single Republican voted for it. The Atlantic reports that even though the legislation may not be all that’s needed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, it’s still the country’s first comprehensive climate law. Now, with Democrats controlling the Senate, it is unlikely Republicans will be able to obstruct President Biden’s implementation of the IRA.

This election was significant because past efforts by Democrats to fight climate change have been opposed by voters. In 1994, 53 Democrats in the House lost elections after President Clinton tried, but failed, to pass a bill that would have supported renewables and imposed a BTU tax, like a carbon tax. Democrats in the House were again defeated in 2009, after they passed a cap-and-trade bill. But the recently passed IRA does not seem to have cost a single supporter his or her seat and, as E&E News reports, there were very few political ads that even mentioned the legislation.

In addition, voters in New York passed a proposal that will spend $4.2 billion on water infrastructure, climate change mitigation, and environmental projects—all while adding 100,000 jobs. They also kept Gov. Kathy Hochul, instead of her challenger, Republican Lee Zeldin, who had pledged to lift a ban on fracking.

Democratic governors who support combating climate change were elected in ten states, including Wes Moore of Maryland, who put climate change at the center of his campaign. In Massachusetts, the Democratic attorney general, who sued ExxonMobil for misleading about global warming science, was elected governor.

New Mexico is now the country’s second largest oil-producing state, but in congressional races voters replaced a Republican with a Democrat and re-elected two backers of the IRA. In Colorado, a Democrat was elected in the new 8th Congressional District, which includes much of the state’s oil and gas activity.

#Aspen’s #water use stays steady: Cities face #conservation challenges in face of growth, climate change — @AspenJournalism #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Residents and visitors spend time in Aspen’s Wagner Park on Sept. 28, 2020. Visitation and lodging unit occupancy rates are two variables that influence Aspen’s demand for treated water, 70% of which is used to water outdoor spaces such as parks and gardens, according to city officials. CREDIT: NATALIE KELTNER-MCNEIL / ASPEN JOURNALISM.

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

Since 2017, the city of Aspen’s water use has remained steady, illustrating the difficulty of reducing consumption through voluntary conservation measures amid continued growth and the effects of climate change.

According to numbers provided by city staff, total metered accounts for water use between 2017 and 2021 hovered between 800 million and 900 million gallons per year coming from the city’s treated-water system. Aspen’s system serves about 3,960 customer connections in the city’s urban-growth boundary.

2019 — a wet year — saw the lowest use in the data set, down to 828,650,350 gallons, or about 2,543 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of 1 foot and can typically meet the annual needs of one or two families.)

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed or limited many businesses, stores, restaurants and government facilities, the year 2020 saw water use rise 7.7% from 2019 to about 2,739 acre-feet. Water use then dropped 4.7% in 2021 to about 2,612 acre-feet.

Water use is very seasonal in Aspen as outdoor watering represents about 70% of the city’s total annual water use, according to Tyler Christoff, the city’s director of utilities.

In July and August 2021, residential use was seven times as much as in the offseason month of April. And residential use in the summer months was five times greater than that in January.

2022’s June-September irrigation season recorded the second-lowest total water use since 2017, with about 1,546 acre-feet, after 2019’s 1,523 acre-feet. Summer residential use dropped by 3.3% from last year.

Each year, about half of Aspen’s treated-water use is residential, which includes both indoor water use and outdoor lawn and landscaping watering, and one-fourth of the total water consumption is commercial. Multifamily units, irrigation and city facilities account for the rest.

Aspen’s water use also tracks closely with local drought conditions, with drier years seeing more water use. For example, water use was down in 2019, when Pitkin County did not experience drought conditions during the irrigation season until September, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Water use was up the following year, when Pitkin County experienced increasingly severe drought conditions as the summer went on, reaching extreme drought by mid-August. With more rain over the past two summers, water use was lower than in 2020.

The past several years of steady water use have shown that despite a much-praised water-efficient landscape ordinance designed to limit water use in redevelopment, smart meters, a tiered rate system that charges big water users more and year-round Stage 2 water restrictions, getting some customers to change their behavior, especially when it comes to outdoor watering, is challenging.

“I think (outdoor use) is not as well understood from a conservation perspective,” Christoff said. “It’s not a water use that you are directly interacting with on a daily basis. Most irrigation is automated. It just kind of occurs, and that creates an inherent kind of disconnection.”

But Christoff said the fact that Aspen’s water use has remained mostly flat while the number of taps and fixtures has increased is a win. According to numbers in Aspen’s 2015 Water Efficiency Plan and numbers provided by Christoff, Aspen’s equivalent capacity units (ECUs) have gone from 17,300 in 2014 to 17,853 in 2021, about a 3.2% increase, creating more demand on the system. One ECU is equivalent to a one-bedroom, one-bathroom home with a fully equipped kitchen.

“I really think it’s a positive thing that we have stayed relatively steady despite more fixtures, more use, more visitation, more building, all of those things,” Christoff said. “That’s really a credit to our conservation program and our community understanding that the resource is finite and wise use of it is really important.”

Aspen aims to use enhanced conservation to address some of its projected water shortages in the future. According to Aspen’s Integrated Water Resource Plan, enhanced conservation could be used to decrease indoor water use by 12% and outdoor use by 25% by the end of 2070. But it also said the yield from enhanced conservation is uncertain because it depends on customers’ behavioral changes. Hotter temperatures from climate change are also predicted to increase outdoor watering demand.

Aspen’s IWRP, which was completed last November by consultant Carollo Engineers, lays out Aspen’s projected water shortages for 50 years under future climate change and growth scenarios. Under the worst-case scenario — where climate change increased outdoor watering by 25% and a 1.8% growth rate that pushed Aspen’s total population (including seasonal residents) to almost 68,000 people, with only modest conservation — Aspen’s total water demand could be 9,281 acre-feet by 2070. The worst shortfalls under those conditions could occur in two consecutive dry years and be about 2,300 acre-feet total over the course of both years, according to the IWRP. The report offers six portfolios of water-source combinations to make up the shortfall, including a potential 5,820-acre-foot reservoir that was estimated to cost $400 million in 2021 dollars.

Christoff said that although the 25% figure is aggressive, he believes it’s attainable and pointed to the city’s water-efficient landscaping ordinance as one path to getting there. Aspen’s landscaping standards, enacted in 2017, set an upper limit for water use for any project — including landscaping, grading and construction — that disturbs 1,000 square feet and more than 25% of a property. (The ordinance is also triggered by a redevelopment of 50% or more of an existing structure.) That limit is set at no more than 7.5 gallons per square foot per season. Redevelopment and new development must meet certain criteria for soil, plant material and irrigation systems, and must submit a report from a third-party certified landscape-irrigation auditor.

Christoff said there have been 87 projects permitted so far under the water-efficient landscape ordinance. The city’s goal is to save 37 acre-feet each year with the ordinance by 2050. Christoff said of the 87 projects permitted, only about 10 are complete and have passed final inspection, so he could not put a number on how much water had been saved so far.

“We still need a few more years of projects working through the process to start being able to really quantify these savings,” he said in an email.

Aspen’s 2015 Water Efficiency Plan had a goal of reducing demand in 2035 by almost 600 acre-feet per year relative to what demands were projected to be without implementation of the water-efficiency program. Christoff said city staff feels like they are on track to meet this conservation goal.

“Our Water Efficiency Plan provides an outline and roadmap for these efforts,” he said in an email. “If we are able to successfully follow our plan and continue to see community support, we believe we will hit our targets.”

Some Western Slope cities have focused in recent years on getting a handle on outdoor watering because it is what is known as “consumptive” use. For residents on a municipal water system, with indoor water use such as showering, washing dishes and flushing toilets, the water goes down the drain and to the wastewater-treatment plant, where it’s cleaned and released back to the river. The vast majority of indoor water use is “non-consumptive.”

But with outdoor watering, lawns, shrubs, trees and soil absorb most of the water; it depletes the waterway from which it comes.

Since 2012, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, which provides water to the Vail area, has focused its conservation efforts solely on outdoor use.

“We don’t need to worry about indoor water; it goes back to the river,” said Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager for the district. “We just need to concentrate on outdoor water use, so that’s what we’ve done. Lawn watering is our first target.”

As climate change increases temperatures and lengthens the growing season, some of the water savings through efficiency and conservation programs may be wiped out. Water use during drought years, such as 2020, remained stubbornly high in Aspen. And a review of Bureau of Reclamation data by Colorado River experts suggests that water use throughout the upper basin is greater in dry years and less in wet years. If the water isn’t falling from the sky, people tend to take more from the rivers.

Residences among largest water users

If Aspen wants to reduce overall water use, it will have to address the largest water users, including residences with lots of outdoor watering.

“Conservation from the highest water users could have the largest impact on overall water use reductions,” the IWRP reads.

According to the IWRP, two single-family residences were in the top 10 individual water users in 2018, alongside Aspen’s biggest hotels, apartment complexes and city facilities. The two residences — which the city does not identify — were the seventh- and eighth-biggest water users, using 6.5 million gallons (nearly 20 acre-feet) and 5.8 million gallons (nearly 18 acre-feet) of water, respectively. The seventh-biggest water user used 1.4 million gallons (about 4.3 acre-feet) per ECU.

According to the IWRP, much of this high water use may be attributed to outdoor use. About 70 of more than 2,500 single-family residential accounts show water use of more than 1 acre-foot per year per ECU.

Christoff said city staff reach out to these large users with the offer of a free irrigation audit to assess their water use. Smart metering that lets staff and residents check their water use in real time also helps people better understand where they may be wasting water or have a problem such as a leak. But reducing use among Aspen’s biggest users, especially single-family homes, has been challenging.

Since 2005, Aspen has had a four-tiered billing structure in which properties that use more water pay a higher rate. But this doesn’t result in a reduction in water use for some customers, particularly those wealthy Aspenites who can afford to pay more.

“There are customers within our service territory where a financial disincentive is not a disincentive to them,” Christoff said. “Some customers, regardless of how high that third and fourth tier rates are, they are still going to use that amount.”

This concept is known as price inelasticity, where demand stays the same, despite fluctuating prices, said Lindsay Rogers, a water policy analyst with Western Resource Advocates who has worked with the city of Aspen on water projects.

“Customers who receive a pricey water bill, it might not motivate them to reduce outdoor water demand,” Rogers said. “That’s a challenge because that’s one of the biggest tools that municipal utilities have to encourage water conservation.”

Participants in a working group who helped shape Aspen’s IWRP said the city may be leaning too much on pricing to drive water conservation and cautioned that it may have a disproportionate impact on lower-income residents, while not creating a sufficient disincentive for other residents to reduce water use. The same group also ranked outdoor watering of lawns and landscaping as among the lowest priorities during a drought.

Aspen’s municipal code allows for fines or a municipal summons for chronic water-wasters who violate water restrictions. Stage 2 water restrictions, which have been in effect since September 2020, include the following: an even/odd day outdoor watering schedule depending on address; no watering between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. except from a handheld hose or drip irrigation system; no outdoor watering of sidewalks, driveways or patios; and other restrictions.

But, according to Christoff, city staffers have never issued a fine or summons, although they have contacted property owners by email or letter. Aspen prefers education over enforcement, Christoff said.

“We talk to a number of water providers around Colorado, and across the board for the most part, folks either don’t have the staff capacity or inclination to enforce it,” Rogers said. “A lot of people just don’t want to be water cops.”

Other cities have had success

Several municipalities in the Colorado River basin have been able in recent years to decouple water use from population growth. That means that water use decreases even as population increases. The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority have decreased overall water use by 6% while the number of single-family equivalent units increased by 25% since 2002.

Although water use has seen years of ups and downs, Aspen’s IWRP shows that since 1995, overall demand is generally increasing and is projected to continue increasing.

Some Front Range cities, which take a portion of the water from the Colorado River basin through transmountain diversions, have also seen some success with their conservation programs. Aurora, for example, has seen its population rise by 46% over the past two decades, but the amount of water it has distributed has decreased by 9%, according to numbers provided by the city.

But it hasn’t been easy, according to Aurora Water General Manager Marshall Brown. There is a limit to voluntary measures. Developers didn’t take advantage of a program that offered a credit for tap fees for water-efficient landscaping. And not many customers signed up for a $3,000 turf-replacement rebate.

“Going into this year, we said we’ve really got to ramp this up,” Brown said. “We’ve got to tie economics more directly to what we are doing is one of the lessons we learned. And we’ve got to come up with literally code restrictions because we couldn’t get much progress with voluntary stuff.”

Aurora was among a group of municipalities that signed a memorandum of understanding in August committing to reducing nonfunctional turf grass by 30%. Aurora City Council last month passed an ordinance that prohibits turf for aesthetic purposes in all new development and redevelopment, and in front yards. Turf in backyards is limited to 45% of the space or to 500 square feet, whichever is smaller.

“We know we will see results from that,” Brown said.

This home is part of the City of Aurora’s water-wise landscape rebate program. Aurora City Council last month passed an ordinance that prohibits turf for aesthetic purposes in all new development and redevelopment, and front yards. Photo credit: The City of Aurora

A draconian approach

Las Virgenes Municipal Water District provides water to several exclusive and gated enclaves of Southern California such as Calabasas and Hidden Hills. Like Aspen, the area is home to many wealthy residents who may not be as sensitive to water price hikes. The district made headlines this year when it began installing flow-restrictor devices on the homes of water wasters — those who used 150% or more of their monthly water budget four or more times.

The flow restrictors make it so that if more than one person in the home or more than one appliance is using water at the same time, it will come out as an annoying trickle. But the real goal of the restrictors is to stop the functioning of outdoor irrigation systems, which account for about 70% of residents’ water use, according Michael McNutt, the water district’s public affairs and communications manager.

“It’s a great way to get a wake-up call to those individuals who just consistently abuse how much water they use,” McNutt said. “People have got to get the message. We provide the water and we educate and we provide tools, and if they are not going to control how much water they use, we will do it for them until they get the point.”

Water managers say increasing conservation can be challenging, in part, because residents are resistant to change. Thirsty green lawns have been part of American culture and an aesthetically pleasing symbol of prosperity for a long time. But as climate change and drought continue to rob the West of water, that attitude needs to change, McNutt said.

“The barrier I’m seeing is evolving that mindset into something where I can have climate-appropriate landscaping throughout my property and I’m going to look at that and find that just as aesthetically beautiful as a green lawn,” he said. “Green lawns are going to be a thing of the past.”

Although Christoff said there is currently little appetite among Aspen’s elected officials for more-aggressive monitoring of residents’ water use, tools such as the flow restrictor could be part of the city’s future, especially as climate change pushes water utilities to do more with less.

“I think stuff like that is absolutely on the plate,” he said. “That’s not, as a water manager, where I’m looking to go, but as the resource becomes more in demand or more scarce, those drastic-type measures might come more to the forefront.”

Aspen Journalism is supported by the city of Aspen’s community nonprofit grants program.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more information, go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org.