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2018 Request for Water Acquisitions Pilot Process
Are you curious about how you can help keep your local rivers and watersheds healthy, especially during this dry year? Join us and learn more!
Click here to register for the webinar.
Colorado Water Trust staff will explain the Pilot Process, available transaction tools and the protections available to water right owners who share their water with the environment.
Voluntary water sharing arrangements or voluntary acquisitions of senior water rights, on a temporary or permanent basis, are tools that – particularly in dry years – can help restore flows to rivers in need, sustain agriculture, and maximize beneficial uses of Colorado’s water.
This year, the Colorado Water Trust is partnering with the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) on a Request for Water Acquisitions Pilot Process. This Pilot Process intends to:
Invite voluntary water offers from willing water right owners to benefit streamflow;
Provide a user-friendly mechanism for water right owners to explore working with CWCB and the Colorado Water Trust on water acquisition transactions;
Streamline transaction processes and utilization of resources;
Facilitate implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan objectives, and,
Add flows to river segments in need while coordinating with agricultural and other uses.
Following the drought years of 2002, 2012 and 2013, the legislature created several new tools for water right owners to lease or loan their water for instream flow or flow restoration use without penalty to their water rights. These new tools have been successfully implemented in several river basins around the state, and benefitted water-short streams during the dry years of 2012-2013.
This year, with streamflow forecast to be well below average in many of parts of Colorado, temporary, voluntary, compensated leases or loans of water may provide an alternate source of revenue to preserve agricultural operations and may also help sustain streams and aquatic life during critically low flows.
The 1% for Land and Rivers initiative is pretty self-explanatory. The organizations are reaching out to area merchants willing to impose a voluntary 1 percent fee on transactions, with the money going to the two sponsoring nonprofits. Participating businesses will display signs noting their participation in the program, and customers will have the option to opt out of the payment at the time of purchase.
Jim Daus, executive director of the Eagle Valley Land Trust, was inspired to launch the program in Eagle County after studying similar efforts in the Crested Butte and Buena Vista areas. Program participants in those communities told Daus that customers were overwhelmingly supportive of their programs and, during their operation, only one or two people a year ask to opt out of paying the 1 percent fee.
“This is a way for everyone in the community to give a little bit,” Daus said. At 1 percent, the fee is a penny on a $1 purchase, a dime on a $10 percent or a dollar and on $100.
Every type of business is welcome to participate, and the Land Trust and Watershed Council are willing to help get the program started. In addition to providing signs for both the business front entry and cash register area that announce participation in 1% for Land and Rivers, program volunteers can work with business owners to launch the effort. Program literature notes that point-of-sale setup should be very simple, but if a merchant has issues, then the program can provide a $100 credit if a business needs to contact its bookkeeper or other professional point-of-sale representative.
“Don’t overthink the opt-out. It is very rare that people opt out (typically less than one customer per five years). There are several simple ways other businesses handle this. For businesses that provide bids and invoices, we’ll provide sample language showcasing your support of land and rivers,” the program statement says.
All donations received from 1% for Lands and River will be used directly by the Land Trust and the Watershed Council within the Eagle River and Colorado River watersheds to help fund their objectives of promoting clean water and responsible growth through preservation of open space, agricultural operations, fish and wildlife habitat, public recreation, scenic vistas and significant natural resources. The organizations are proud to share the work they have done with landowners and local, state and federal agencies to help identify and protect land and water with key values.
More than 7,700 acres of Eagle County land have been placed in conservation easements, while many projects are currently underway that will significantly add to this acreage. More than 40 miles of stream banks and fish habitat have been restored and protected. Every year, more than 5,000 points of water quality data are collected and analyzed in an effort to stay ahead of threats to stream health.
Newly released documents show that locals had little voice in monument decisions.
In April 2017, Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, said of former President Barack Obama and the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument: “In making this unilateral decision, our former president either failed to heed the concerns of San Juan County residents, or ignored them completely.”
If Hatch were an honest man, he would say exactly the same about President Donald Trump’s drastic shrinkage of the monument late last year. Documents recently released by the Department of Interior show that when drawing the new boundaries, Trump and his Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, ignored not only the pleas of five Native American tribal nations, but also proposals from local county commissioners and the state of Utah.
That’s just one of the takeaways from a trove of documents regarding the Trump administration’s multi-monument review that the Interior Department coughed up to the New York Times. Here are the top 8 nuggets HCN has gleaned so far from the tens of thousands of documents:
1. The shrinkage of Bears Ears hurt Utah schools more than it helped.
Hatch has argued that the monument took needed cash from Utah school children because it “captured” over 100,000 acres of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands (SITLA), which are leased out or sold to help fund schools. But SITLA itself has never outright opposed the monument designation. Why? Because with designation came the promise of a lucrative land exchange with the feds.
When the monument was designated, SITLA officials said they were “disappointed” in the way it was done, but went on to ask Obama “to promptly address the issue by making Utah’s school children whole through an exchange of comparable lands.” In fact, some six months before Obama designated the monument, SITLA already had the details of a swap in mind. The state would give up the land within the proposed monument, most of which had only marginal potential for development, and it would receive oil- and gas-rich federal land, much of it in other counties, in exchange.
A decade earlier, after the designation of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, a similar swap proved quite profitable, according to an email in the document dump from SITLA Associate Director John Andrews. Andrews wrote that the exchange netted SITLA $135.2 million in mineral leases alone, plus $50 million in cash from the federal government as part of the deal. Adding in investment earnings and other lease revenues, Andrews concluded that a total haul of $500 million from the exchange would be a “conservative guesstimate.”
So, when Trump set out to shrink the monument, SITLA asked only that a sliver of the monument’s southeast corner be removed so as to keep a block of land near Bluff, Utah, in SITLA hands. A representative from Hatch’s office sent a map showing this change and a message to Interior: “The new boundary depicted on the map would resolve all known mineral conflicts for SITLA within the Bears Ears.”
In the end, Zinke granted this part of SITLA’s wish. Unfortunately for the state’s school children, he did a lot more than that, cutting most of the state lands out of the monument, thus shutting down any hopes for a large-scale land exchange. That leaves the state holding on to more than 80,000 acres of isolated parcels that are unlikely to generate much revenue.
2. Zinke ignored local county commissioners.
Trump ordered the monument review amid claims that local voices had been steamrolled by Obama’s unilateral designation. So when, in March 2017, the San Juan County Commission sent maps to Interior showing their proposed boundaries, they might have expected that it would influence Zinke’s recommended boundaries. It did not.
The commission’s proposed boundaries would have covered 422,600 acres across Cedar Mesa. Cut by spectacular canyons and with a high density of archaeological resources, Cedar Mesa was at the heart of Obama’s Bears Ears designation. Under the commissioners’ plans, the eastern boundary would have been Comb Wash, leaving out the sandstone wave known as Comb Ridge, as well as motorized route up Arch Canyon. Zinke’s boundaries contain only half as much land. They leave Cedar Mesa out entirely, unlike the county commissioners’ plans, but they include as part of the monument Comb Ridge and Arch Canyon. It’s almost as if the new boundaries were drawn in defiance of the county commission’s proposal. So much for local voices.
3. The voice of Energy Fuels, the most active uranium company in the Bears Ears region, appears to have been heard.
Representatives of the Canadian company met with Obama administration officials during the lead-up to designation, and the administration ultimately excluded Energy Fuels’ Daneros uranium mine from the monument. However, the company lamented the fact that seven miles of the mine’s one access road still fell within the boundaries, and that its White Mesa mill property abutted the eastern monument boundary.
Energy Fuels lobbyists, including former U.S. Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., met with Trump administration officials in July 2017, and the company’s official comment on the monument review stated: “There are also many other known uranium and vanadium deposits located within the newly created (Bears Ears National Monument) that could provide valuable energy and mineral resources in the future. … EFR respectfully requests that DOI reduce the size of the (Bears Ears National Monument) to only those specific resource areas or sites, if any, deemed to need additional protection beyond what is already available to Federal land management agencies.”
Trump’s shrinkage removed the entire White Canyon uranium district and other known deposits from the monument.
4. The new boundaries correlate closely with known oil, gas, uranium and potash deposits.
During his review last year, Zinke specifically asked for information on mineral extraction potential within the monuments. Uranium mining has long been dormant in the Bears Ears monument due to low prices, and only three of the 250 oil and gas wells drilled within the monument have yielded significant quantities of oil or gas. Nevertheless, industry has nominated some 63,657 acres within the national monument for oil and gas leases since 2014. With the new boundaries drawn to exclude even areas with only marginal potential for oil, gas or uranium, those leases could now go forward.
5. At Grand Staircase-Escalante, the new boundaries are mostly about coal.
When the monument was designated, Andalex, a Swiss company, was looking to mine a 23,800-acre swath of the Kaiparowits Plateau, which contains one of the biggest coal deposits in the United States. Clinton’s monument designation didn’t kill those plans, though it did make access and transportation to the deposits more difficult, so the feds used $19 million from the Land and Water Conservation Funds to buy out Andalex’s leases. Now, some 11 billion or more tons of coal are once again accessible. Also freed up with Trump’s monument shrinkage: Up to 10.5 trillion cubic feet of coalbed methane and 550 million barrels of oil from tar sands.
6. Visitation at Bears Ears area ratcheted up alongside the debate over designation.
Since there are no monument headquarters, the best indicator is the number of visitors at Kane Gulch Ranger Station on Cedar Mesa, which nearly doubled between 2013, when Bears Ears was little in the news, and 2017, when it became a signature issue for Trump as he attempted to dismantle many of Obama’s legacies.
Visits per year:
The jump in visitation in 2017 will be used by both anti- and pro-monument advocates. The former will argue that extra visitors mean extra impacts, the latter that more visitors add up to greater economic benefits for neighboring communities.
7. The designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante didn’t significantly impact grazing.
There were 77,400 active AUMs, or Animal Unit Months, the bureaucrat’s way of counting livestock on public lands, when the monument was designated in 1996. As of 2017, the number had only slightly dropped to 76,957 active AUMs. “Although grazing use levels have varied considerably from year to year due to factors like drought,” an Interior staff report says, “no reductions in permitted livestock grazing use have been made as a result of the Monument designation.” Claims to the contrary have long been used to argue for the monument’s reduction.
8. Obama’s staffers were in constant contact with Utah congressional staffers and other officials for months prior to monument designation.
And they often went out of their way to accommodate them. In fact, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s deputy chief of staff, Nicole Buffa, became quite chummy with Fred Ferguson, the chief of staff for Rep. Jason Chaffetz, and Cody Stewart, policy director for Gov. Gary Herbert.
After Jewell’s visit to southeastern Utah, Buffa wrote to Ferguson, Stewart and others: “I’m looking forward to many more conversations about Utah with each of you, but in far less pretty places.”
As the debate on the ground heated up, Ferguson wrote to Buffa: “I grow more and more frustrated by the day regarding the situation in San Juan County. You and I … have been thrust into this umpire-type-role where we are supposed to determine which group is most sincere, most legit, and most deserving of ‘winning’. We’re witnessing a race to the bottom by all involved as the monument threat heats up and groups are positioning themselves for success. My ultimate thoughts are to do nothing and force all of these players to work together and resolve these issues amongst themselves in the new year when there isn’t an arbitrary deadline driving action.”
Buffa responded: “We can’t get bogged down by the side-shows, and that is what some of this is.”
Click here to read the final report from the Upper Colorado River Commission. Here’s the executive summary:
The following report is intended to summarize the outcomes and lessons learned from the three-year Colorado River System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP) as implemented in the Upper Colorado River Basin (Upper Basin) beginning in 2015.1 The Upper Basin SCPP is part of a larger, basin-wide program that was funded by four Colorado River municipal water users–the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), and Denver Water– partnering with the Bureau of Reclamation (collectively, the Funding Agencies). In 2017, the Walton Family Foundation also contributed to the Upper Basin SCPP through Denver Water.
The overall goals of the SCPP were to, among other things, help explore, learn from and determine whether a voluntary, temporary and compensated reduction in consumptive use in the Upper Basin is a feasible method to partially mitigate the decline of or to raise water levels in Lake Powell and thereby serve as a useful tool for the drought contingency planning processes in the Upper Basin. Thus, the primary objective of the pilot program was not to test whether conserved water actually reaches Lake Powell, but rather to assess the feasibility of system conservation as a future means of increasing storage at the reservoir. From 2015-2017, the Upper Basin SCPP funded 45 projects, for a consumptive use reduction of approximately 22,116 acre-feet at a total cost of $4,555,747. There was significant interest and program participation in the Upper Basin. With assistance from the four Upper Colorado River Division States (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico) as well as facilitation by key non- governmental organizations (NGOs), the Upper Basin SCPP received 93 applications from 2015 through 2017. Information about the SCPP was collected that will inform the future of the program, or a similar demand management effort, including recommendations for potential improvements.
In addition to demonstrating significant Upper Basin water user interest, the SCPP was also successful in demonstrating and accomplishing the administrative requirements for such a program. These included solicitation of proposals from water users; review, ranking and selection of projects; contracting; field verification of consumptive use savings; payment management and processing; and, management and coordination of activities among multiple funding agencies.
The SCPP successfully demonstrated water user interest, administrative capabilities and requirements, as well as greatly advanced learning – all of which have contributed to a better understanding of whether and how voluntary reductions in consumptive use in the Upper Basin may help protect critical reservoir levels during drought Among the broader-based observations involved in implementing this program, the following have emerged:
1. The Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) gained an understanding of the requirements to administer, contract, and pay for conservation activities;
2. It is valuable to have key stakeholders and NGOs participate in program outreach;
3. There can be multiple benefits of conservation, including fuller target reservoirs, in-channel benefits, and benefits to agricultural production through soil “resting”;
4. Sufficient resources for program administration must be provided;
5. Additional groups may be interested in providing potential funding – including public water
providers, NGOs, and the federal government;
6. Improved methods of estimating conservation, such as remote sensing, may be useful;
7. The desire to generate publicity about program participation varies among selected applicants;
8. Involvement by trusted local and state representatives is critical in attracting agricultural water
9. The availability of historical crop and water use data and information on a proposed site is
beneficial to understanding potential conservation benefits;
10. The SCPP served as a valuable tool for educating local water managers, administrators, and
water users about the Colorado River System; and
11. Conservation may be a tool to improve reservoir conditions provided legal, technical and policy
issues can be resolved.
The underlying goal of the SCPP was to learn about the logistics and challenges associated with implementing this type of program. The operation of the pilot program showed: 1) there is participation interest within the Upper Basin; 2) it is possible to contract and verify conservation measures; and, 3) competitive pricing can support conservation efforts. Because of the learning successes of the pilot program between 2015 and 2017, the SCPP has been extended into 2018. See footnote 1. Additionally, the information garnered in the first three years of the pilot program has helped clarify remaining questions that need to be answered to support a long-term management program. The following questions should be addressed in conjunction with the lessons learned detailed in this Report:
1. What is the role and objective of a more permanent System Conservation Program? For example, is it an intermittent tool used only when Lake Powell hits critical elevations for large- scale demand management; or, is it vehicle to implement more local water banking options to benefit Upper Basin water users?
2. What can be done to ensure that conserved water gets to Lake Powell?
3. What can be done to improve the ability to measure conserved water volumes?
4. Can projects generate the amount of conserved water that modeling conducted by the Upper
Basin suggests may be required to have measurable impacts; and,
5. What are the direct and indirect benefits and impacts to local areas from a significant level of
6. What would be the source of financial support for measurable demand management volumes,
recognizing current unit costs? For example, is it feasible to secure roughly $40 million to
conserve approximately 200,000 acre-feet based on the 2017 SCPP unit costs?
7. How do we manage risk and determine an appropriate level of conservation given hydrologic
variability? For example, how do we minimize large investments in conservation rendered unnecessary by a wet year—are there opportunities for using surplus conserved water in the Upper Basin (e.g., water banking)?
8. How do we preserve the widespread interest, support, and momentum that the SCPP has generated; will a short-term break in implementation have long-term impacts in interest?
9. What are the possible options and the best vehicle to administer a system conservation program? For example, some of the options being considered by a UCRC/Upper Basin workgroup include administration by Reclamation or other government agencies, continued administration by the UCRC, or administration by an NGO.
10. How does a future system conservation program respond to the goals, objectives, timing, mandates, and priorities of the Upper Basin states and the UCRC?
Here’s the release from Colorado Trout Unlimited (Randy Scholfield):
Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy laud report findings and urge expanded agricultural water conservation in Upper Colorado River Basin
The Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) released a report today, finding that Upper Colorado River farmers and ranchers were open to voluntary, temporary water leasing deals that hold potential for easing drought impacts and water supply concerns in the Colorado River Basin.
The report found that the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP)—a three-year pilot program launched by four municipal water utilities and the Bureau of Reclamation—was successful in proving that a market exists for water transactions designed to reduce agricultural and other uses of water to boost water levels in Lake Powell and increase overall system reliability.
From 2015-2017, the Upper Basin SCPP received 93 applications from agricultural producers to participate in the program and funded 45 projects. These projects resulted in the reduction of consumptive use by approximately 22,000 acre-feet, at a total cost of $4.5 million. According to the report, “The SCPP successfully demonstrated water user interest, administrative capabilities and requirements, as well as greatly advanced learning—all of which have contributed to a better understanding of whether and how voluntary reductions in consumptive use in the Upper Basin may help protect critical reservoir levels during drought.”
Most of the projects conserved water through temporary, split- or late-season fallowing—ranchers and farmers received compensation for irrigating for only part of the potential irrigation/production season. For example, in Utah, six members of the Carbon Canal Company agreed to SCPP projects that conserved nearly 2,000 acre-feet of water and helped ensure healthier flows in the Price River.
“Farming in the high desert in Eastern Utah means we need to be smart with how we use our water,” said Kevin Cotner, president of Carbon Canal. “System conservation gives producers a tool to add flexibility in our water management.”
Two conservation organizations involved in the SCPP, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy, called the report findings encouraging:
“It has been encouraging to see how the SCPP program can benefit producers and help reduce water supply risks in the Upper Colorado River, while enhancing river health and fisheries,” said Scott Yates, director of Trout Unlimited’s Western Water and Habitat Program. “As the basin faces a potentially dry year, with the prospect of further declining levels in Lake Powell, this report underscores the enormous potential of innovative, market-driven solutions to our water challenges. Working together, we can ensure that the Colorado River continues to meet the needs of diverse water users.”
“The current dry conditions in the Basin show that the threats to our water supply are not going away any time soon,” said Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director for the Nature Conservancy. “This report clearly demonstrates the interest in, and potential benefits of, a voluntary, market-based program that compensates water users for temporary reductions in water use.”
Hawes added, “The challenge now will be to take these findings and examine how this type of program might be developed and implemented in the long term and in a way that works for agriculture.”
Based on the success of the first three years of the pilot program, the Upper Colorado River Commission in August 2017 agreed to extend the SCPP through 2018 to further study the feasibility of water leasing in the Upper Basin. The SCPP is one tool, noted Hawes, in meeting Colorado River Basin water challenges. Municipal water conservation, smart water growth, infrastructure improvements and improved reservoir management are also key components in addressing future water shortage issues.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The program, implemented by the Upper Colorado River Commission interstate water agency in places including the Grand Valley, didn’t test whether conserved water reached the reservoir. Instead, it assessed the feasibility of systemwide conservation within the basin “as a future means of increasing storage at the reservoir,” says the commission’s new report.
Among its findings: “Conservation may be a tool to improve reservoir conditions provided legal, technical and policy issues can be resolved.”
The upper-basin project was part of an $11 million System Conservation Pilot Program funded by four major Colorado River municipal water users, including Denver Water, in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The project came in response to low water levels in Powell and Lake Mead due to drought and increasing demands. Water managers are exploring the idea of “banking” water to fend off a crisis.
The report says the program “contributed to a better understanding of whether and how voluntary reductions in consumptive use in the Upper Basin may help protect critical reservoir levels during drought.”[…]
The report concludes that through 2017, the upper-basin program provided $4.55 million to conserve 22,116 acre-feet of water, based on historical estimates of the amount of water that otherwise would have been used. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.
One question the report raises is where funding might come from to ramp up such a program to a point where it would provide measurable benefits. As an example, the report asks, is it feasible to secure roughly $40 million to conserve about 200,000 acre-feet of water, based on current cost estimates?
Altogether, the pilot program received 93 applications and implemented 45 over the first three years. Colorado accounted for 35 of the applications and 15 of the implemented projects.
While two of the 45 projects involved limiting municipal use, the rest were all agricultural. In some cases fields were fallowed an entire season. In others, they were irrigated just part of a season, or irrigation was cut back and an alternative crop grown.
The report says the pilot program helped the Upper Colorado River Commission gain “an understanding of the requirements to administer, contract, and pay for conservation activities.” It says the first three years of the program showed it’s possible to contract for conservation measures and verify that conservation occurred, and also showed that “competitive pricing can support conservation efforts.”
The Prowers County Conservation District held their annual meeting Wednesday, March 7th at the Elks Lodge in Lamar.
Conservation Poster winners were announced and the posters were on display. The theme this year was “The Soil is Alive”.
The Prowers County Conservationist of the Year Award was presented to Hixson Farms for their work in controlling land erosion from winds. The award was presented by Steve Shelton and he commented on the fact that all the conservation work that was done by the Hixsons was without government money.
Michael Weber, Staff Engineer, for Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, briefly talked about Fountain Creek and solutions for controlling flooding and the impact on the Arkansas River. He also explained the different accounts that have water stored in John Martin Dam and an additional account that is for future expansion. His third topic involved possible improvements to Adobe Creek including increased water retention.
Water quality in the Arkansas River Basin from John Martin to the State Line was covered in a presentation by Blake Osborn, Water Resource Specialist from Colorado State University. The higher than average levels of Selenium, Uranium, Sulfates, Arsenic and Salt in the Arkansas River Basin are causing concern. Some of the concentration in the water occurs naturally from the underlying rock and soil and some is from the run-off of irrigation and rain water. Blake Osborn, Water Resource Specialist from Colorado State University is preparing a study and ideas to alleviate some of the problem.
City of Aspen staffers may recommend some changes to the water-efficient landscaping regulations adopted by the city in May before the most stringent aspects of the new rules kick in after a yearlong pilot phase.
The new regulations, which city staffers say have been well-received, require new or substantially remodeled residential projects in the city’s water-service area to include a landscape plan, an irrigation plan, and a water budget for the site.
But the city also now requires that an irrigation audit be completed after a new landscaping system has been installed. And the audit has to be done by a third-party certified landscape irrigation auditor. Trouble is, such certified auditors are rare in Colorado and only found in Grand Junction and Golden.
“We currently do not have anyone in the whole valley that has this certification,” Lee Ledesma, a utilities manager for the city, told the City Council at a work session [February 13, 2018].
Developers and property owners still can obtain a certificate of occupancy from the city even without a certified irrigation audit, at least during the ongoing pilot phase of the new regulations, which is set to end in June but may be extended.
The city also is exploring setting up a local training program to increase the number of certified auditors in the valley to make it easier for people to comply.
Outdoor residential use of water accounts for the largest percentage of use of the city’s treated water, according to a 2015 water efficiency study adopted by the city.
From 2009 to 2013, the city’s water customers used an average of 795 acre-feet a year for residential outdoor watering, according to the study, while using 598 acre-feet for indoor commercial uses, 486 acre-feet for indoor residential uses and 151 acre-feet for snowmaking.
The city’s regulations have set a water-budget goal for landscaping to use no more than 7.5 gallons per square foot. To date, 17 properties have been landscaped and irrigated using the new regulations, and the projects have averaged 7.2 gallons per square foot, according to Molly Somes, who works in the city’s parks and utilities departments.
However, some lushly landscaped homes in the West End of Aspen are coming in above average, in part because of the turf planted along the public rights of way.
The city may exclude the public rights of way from the water budget calculations to deal with that issue. It also may build in more incentives for owners to maintain native vegetation, which does not require irrigation.
The landscaping regulations state that they do not apply to “irrigation of public parks, sports fields, golf courses and schools.” And in response to a concern raised by City Councilman Bert Myrin about the city holding itself to the same high standards as others, Somes said the city is working diligently to improve irrigation efficiency on its own properties.
After more than three years of severe drought, Cape Town, a city of nearly 4 million people, is running out of water. “Day Zero”—the day city officials estimate the water system will be unable to provide drinking water for the taps—is less than three months away, and substantial rains are not expected before then.
In response, city managers have imposed a series of increasingly severe water-use restrictions to cut demand and are working to find emergency sources of supply, but it is difficult to see how a cutoff can be avoided. People will not die of thirst: Emergency water will be brought in for basic needs. But the social, economic, and political disruptions caused by a water cutoff will be unprecedented.
Cape Town is not alone. California, São Paulo, Australia, the eastern Mediterranean, and other regions have all recently suffered through severe droughts and water crises.
Short-term droughts and water shortages aren’t new. Under normal circumstances, cities can respond by temporarily cutting water waste. But circumstances aren’t normal anymore. More and more major cities will face their own Day Zero unless we fundamentally change the way water is managed and used.
The growing water crisis is the result of three factors. First, more and more regions of the world are reaching “peak water” limits, where all accessible, renewable water has been spoken for and no traditional new supplies are available. Second, urban populations and economies are expanding rapidly, putting additional pressures on limited water supplies and increasing competition with agricultural water users. And third, the very climate of the planet is changing because of human activities such as burning fossil fuels, affecting all aspects of our water systems, including the demand for water and the frequency and intensity of extreme events like floods and droughts.
Where these three factors combine, urban water crises explode.
The good news is that there are two key solutions to making our cities more resilient to water crises and disruptions: Reduce water demand and find new non-traditional sources of water supply.
Reducing demand means improving the efficiency of water use and changing water-using behaviors to reduce immediate needs. The first option includes installing efficient irrigation technology, replacing inefficient toilets, showerheads, washing machines, and dishwashers, and eliminating leaks. The second option includes cutting outdoor landscape water use and replacing water-intensive gardens, taking shorter showers, flushing toilets less often, and eliminating luxury water uses like private swimming pools.
The potential for these two approaches to reduce demand is enormous. During the severe drought in Australia from 2000 to 2009, urban water efficiency measures saved more water at lower cost and greater speed than traditional supply options, like tapping rivers and groundwater. During the drought, water demand dropped 60% in South East Queensland through a combination of investments in water efficiency programs and restrictions on outdoor water use. California urban water use was cut by over 25% during the 2012-2016 drought through similar indoor and outdoor efficiency programs, and there is much potential for even greater savings.
There are new supply options available too, even in regions where traditional sources are tapped out. South Africa has long pioneered the restoration of watersheds by removing invasive species like blue gum, wattles, and the vine kudzu, and increasing water flows in rivers. Artificially enhancing groundwater replenishment can increase the storage of water far more effectively than building new surface reservoirs. Wastewater treatment and reuse turns what used to be considered a liability into a valuable resource.
Cape Town currently only treats and reuses 5% of its wastewater—up until now they haven’t thought they had the need—and could greatly expand treatment and reuse. Just next door to South Africa in Namibia, the city of Windhoek has been reusing treated wastewater for decades. About 40% of Singapore’s total water demand is now being met with high-quality treated wastewater. California currently reuses about 15% of its wastewater and has the potential to greatly expand reuse in coming years. And when less costly options have been exhausted, seawater desalination offers a way to provide drought-proof supply.
It will rain again in Cape Town, and the emergency responses implemented over the next few months will be relaxed. But water problems are not going to disappear until we consistently and comprehensively change the way we think about and manage water. Peak water limits will be felt in more and more regions as traditional sources of water are tapped out. Urban areas will continue to expand. Global climate changes will accelerate and worsen, especially if we delay the transition to clean energy. The sooner we accept these facts, the sooner every city can move to manage water in a more sustainable fashion, postponing or even eliminating the risk of their own Day Zero.