Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Historic Water Shortages Prompt Government Restrictions in Colorado River Basin

Ceres

By Mindy Lubber

Water users in the parched Southwest U.S. were just hit with a devastating warning.

Due to water shortages in the Colorado River Basin, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation today announced first-ever cutbacks in water releases to the river’s lower basin, which could mean reduced water deliveries to Nevada and Arizona as early as next year.

The decision, triggered by historically low water levels in one of the river’s key reservoirs, Lake Powell in Utah, is unprecedented and significant.

It caps years of excessive water use in an arid region that has seen some of its driest years on record in recent years, especially the past two years where flows to Lake Powell have been the lowest in 100 years.

And it affects a vast number of people. The Colorado River makes modern living possible in seven western states by providing water for 40 million people and irrigation water for four million acres of farmland producing 15 percent of the nation’s crops. The decision, which will reduce water releases from Lake Powell by nine percent, will invariably affect food prices.

But it would be wrong to call this a natural disaster. While drought and climate change are important factors in the river’s lower flows, human mismanagement is the bigger cause.

Despite steadily dropping water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead over the past few years, communities most dependent on this vulnerable resource have taken few steps to reduce their demands on the system. In June, for example, the city of Phoenix blew past its historic water use record, spiking at 420 million gallons of water used on a single day.

This record-breaking water use is almost entirely the result of poor water pricing, which undervalues this precious resource. In Phoenix, residential water users pay the same flat fee year-round, a fee that entitles them to 67 percent more water in the summer months, when most of it is sprayed on lawns. Americans like cheap water, and when it’s cheap they use a lot of it. But as it turns out, low-priced water and resplendent green lawns in 119-degree Phoenix are not viable.

The costs of maintaining unsustainable water use are spiraling out of control. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that our nation’s water systems will need to spend at least $300 billion by 2030 simply to keep our existing drinking water infrastructure reliable. When you add in the cost of developing new water supplies, treatment plants and transmission systems to accommodate growth—whether $20 billion for new reservoirs and pipelines in North Texas or $7 billion for a new 263-mile pipeline for Las Vegas—the numbers become even more startling. The fact that the federal government no longer pays for such projects—as it did decades ago—means there are no deep pockets to subsidize our continued water bonanza.

For many water providers, the unsustainable escalation in costs from building bigger systems and more supply can lead to very abrupt and painful increases in local water rates, impacting low-income households especially. Consider the case of Colorado Springs, where homeowners have been seething this summer over double-whammy water restrictions and higher bills, much of it to pay for a new $1 billion pipeline.

There’s a better way, and strong conservation-oriented price signals are a good place to start. By using carrots and sticks to reduce water demand—especially for water-sapping lawns—local water providers can avoid “peak-demand” periods that are the biggest driver of new mega pipeline projects. As much as politicians detest the near-term costs and public backlash that can come with conservation measures, the result can be avoidance of far bigger rate increases that are often required to finance expensive new infrastructure.

Finding more balanced water-pricing structures that ensure stable revenue streams and strong conservation is one of the most important challenges facing U.S. water utilities today. It is a challenge not just of economic efficiency, but also of affordability for a most essential resource. As Ceres and the University of North Carolina found in a new study, “Assessing Water System Revenue Risk,” rising water costs are already stretching the resources of vulnerable populations. In parts of North Carolina, for example, households at the poverty level are paying as much as eight percent of their income on water. Other communities like Baltimore have set up consumer assistance mechanisms to deal with the disproportionate impact of rising water rates. Other water suppliers looking to balance pricing structures with dwindling supplies should take note of this innovative approach.

The take home message is this: whether it’s Phoenix or Charlotte, we need to get smarter about how we use and pay for water.

Visit EcoWatch’s WATER page for more related news on this topic.

——–

 

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Deserted view of NH24 near Akshardham Temple on day nine of the 21-day nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus on April 2, 2020 in New Delhi, India. Raj K Raj / Hindustan Times via Getty Images

India is home to 21 of the world's 30 most polluted cities, but recently air pollution levels have started to drop dramatically as the second-most populated nation endures the second week of a 21-day lockdown amidst coronavirus fears, according to The Weather Channel.

Read More Show Less
A Unicef social mobilizer uses a speaker as she carries out public health awareness to prevent the spread and detect the symptoms of the COVID-19 coronavirus by UNICEF at Mangateen IDP camp in Juba, South Sudan on April 2. ALEX MCBRIDE / AFP / Getty Images

By Eddie Ndopu

  • South Africa is ground zero for the coronavirus pandemic in Africa.
  • Its townships are typical of high-density neighbourhoods across the continent where self-isolation will be extremely challenging.
  • The failure to eradicate extreme poverty is a threat beyond the countries in question.
Read More Show Less
Sponsored
The outside of the Food and Drug Administration headquarters in White Oak, Md. on Nov. 9, 2015. Al Drago / CQ Roll Call

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of two malarial drugs to treat and prevent COVID-19, the respiratory infection caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, despite only anecdotal evidence that either is proven effective in treating or slowing the progression of the disease in seriously ill patients.

Read More Show Less
Some speculate that the dissemination of the Antarctic beeches or Nothofagus moorei (seen above in Australia) dates to the time when Antarctica, Australia and South America were connected. Auscape / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

A team of scientists drilled into the ground near the South Pole to discover forest and fossils from the Cretaceous nearly 90 million years ago, which is the time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, as the BBC reported.

Read More Show Less
The recovery of elephant seals is one of the "signs of hope" that scientists say show the oceans can recover swiftly if we let them. NOAA / CC BY 2.0

The challenges facing the world's oceans are well known: plastic pollution could crowd out fish by 2050, and the climate crisis could wipe out coral reefs by 2100.

Read More Show Less