Historic Water Shortages Prompt Government Restrictions in Colorado River Basin
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.
This week marks the official start of fall, but longer nights and colder days can make it harder to spend time outdoors. Luckily, there are several inspiring environmental films that can be streamed at home.
1. Kiss the Ground<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc5f0c92a5603e68aec39e56b0db02a"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K3-V1j-zMZw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 22</strong></p><p>Between <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wildfires-california-washington-oregon-photos-2647585008.html" target="_self">wildfires devastating the U.S. West Coast</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tropical-storm-beta-landfall-2647760268.html" target="_self">storms battering the Gulf</a>, the impacts of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change/" target="_self">climate crisis</a> can feel overwhelming right now. <em><a href="https://kissthegroundmovie.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Kiss the Ground</a> </em>offers an alternative to all of the bad news by focusing on solutions.</p><p>The film, directed by Josh and Rebecca Tickell and narrated by Woody Harrelson, explains how we can heal the Earth through "regenerative agriculture," farming practices that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into soil as a way to restore soil health, which in turn boosts ecosystems and food supplies.</p><p>"<em>Kiss the Ground </em>shows how feasible it is to make these changes at a grassroots level immediately and make a truly substantive impact with low cost and easy to implement solutions," Executive Producer RJ Jain said in an email. "This is why I got involved."</p>
2. Public Trust: The Fight for America's Public Lands<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5338f7a2931e356910026e5fd76fac56"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/jsKMTAaj_wQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: YouTube</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 25, 2 p.m. EDT </strong></p><p>This <a href="https://www.patagonia.com/films/public-trust/" target="_blank">award-winning documentary</a> tells the stories of Indigenous activists, journalists, whistleblowers and historians working to protect America's <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/public-lands" target="_self">public lands</a>. The film focuses on three political struggles: the shrinking of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/bears-ears" target="_self">Bears Ears</a> National Monument in Utah, the mining of Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota and the opening of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Arctic-National-Wildlife-Refuge" target="_self">Arctic National Wildlife Refuge</a> to fossil fuel exploration.</p><p><em>Public Trust</em> was directed by David Garrett Byars and produced by Jeremy Rubingh. Patagonia Films, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and actor Robert Redford are executive producers. It will be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGjnIG7puzY" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">released</a> on YouTube in time for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/national-public-lands-day-2640656776.html" target="_self">National Public Lands Day</a>.</p><p>"Our country is fortunate to have millions of acres of public lands, including National Parks, Monuments, Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness set aside for future generations," Redford said. "Sadly, these lands that belong to you and me are under unprecedented threats from the greed of big corporations, eager to weaken restrictions in the pursuit of profits. Many of our current politicians are also to blame. <em>Public Trust</em> tells the story of citizens who are fighting back. It's a much-needed wake-up call for all of us who want to preserve our unique and wild cultural heritage."</p>
3. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="156438a30836a765d7a92982545fc334"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/B_OFZvAd05Y?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Oct. 4</strong></p><p>Beloved nature broadcaster <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/David-Attenborough" target="_self">David Attenborough</a> has spent his career introducing viewers to the wonders of our planet. In recent years, his footage of albatrosses swallowing <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/plastics" target="_self">plastic</a> in <em>Blue Planet II</em> has been credited with <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/2018-fighting-plastic-waste-2624606566.html" target="_self">helping to ramp up</a> the global fight against plastic pollution. Now, in this <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">World Wildlife Fund</a> (WWF)-produced <a href="https://www.attenborough.film/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">documentary</a>, he reflects on the defining moments of his career and the devastating changes he has witnessed.</p><p><em>David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,</em> which was also produced by Silverback Films and directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey, features an intimate conversation between Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin as the broadcaster reflects on his life and a career that took him to every continent on Earth. In addition to streaming on Netflix, the movie will be available in select theaters starting Sept. 28.</p><p>"For decades, David has brought the natural world to the homes of audiences worldwide, but there has never been a more significant moment for him to share his own story and reflections," WWF executive producer Colin Butfield said in a <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/david-attenborough-life-our-planet" target="_blank">statement</a>. "This film coincides with a monumental year for environmental action as world leaders make critical decisions on nature and climate. It sends a powerful message from the most inspiring and celebrated naturalist of our time."</p>
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If all the glaciers and ice caps on the planet melted, global sea level would rise by about 230 feet. That amount of water would flood nearly every coastal city around the world [source: U.S. Geological Survey]. Rising temperatures, melting arctic ice, drought, desertification and other catastrophic effects of climate change are not examples of future troubles — they are reality today. Climate change isn't just about the environment; its effects touch every part of our lives, from the stability of our governments and economies to our health and where we live.
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