For decades, we’ve heard that a reckoning was coming.
Climate change would threaten our fundamental way of life in the West. After years of neglect, essential parts of our infrastructure would fail. The bills for the costs of maintaining our essential services — kicked willy-nilly down the road to a murky unidentified date in the future — would come due.
We ignored it all, blithely turning up the air conditioning, watering our lawns and tuning out the scientists, the engineers, the city managers.
Now that reckoning has arrived.
If you don’t believe me, just ask the folks in Westminster. They can tell you all about the connections between climate change, infrastructure and money.
The first first signs of reckoning there came in 2018.
Officials from Westminster’s water and sewer departments began warning that the 50-year-old facilities were worn out.
The storage tanks for the city’s water, the pipes and pumps delivering it, and the sewage treatment systems were shot. Concrete was flaking away, pipes deteriorating, pumps becoming unreliable.
The city council looked at the mountain of evidence and made the only responsible choice: it voted to upgrade the system.
To pay for it, the council also voted to raise the rates for water and sewer customers and, since the cost of the projects was estimated in the tens of millions, the increased fees were significant, especially for high users.
When the summer of 2020 came and the thermometer hit 90 or above for a record-setting 75 days, the good folks of Westminster sprinkled their lawns like they always had (maybe not blithely but still …) and the resulting water bills blew their minds.
Still in deep denial of reality, a group of Westminster activists mobilized as Water Warriors to recall several city council members for their failure to kick the problems down the road once more.
The effort was an expensive bust, with the recall of only one council member, Jon Voelz, making it onto the ballot, only to fail spectacularly in the special election last week.
But this war is far from over.
Several Westminster council members will face re-election in November and surely water rates will be an issue. Those who routinely flood their lawns with 20,000 gallons or more each month and pay the highest rates are not about to give up the fight for their right to Kentucky Bluegrass — drought and system failures be damned.
But Westminster is hardly unique. In fact, it’s really Everytown, USA. Its water war is a mere skirmish in the seething national debate about how to face the reckoning now upon us.
The facts are indisputable.
After years of drought in the West, reservoirs, water tables and rivers are at historic lows.
California is forced to choose between leaving enough water in the streams so that salmon can survive and drawing enough to grow crops. Ranchers across the West are reducing their stocks as it becomes more apparent that they won’t be able to feed them. Customers who rely on hydroelectric power face shortages as water levels drop and heat waves stretch even into Canada. Fishermen have been asked to abide by a voluntary ban on angling in the mighty Colorado River.
At the same time, critical infrastructure from bridges and highways to the antiquated electric grid have been left to degrade for most of a century, risking public health and safety for lack of political will.
The backlog of delayed infrastructure projects in Colorado alone is huge: $10 billion for safe drinking water, $9 billion for transportation, $4 billion for wastewater systems … the list goes on.
But while nobody would say the Westminster water wars have been easy (or cheap), the outcome so far is cause for mild optimism.
Mayor Anita Seitz has listened to constituents’ concerns both about the condition of the water system and the painful rate increases and has chosen not to duck the issue for mere political expedience. Instead, she and other council members are working to help the community understand the problem and what the future holds.
Acres of green lawns, long a symbol of abundance, now represent reckless profligacy. Failure to address the crumbling infrastructure can only bring more serious and expensive problems down the road. An unwillingness to fix the problems now will only cost the community more in the future.
“Every single member of council swears an oath to our charter. And our charter dictates that we need to set rates of our utility to meet the operating needs of that utility,” Seitz said. There’s not much “wiggle room.”
She’s right. Whatever wiggle room we had to address climate change and meet our infrastructure needs is long gone.
In this summer of heat domes, wildfires, droughts, floods and structural failures, that message should be loud, clear and irrefutable.
Take it from the folks in Westminster, it’s time for action.
It’s time for political courage.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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