In 2080, Colorado will be the new Arizona. According to a peer-reviewed study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, climate change is making Colorado more arid.
This means that the state will become hotter and will have less moisture. Snowpack will continue along its downward trajectory in the state and Colorado River flows are projected to continue to decrease, which means less water for not only Colorado, but for each of the seven states in the Colorado River Compact: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California. In June, the federal government mandated that the Colorado River Compact states need to drastically reduce their water use as a result of the declining flows.
Unfortunately, this information about a water-scarce future isn’t really new; climatologists and hydrologists, such as Brad Udall from Colorado State University, have been saying this for years. As our water supplies decrease, it is critical that we responsibly manage our water use.
In Colorado, 89% of water is consumed by farms and ranches, compared to just 11% of use by homes, business and industry. With western states vying for a decreasing amount of water, it is crucial that we better manage what we have.
In Colorado, increasing populations along the Front Range are going to result in more residential water demand, and the increasing aridity is going to alter what we can grow here, and how we grow it. Our current water use is unsustainable and will negatively affect both human and natural systems. Therefore, we must change how we use our water.
What can we do? Fortunately, there are a wide variety of solutions.
First, the cities, utilities and water conservancy districts that supply water can improve how they track their customers’ water consumption. About every water utility tracks its water use, to varying degrees of success. New technologies provide real-time data that not only can accurately track use but also identify leaks or other issues that result in waste. This can also help improve water-resource planning.
Second, we can implement technologies to reduce the amount of water lost to evaporation. Higher temperatures result in greater evaporation so as Colorado gets hotter, we will lose more water. The Colorado River Basin currently loses 500 billion gallons of water annually to evaporation.
Fortunately, innovative technologies and practices are being tested to reduce this depletion. For example, California is testing a project where solar panels are installed on canals. This not only reduces water loss but also generates energy, which is a win-win. Similar coverage concepts are being applied to reservoirs as well. Colorado needs to pay attention and start implementing these technologies as soon as possible.
Third, we should change how we grow our food. While agricultural water use is projected to decrease due to increasing urbanization and water-rights transfers, agriculture will remain the largest water user in the state. Farmers need to improve their irrigation efficiency by switching from wasteful irrigation methods, such as flood irrigation (where the entire field is flooded) to water-wise methods like micro-irrigation (which use subsurface pipe networks to deliver water directly to the plants) which is currently used in less than 1% of farms in CO. However, making such a change can be cost prohibitive; the state must continue to offer and enhance funding for improving irrigation practices. More efficient irrigation systems, coupled with farmers diverting less water, the switch to greenhouses and hydroponic systems, which use less water than conventional farming and offer year-round growing possibilities.
Next, we should continue to improve conservation programs and residential water users need to listen. Most water utilities have been implementing conservation programs for years, to great success. Combining conservation programs with tiered-rate water pricing programs has been proven to discourage excessive water use. These programs will be even more important in our water-scarce future.
Additionally, we should conduct water-resources planning with climate change in mind. Even though the flows of the Colorado river are low now, they are still higher than they will be in 20 years, to say nothing of 2080. States, municipalities, and water utilities must continue to account for climate change and incorporate climate projections in their water-resources plans.
Finally, it is crucial that Colorado fight climate change at the source: we need to push our representatives at the local, state, and federal levels to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and quickly transition to clean energy so we can avoid the worst of the climate-change scenarios.
If we implement these solutions now, facilitate collaboration between urban and rural areas to reduce water use across the board, and coordinate with other states, we can help minimize the damage from our shrinking water supplies and keep our state habitable.
Alec Rodriguez, of Denver, is a water resources engineer at Atkins and co-founder and Vice-Chair of the Resilience Youth Network.
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