I am a humanitarian. As a civil engineer I work diligently to help create a world where my fellow citizens, and all they care about, can live the vibrant lives they choose. None of that happens without water.
My 30+ year career is focused on designing and building safe and reliable dams and levees to supply drinking and irrigation water, protect cities and land from floods, and produce clean hydropower. Dr. George Annandale’s work has shown that, in the last 40 years, the world’s net water storage has steadily declined from a high of 235,000 gallons per person in 1980 to 135,000 gallons per person today. This is the same per capita volume of water that we had in the early 1960s, and it continues to reduce.
If the current rate of decline continues, by 2050 we’ll have the same per capita volume of water storage that we had in the early 1900s, or less than 50,000 gallons per person. For comparison, the average US citizen uses approximately 30,000 gallons of water each year. This is a significant problem that must be addressed.
We are at this place because we have not built new reservoirs to match the pace of population growth, our existing reservoirs continue to infill (as expected) with sediments, and climate change is shifting how our rivers and streams behave.
The concept of a water-storage reservoir is identical to that of a battery. For example, the battery for an electric vehicle is connected to a source of abundant electricity, the battery is filled with electricity, and then the electricity is depleted from the battery when the vehicle is driven. Connecting the car back into the electricity source refills the battery and repeats the cycle.
Similarly, water storage reservoirs fill when water is abundant, are depleted when needed, and then refilled when water is again abundant. Historically, the reservoir filling cycle has started in the spring months during snowmelt runoffs, and the reservoir is slowly depleted in the summer, fall and winter months when water is less abundant.
A changing climate appears to be altering this historic cycle. A warmer environment will likely mean less snow and smaller spring runoffs, but it will also likely mean larger storm events as a warmer atmosphere is able to hold more moisture.
In the arid west this is a significant issue because many people rely on a singular source of water: the Colorado River. Historically, the Colorado River has followed the cycle of high flows during the spring and lower flows during the summer, fall and winter. But with snowpacks decreasing in the mountains of the west, and overallocation of the water in the system, this water source is being depleted faster than it is replenished.
We can stretch limited water supplies through conservation. But conservation alone will not provide an adequate and reliable water supply for our citizens because of the ongoing changes in our climate, the loss of storage in existing reservoirs caused by sedimentation, and population growth.
The solution to this problem is more reservoirs in more locations. Our reliance on a small number of large river systems, such as the Colorado River, will continue to deplete these systems and render them unable to meet our water needs.
What’s required is an increase in the number of reservoirs, located broadly across the West, to capture and store more storm events as runoff from winter snowpacks continue to reduce. These storms will help fill new reservoirs. The September 2013 floods in Colorado added nearly 1 billion gallons of water to Gross Reservoir outside of Boulder.
Those who came to the West before us understood the need to effectively manage our water. Past generations planned and constructed vast water systems that have allowed those of us lucky enough to call this place our home to thrive and enjoy all the West has to offer. We should not waste this hard work and sacrifice. We should follow their example and provide safe and reliable sources of water for the generations that will follow us.
As a humanitarian I am proud to serve my fellow citizens, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who will, one day, enjoy the same places that I have enjoyed. Intergenerational equity requires us to care as much about those who follow us as we care about ourselves, and the key to securing this future is continuing to provide safe and reliable sources of water for their use.
Del Shannon, of Boulder, is a civil engineer who specializes in the planning, design, construction and maintenance of earthen and concrete dams, levees, and similar water sources projects.
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