By Ron Burke / President and CEO, Alliance for Water Efficiency and Mary Ann Dickinson / Past President and CEO, AWE
All eyes are on the Colorado River Basin (CRB), where the 23rd consecutive year of drought, fueled by climate change, has accelerated the basin’s water crisis, with the federal government recently calling for a dramatic 17% to 33% cut in water usage over the next year. Quite simply, demand for water within the CRB exceeds what the basin can sustainably provide.
While some have called for supply-side investments like desalinization and piping water from the Midwest, the fastest and least expensive ways to restore the CRB’s water balance are by using existing water supplies more efficiently, which can also lower water bills, reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, and protect rivers and lakes.
Cities, farmers and businesses have already made significant progress, but additional improvement is within reach, especially with state and federal assistance. Here are four strategies that can relatively quickly scale-up proven water efficiency tools to save water.
1. State adoption of high-efficiency plumbing codes
Thirteen states require that plumbing products sold in-state meet high-efficiency specifications, like those set by the WaterSense program. Such products are widely available, and the water savings can be significant. Yet, among the CRB states, only California, Colorado and Nevada have codes more stringent than the 26-year-old federal standards for toilets, urinals and showerheads.
2. Fix leaking water distribution systems
U.S. EPA estimated public water systems lose 16% of their treated water, on average, primarily due to leaking distribution and service pipes. Many local water agencies have water-loss programs, but state policies are needed to ensure and support local action. Four of the seven CRB states have some type of water loss requirement, with room for improvement, while New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming currently have no water loss control policies.
3. Stop watering nonessential turf grass
Outdoor water use accounts for at least 50% of municipal water use in the CRB, with up to 50% of that wasted. The CRB cannot afford to use its dwindling supply of water to grow ornamental, high water-use grass. While some cities have banned turf in certain locations, another effective approach is to provide financial incentives for property owners to voluntarily replace turf – aka, “Cash for Grass” – with water-efficient plants, mulch and hardscaping.
4. Increase state and federal funding for urban and agriculture water efficiency
Most local governments receive little state or federal funding for water efficiency. The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) increased the amount, but it remains small compared to the need. Congress can help by passing the Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act, which includes $90 million/year for water efficiency.
At the state level, California has funded water efficiency for years, and it’s encouraging to see Arizona, Colorado and Utah approve significant funding this year. Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming are lagging.
CRB water availability has decreased substantially because of climate change, but the policies designed to maintain a balance between supply and demand have not kept up. A sustainable long-term plan requires a coordinated suite of local, state and federal strategies to reduce water demand commensurate with what the CRB can realistically supply given the new normal of hotter, drier weather.