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Column: Making water conservation a reality

Dan Ben-Horin

In issuing his executive order back in 2013 for the creation of the first statewide water plan, Gov. John Hickenlooper stated that "every conversation about water should begin with conservation." It may be difficult to think of water conservation now as we look out our windows at rivers and creeks swollen with spring runoff, but we need to remind ourselves of where we live. Here in the Colorado River Basin, we live with a constant threat of a looming drought.

As Eric Kuhn wrote in his May 12 article in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, "we cannot be fooled by talk of a continuing drought. Instead, we need to be diligent and prepared for the next drought." Our current reality includes an increasing population and a decreasing water supply, and it is now time for us to realize how far conservation measures can improve our water use efficiency.

As part of the recently published Colorado Water Plan, one of the Colorado River Basin's themes is to encourage a high level of conservation. Statewide, we have done a remarkable job of reducing water use, with per-capita use dropping by almost 20 percent over the past decade. Some municipalities have even cut water use by as much as 30 percent during this time period. Incredible work has been done thus far, and we can now build upon what we learned statewide.

Many entities in the state are now required to have a specific water conservation plan approved by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Locally, the Roaring Fork Conservancy partnered with the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, Ruedi Water and Power Authority and local municipalities in the Roaring Fork Watershed to develop a water efficiency plan. The plan consists of water efficiency plans for Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, as well as a regional plan that applies the common elements of the five individual plans to the watershed.

Plans such as this outline actions steps for reaching conservation goals by identifying best practices such as landscape efficiencies, water loss management features and variable rate structures. A successful conservation strategy must look beyond past accomplishments and create a specific action plan to meet conservation goals.

The water saving benefits resulting from water efficiency projects are tremendous. Reductions in water demands allow providers to save money on annual operations and maintenance. Further reductions in municipal water use would provide increased longevity on facilities right here in our communities.

In addition to these water supply benefits, we can achieve other benefits, such as an improved environment. Reduced wastewater discharges through indoor water savings can improve water quality and aquatic habitat in our lakes, rivers and streams.

Conservation also acts as a management tool to buffer against drought. Water providers can store water in a drought reserve as a long-term water conservation effort, and use those reserves during periods of shortages. As Mr. Kuhn pointed out in his May 12 article, when we entered the drought period of 2000-04, both Lake Powell and Lake Mead were completely full. Having reserves allowed us to mitigate the potentially devastating consequences of those dry years. With those lakes currently sitting at approximately 40 percent of capacity, what would happen if we were to enter into a period of prolonged drought today?

We cannot allow ourselves to become shortsighted when water is plentiful. It is time to build upon the conservation measures and efficiency savings we have already achieved. By adopting a variety of strong, permanent tools, we can fulfill our ongoing obligation to conserve water resources. The reality of climate change is that hotter, drier weather will become the new normal in the West, so conservation of our precious resource should become the new normal as well. As we learn and adapt to living in this semi-arid climate, we can make conservation become the new water reality.

Dan Ben-Horin is a watershed specialist for the Middle Colorado Watershed Council, which works to evaluate, protect and enhance the health of the Middle Colorado River Watershed through the cooperative effort of watershed stakeholders. To learn more, go to http://www.midcowatershed.org.