Western states wrestle with shrinking water supplies
State and local leaders across the West are embracing ambitious water conservation initiatives in an effort to match the magnitude of the solutions to the challenges that lie ahead as droughts worsen and fire seasons become longer and more destructive.
The breadth, scope and interconnectedness of these ongoing projects was outlined during the recent Water in the West Symposium, hosted by Colorado State University’s new SPUR campus at the National Western Center in Denver.
According to Colorado Governor Jared Polis, more than 500 innovative water projects are underway across the state, each of which are supported by data and funneled through a series of local basin roundtables to insure they reflect the goals of the statewide water plan. The state’s model has earned acclaim for bringing together diverse interests to craft a methodical and comprehensive approach to future water needs.
Governor Polis said the state is looking ahead to updating and potentially revising the plan in 2022.
The state is also putting more emphasis on water and land use training by bringing in an interdisciplinary team of experts to help utilities develop meaningful action plans. In the past year, 17 training programs have been held around the state, Polis said.
Another priority is preserving the vital Colorado River, which he described as “our namesake and the hardest working river in the West,” by working with other western states and the federal government to protect Lake Powell reservoir.
Lake Powell and adjacent Lake Meade could encounter severe water shortages as early as 2025, according to symposium keynote Gary Knell, chairman of National Geographic Partners.
On the local level, symposium sponsor Denver Water hosted a virtual tour to share how the state’s largest water utility has shifted from reactive to proactive on water supply and quality issues.
Denver Water serves 1.5 million people in the Denver metro and sources water across 2.5 million acres.
Through its Forest to Faucets initiative, the water utility is partnering with the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute to help improve forest management, reduce fire danger and mitigate post-fire impacts, according to watershed scientist Christina Burri.
“The Hayman Fire of 2002 was very costly to Denver Water, and that’s what motivated us to make proactive investments in forest health,” she explained.
Fire damage causes debris to drain into reservoirs and removing that sediment is costly and difficult. Denver Water spent $28 million on dredging and other reservoir clean-up following the Hayman Fire, but the recent uptick in new wildfires has brought sediment control efforts back to square one. If upfront measures can reduce sediment deposition by even just 5 percent, it’s worth the investment, she said.
Sylvia Bierman, acting regional director with the U.S. Forestry Service, said the agency has a Burned Area Emergency Response plan to address immediate impacts from fire events, with funding for activities such as applying mulch to burn scars. The National Resource Conservation Program has a similar project for private landowners, she added. But the agency is also seeking additional funding for longer term restoration, she said.
Denver Water has partnered with the Forest Service for more than 10 years, expanding the collaboration from large landscape and vegetative management projects to specific problems such as noxious weed control, she said.
Weston Toll, a wildfire mitigation specialist with the Colorado State Forest Service, noted that Denver Water’s Forest to Faucets project is no longer unique as more utilities adopt their own programs.
“Most major Front Range water suppliers are also stepping up to the plate with similar programs, so that’s really good to see,” he said.
Leaders of neighboring states and tribal organizations also offered examples of how they are moving forward on water conservation.
Nevada Lt. Governor Kate Marshall gave a shout-out to Colorado for helping her state organize a new outdoor recreation agency.
“While outdoor recreation is very stable and resilient to recessions or pandemics, you don’t want to love (our natural resources) to death,” she said. “One of the issues we’ve seen is that many, many people went to Lake Tahoe to get away from the (viral) threat, but that actually created a strain on the system.”
In addition to monitoring and addressing recreational impacts, the agency is expanding into areas not initially anticipated, such as quantifying the health benefits of outdoor recreation and improving outdoor educational offerings for kids from inner cities.
Nevada also created a program called WaterStart, which has since spun off into a free-standing nonprofit, which currently co-funds 31 different innovative water management pilot projects.
While Colorado State is establishing a building on the SPUR campus in Denver devoted solely to water, Nevada has its own Water Innovation Campus within the engineering department at the University of Nevada, which explores engineering solutions, such as using sound technology to find leaks in large municipal water systems. The center has joint international projects underway with Australia and Poland.
“We want to export ideas to other communities, even other countries,” she said. “We want to test those ideas here and then be the exporter of innovation.”
Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon, who grew up on a ranch and has a college-age daughter currently studying hydrology, and Stephen Roe Lewis, the recently re-elected governor of the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, talked about the importance of addressing aging water infrastructure and the need for collaboration between tribal, state and federal governments.
“Our irrigation infrastructure is a century old or older,” Gordon said. When a tunnel collapsed on an important canal that also flows into Nebraska, the two states worked together to address the issue, he added.
Wyoming has established a new fund, which Gordon described as “kind of an insurance approach,” which is being used to fund vital improvements to dam structures, headgates, ditches and canals.
As droughts continue, the state is also drilling down into how to maximize water storage using the latest technology. Governor Gordon said the state is working to improve water supply forecasting and refine research on how the climate is changing and its affect on
snow and run-off patterns, as well as modeling and sensoring capabilities, reporting automation and stream gauge monitoring.