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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

City utilities in the Colorado River basin want to conserve more water. Can that make a difference?

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Luke Runyon
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KUNC
Clinton Meagher nails artificial turf into the ground at a Henderson, Nevada home. The Southern Nevada Water Authority provides a rebate for homeowners willing to swap out thirsty lawns. That agency and others in the Colorado River basin announced a new commitment to conservation.

Some utilities that draw water from the Colorado River said they will start conserving more in light of the region’s shrinking supply. A group of seven water authorities that serve cities in Colorado, Nevada, and California outlined their plans in a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on Wednesday.

Cities in the Colorado River basin often tout their ability to reduce per capita water use, as many have been forced to stretch a finite quantity of water across rapidly growing populations. However, conservation in cities is unlikely to make a substantial change to the region’s supply-demand imbalance, because the agricultural sector still uses nearly 80% of the river’s supply.

“Recognizing that a clean, reliable water supply is critical to our communities,” the letter reads, “We can and must do more to reduce water consumption and increase reuse and recycling within our service areas. We pledge to be part of the solution.”

The letter’s co-signers are Aurora Water, Colorado Springs Utilities, Denver Water, Pueblo Water, the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

The memo set broad goals for conservation, such as increasing efficiency of appliances, adding conservation-oriented rate structures for water users, and transforming outdoor landscapes. The letter says its signers will cut back on the quantity of “non-functional turf grass by 30% through replacement with drought- and climate-resilient landscaping.” Cities, to varying degrees, have seen the removal of purely ornamental lawns as a way to make big cuts to their water use.

The memo did not include many specific details of how cities would carry out such plans, such as a timeline for its implementation, or the amount and source of funding for conservation work.

“Notably there really aren't any numbers here,” said John Berggren, a water policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates. The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds a portion of KUNC’s Colorado River coverage. “There's really no acre-foot goal. There's no dates by when they want to do all this. What the follow through and the next steps look like, I think, will dictate how impactful this MOU is.”

Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, said that standing up a program to increase water efficiency is “expensive and complex,” and his department would be hashing out plans over the next several months before a rollout in 2023.

Municipal use accounts for only a portion of the Colorado River’s total water use, with the vast majority consumed by agriculture. City water managers tend to be candid about that fact, but make little mention of it in their letter to Reclamation.

"If Denver or Colorado Springs conserved more would that really help the system? The answer is no, it would make no difference," Lochhead told the Colorado Springs Gazette earlier this summer.Despite that, water departments in both of those cities signed on Wednesday’s commitment to conserving more water.

“It frankly is not a lot of water in the greater scheme of things,” Lochhead told KUNC. “But it's an effort by municipal utilities to step up and do what we can. The major chunks of water that are going to have to come in the Colorado River basin are in the Lower Basin, in California and Arizona, in particular from agricultural uses. But that having been said, we also need to redouble our efforts at using water most efficiently and in urban areas as well.”

Berggren, the water policy analyst, said much more conservation is needed across the basin, but even this commitment from cities is a step in the right direction.

“Everyone has to contribute no matter how big or how small,” Berggren said. “Municipalities are small compared to agriculture users, but that doesn't mean they're insignificant.”

Berggren said all kinds of users need to chip in to meet basin-wide water conservation goals outlined in June by Reclamation, an effort to prop up plummeting water levels in the nation’s largest reservoirs.

The cities’ conservation commitment comes amid a tumultuous summer for the Colorado River basin’s water users. The watershed is reeling from 23 years of drier than normal conditions.Warming temperatures and overallocation are pushing the river to a tipping point, and the region’s most influential water managers balked at a major opportunity to conserve water. Touton called on states that use water from the river to conserve that unprecedented amount, and those states failed to draw up plans to do so before a federal deadline.

Conservation negotiations have stalled amid finger pointing between the states. and the federal government has not seriously attempted to intervene and force water saving. The cities’ agreement is a relatively rare example of collaboration between agencies in the upper Colorado River basin and the lower Colorado River basin, standing in contrast to a contentious tone that defined the failure to meet federal demands for conservation.

“There's an appetite to get things done,” Berggren said. “There's an appetite to try and prevent the system from crashing. When the interstate plans, especially in the lower basin, kind of failed earlier, didn't come to fruition this month, I think enough people throughout the basin were disappointed and they were ready to take action.”

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. 

Alex is KUNC's reporter covering the Colorado River Basin. He spent two years at Aspen Public Radio, mainly reporting on the resort economy, the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, he covered the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery for KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.
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