May 06, 2015 | Water in the West | Insights
The Western U.S. has a water problem: the ongoing drought is not only unprecedented, it looks increasingly like the new normal. While demand for water continues to grow, climate change is causing supplies to dwindle. We need to take aggressive steps now toward solving this imbalance and protecting the vibrant economies of our arid landscapes.
Multiple efforts and resources are being brought to bear on this westwide problem. Here in California, municipal providers are under orders to reduce water use by a collective 25 percent and every electronic highway sign proclaims the severe drought and admonishes us to save water. The issue is not insufficient attention. But there are some general misperceptions that continue to dog our conversations and can obstruct meaningful progress.
In order to have a productive discussion about our water future, we have to squelch some stubborn myths about the solutions to water shortages:
Myth 1 — The silver bullet. It would be great if we could take a single, easy step to eliminate the gap between supply and demand. Unfortunately, that one definitive action does not exist. Our response must involve multiple sectors of the economy in order to fill the gap and ensure that no one region or type of water use bears a disproportionate share of the load. No silver bullet will solve this problem — it will take multiple, incremental efforts that every one of us will need to participate in.
Myth 2 — Cities just need to stop wasting water. Cities in the western U.S. are models for the nation in their efforts to conserve water. Restrictions on outdoor water use are part of our Western landscape, and educating the public about water use in arid areas has garnered good results. Yet, the myth persists that we’d have plenty of water to go around if we’d only stop watering golf courses in Phoenix or bluegrass in Denver or abolish fountains in Las Vegas or swimming pools in LA. But the projected shortfall between supply and demand dwarfs any realistic estimate for additional municipal conservation. Cities should and will do more, but this will be only one piece of the puzzle, not the entire fix.
Myth 3 — Water is too valuable to use on farms. Although somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of our water goes to agriculture, we would be unwise to assume that we can address shortages solely by removing irrigation water from farms. Retiring too much farmland will harm our western economies, our food security, and our quality of life, not to mention the well being of some of our hardest working neighbors. Further improving irrigation efficiency, judicious switching to less-thirsty crops, and using science to grow more crops with less water will be essential, but we must be careful not to destabilize rural economies that are the foundation of the West.
Myth 4 – Water is a basic necessity, so we should pay only the basic cost. Well, yes, water is a basic necessity, but our water pricing has historically not reflected its actual cost. Water projects in the West have been heavily subsidized and the environmental costs associated with those projects have usually been borne by taxpayers in general, not just the users of water from the project. Many environmental costs haven’t been paid by anyone because the restoration and mitigation for the projects haven’t yet occurred. It’s also essential that water pricing include the cost of developing or procuring additional water sources, which can be hugely expensive, made necessary by high usage customers. Only by intelligently crafting water rates that reflect all the costs associated with providing water service can we ensure that this basic necessity will continue to be available in the future.
Myth 5 — Healthy flows are a luxury that can be sacrificed when times are tough. Environmental and recreation flows aren’t just nice things to have; they are essential drivers of the economy of the West. Recent analyses and surveys have demonstrated that a healthy, flowing river floats hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy. Business interests all over the West are increasingly and appropriately vocal about their stake in a healthy environment, and instream flows in rivers and streams are integral to ecosystem and public health. Maintaining beautiful waterways that support tourism, recreation, and ecosystems in and adjacent to the river is a necessary component of any solution.
Creating a sustainable water future for the West requires serious discussions about how to adjust and balance the many interests that rely on this precious resource. The continued prosperity of the region we love rests on our collective ability to see through the myths and work together to meet the challenges ahead.
Anne Castle is the Landreth Visiting Fellow at Water in the West, a program of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Bill Lane Center for the American West. She was the Assistant Secretary for Water and Science at the U.S. Department of the Interior from 2009 to 2014.
A version of this article originally appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune on September 26, 2013