Water shortage? Not if we use it wisely, says Aspen panel
July 27, 2010
ASPEN – There is enough water in the American Southwest, and around the world, to meet existing needs. The problem is allocation.
“It isn’t always available when we need it, where we need it,” said Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project based in New Mexico. She was one of three water experts tapped for the panel discussion, “Hot and Dry: Water in the West and the World,” Monday at The Aspen Institute’s Environment Forum.
While the Earth has an estimated five to 10 times more fresh water than the planet’s population currently uses, conservation is key to sustaining a resource for which there is no substitute, stressed Postel and her panel colleagues, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and Pat Mulroy, director of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
“Water scarcity is an issue – not everywhere, but in some regions,” Babbitt told the packed audience. “The American Southwest is not one of those regions where there is water scarcity. It’s hard to believe, given all the hyping in the national and local and regional press.”
Mulroy apparently found his statements hard to believe, as well. She has watched the Southwest lose the equivalent of an entire reservoir in the declining levels of Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Southern Nevada has implemented rigorous conservation regulations and has shifted its thinking to address the sharing of water, and suffering shortages, regionally, she said.
For example, water that Nevada is currently conserving is going to California.
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“We will get it back when we need it,” Mulroy said. “We’re starting to think as a larger consortium.”
Babbitt called for incentives to conserve water and use it efficiently, noting half of the water used in the Southwest winds up on lawns.
“Put a price on it. Charge its real value,” he said, urging the elimination of subsidies that make water a bargain, particularly to agricultural users.
“Conservation is not a rational economic choice,” he said of the current situation.
That’s not as easy as it sounds, Mulroy responded.
“When you start pricing water for agriculture, it’s going to reflect itself in food prices,” she said.
Americans’ water “footprint” is about 2,000 gallons of water per day (two times the world average) – most of it tied up in growing their food, according to Postel.
Globally, only about 3 percent of agricultural producers use a drip irrigation system, which is vastly more efficient than more typical means of irrigation.
“That’s the silver lining – there’s so much more that can be done with existing water,” Postel said.
In Aspen, poised at the headwaters of the Colorado River basin, an audience member questioned the incentive to conserve locally when the Front Range siphons off the unused water.
“Are you being hurt by that?” Mulroy asked pointedly.
Aspen might as well learn to conserve now, she advised, calling a period of drought inevitable.
“You can either do it in crisis mode, or you can start educating now,” she said.