Column: Increased population doesn’t equal increased water use
With Colorado’s population expected to increase by leaps and bounds in coming decades, increased water use surely must follow, right? Maybe not, or at least not by the same amount.
Two reports recently came out that underscore the serious supply/demand imbalance building in the Colorado River Basin and outline measures to address it. Both note that population and water use increases don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.
The first report is a follow-up to the 2012 Colorado River Basin Supply and Demand Study, which corralled reams of data from tree ring studies and climate models to exhaustively demonstrate that the basin’s future water supplies are highly unlikely to come anywhere close to meeting the water needs projected through the middle of the 21st century.
Titled Colorado River Basin Stakeholders Moving Forward to Address Challenges Identified in the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, this report chronicles the efforts of many stakeholders and experts charged with “identifying actionable steps to address projected water supply and demand imbalances that have broad-based support and provide a wide range of benefits.”
Three work groups identified a wide range of potential actions to promote urban conservation, agricultural efficiency and low-impact agricultural transfers, and managing water in ways that benefit the environment and recreation while meeting other needs.
The second report, “The Case for Conservation,” is a concise position paper by a group of scholars collaborating under the banner of the Colorado River Research Group. This paper bluntly calls for reducing water consumption. It notes that annual water use in the Colorado River Basin already exceeds supplies, leading to dropping reservoir and groundwater levels. The authors call for leaving more water in rivers, reservoirs and aquifers in order to protect against drought and benefit the environment.
Despite the differences in tone, both reports cite data showing that in recent decades, the population has increased much more than water use in the urban areas that use Colorado River Basin water. For example, the Moving Forward report presents data showing that:
• On Colorado’s Front Range, the population has increased by about 60 percent (1 million people) since 1980, but water deliveries have only increased by about 26 percent.
• The urban areas surrounding Albuquerque and Santa Fe have added more than 320,000 people since 1980, but since 1990, water deliveries have actually dropped by about 12 percent.
• In the Southern Nevada urban area, which includes Las Vegas, the population increased by about 2.6 times between 1980 and 2013, while water use increased by only 1.7 times. Water use has actually declined over the past decade, while the population has leveled off a bit.
• Between 1991 and 2013, Phoenix saw its population increase by 47 percent, but water deliveries increased by only 4.5 percent.
• Southern California urban areas have grown in population by about 50 percent (6 million people) since 1980, while increasing water use by about 20 percent. Since a hitting a high in 2007, use has decreased despite continued moderate population growth.
The biggest divergence between population and water use trends has come since 2000.
The Colorado River Research Group paper describes the alternative to reducing water use as “further draining streams, reservoirs and aquifers to a point of collapse” or “spending billions to import or desalinate new supplies (if available, and only after decades of work).” The authors call “the many inefficient water uses that persist throughout the basin” an opportunity “to embrace.”
Speaking of opportunities, the Moving Forward report cites reducing outdoor water use through technology, behavior change and the adoption of water-thrifty landscapes as one of the biggest opportunities to stretch limited water supplies. Outdoor water use is the largest component of household water use, and can also be reduced by increasing housing density, leading to smaller yards.
If you want to read these reports and make your own judgments about what supply/ demand strategies make sense, you can find them here:
• Colorado River Basin Stakeholders Moving Forward to Address Challenges Identified in the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, released by the US Bureau of Reclamation: http://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/programs/crbstudy/MovingForward/Phase1Report.html
• “The Case for Conservation,” released by the Colorado River Research Group: http://www.coloradoriverresearchgroup.org/ (click on “What’s new from the Colorado River Research Group.”)
Hannah Holm is coordinator for the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University. This column is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.
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