Despite water conservation regulations prohibiting daytime watering, irrigation sprinklers spray water onto a lawn of degraded soil, July 12, 2022, during California’s historic drought.
Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images
The Colorado River is drying up. This day has come since the agreement to share its waters was reached exactly 100 years ago, signified most strikingly by the elongation of the white rings of mineral deposits left behind in wetter years tracing the shores around from Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, now a slow drain. emerald bathtub in the desert. The worst drought in American Southwest history has strained every square inch of the river’s 1,450-mile watershed, leaving a system so severely depleted that officials can no longer ignore scientists ringing the bell. alarm for decades: there is no more water, and there is no more water coming. (At current usage rates, the most generous estimates say four to six years remain.) With forecasts of another winter with unusually low snow levels, a consortium of 32 agencies that supply water to 40 million Americans living in the driest and fastest growing places in the United States have finally reached a historic agreement to reduce water consumption, including setting a goal to reduce 30% off lawns in their service areas, from Denver to Santa Monica.
The move will target ‘non-functional turf’, meaning grass in, for example, street medians will be ripped out, while parks, sports fields and (unfortunately) golf courses can remain in place . These alien grassy mounds will ideally be replaced with “drought and climate resistant landscaping”, including the planting of more trees, according to the agreement. The language of the non-binding memorandum of understanding is vague enough that private lawns could escape the casualty list (for now). Also spared from the deal: 5.5 million acres of agriculture, such as alfalfa and cotton, which account for 80% of the Colorado River’s water allocation and have only been watered down during decades, fueled by federal grants and foreign investment. Overall, this announcement is good news, but nonetheless, the most historic agreement ever reached in the history of water conservation in the United States will not be enough to stave off the inevitable shortages that will soon affect all aspects of daily life. “Every acre-foot of conservation helps,” says Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, “but even if all of the conservation proposed in the MOU happens, it won’t be enough to stabilize the system.
For the 40 million people in seven states and 30 tribal lands who get their water from the Colorado River, the outlook is bleak. Scientists say use needs to be reduced to 9 million acre-feet per year, about 40% less than today. A decade from now, households would face stringent restrictions on daily water use, coupled with widespread increases in the cost of living, including dramatic increases in energy costs. Indigenous nations that hold inherent rights to the river would be further disenfranchised from accessing their water allocations. The impact would ripple far beyond the service area when considering the corresponding decline in food supply – the Colorado River irrigates 90% of the vegetables consumed in the United States in winter.
Local municipalities have already made strides to avert such a crisis, dramatically reducing their water use over the past two decades “by more than one million acre-feet, while adding more than 5 million people to our communities,” as the language of the MOU notes. Cities are hurting ornamental grass on state-owned or managed land and setting new restrictions for commercial property owners, like Las Vegas did last year. There has also been a marked increase in municipal water recycling, with successful demonstration projects in parched California communities that could help reduce pressure on upstream demand. And even though backyards aren’t yet targeted for mass xeriscaping, agencies have tightened incentives for homeowners in hopes they’ll do the right thing on their own; for example, the LA Department of Water and Power, which serves 681,000 customers and had its lowest water usage this summer, just increased its lawn replacement rebate from $3 to $5 per square foot.
Yet comparing a sprinkler crossing the grass-sown driveway of a suburban neighborhood twice a week with a half-acre of heavily irrigated cotton fields, the aspirations of the deal ring like a drop in the bucket. bucket. But that’s no small feat, and the fact that the 30% figure was negotiated and agreed to by nearly three dozen powerful agencies is a milestone in itself, says Sharon Megdal, director of the Resource Research Center in water from the University of Arizona. “Now we can look at that number and say, How did we perform?says Megdal, although, as she points out, no target date has yet been set for this assessment. While this MOU will not be enough on its own, perhaps most importantly, she says, the agreement communicates the severity of the crisis, helping to signal that further cuts could come sooner rather than later, and that everyone who depends on the Colorado River needs to shift their expectations of how to incorporate green and grassy spaces (which are always important) into their communities. “These kinds of things are key to raising awareness of the seriousness of the situation,” says Megdal. “We all have to adapt to use less water.”
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