Water Issues: It’s Time to Talk More Than a Five-Minute Shower

Written by Carol Newton

Ever been walking through the grass on Armstrong and found yourself suddenly doused with water as the sprinklers come on? Besides the general discomfort of being soaked in sewer water, have you ever wondered where that water came from, or even if that water use is necessary?

When we talk about water issues, we often focus on the necessity of conservation measures, such as taking shorter showers. In the past few years, the world has become increasingly more aware of the importance of protecting and conserving our resources, especially water. Yet, despite conservation efforts, water issues continue to plague the world. Conservation measures are beneficial for preserving this necessity, yet sometimes it seems that we can fall into the habit of reacting to a problem instead of fixing it at its source. Perhaps it is time to look at the root of water issues instead of just telling people to cut off an extra five minutes in the shower. 

The public is constantly told that there isn’t enough water. This is true in a sense, however, here in the state of Colorado, there is plenty of water. The problem is that most of it isn’t accessible.

To learn more about water issues in Colorado, I turned to sophomore Beau Burns. As an avid kayaker, Burns first fell in love with water quality. He became interested in hydroelectric dams in the West and was then especially drawn to the interconnectedness between reservoirs, water transactions, and water availability. Somewhere along the way, he fell upon a bigger problem of water quantity: specifically, the distribution of water throughout the state of Colorado, something he outlined through the “80/20 rule.”

The basic premise of the 80/20 rule, otherwise known as the Pareto principle or the law of the vital few, is that about 80 percent of effects come from 20 percent of causes. These concepts were developed in the context of income and wealth distribution in a certain population. According to the rule, the majority of resources are controlled by just a few individuals. In Colorado, this can be applied to water rights in that 80 percent of water resources are on the Western Slope, and 20 percent of the resources are located on the front slope and Eastern Range. This is a problem given that 80 percent of Colorado’s population resides on the front slope and Eastern Range, and only 20 percent of the population lives on the Western Slope. 

The 80/20 rule has many ramifications, including social justice issues surrounding water access. Significantly, it highlights the high level of water inefficiency. For instance, there are seven trans-boundary diversions to reconcile the discrepancy in water location and populated areas. These are, essentially, giant tubes drilled through the mountain range connecting Western and Eastern Colorado that run up to 13 miles long, just to provide water to populations on the Eastern range.

Unfortunately, the 80/20 rule and location of water aren’t the only problems. Water rights have become entangled in politics, both within Colorado and beyond. Right here in Colorado Springs, outdated water policies create huge inefficiencies, one being the fact that we must buy water that originates in Colorado Springs from Pueblo, Colo. Although water flows directly through Colorado Springs, current water policies force the town to allow the water to run all the way to Pueblo before purchasing it. Then we have to wait for the water to be channeled back to the Springs.

Colorado doesn’t own most of its water. Although the Colorado River and snowmelt could theoretically provide enough water for everyone in the state, these sources also travel through Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and into California. Because Southern California was one of the first regions in which people settled, they claimed access to certain water rights and created the Allocation Doctrine, stating that the first people who settled the region should obtain access to the best resources. This inspired the Colorado River Compact, which allocates Colorado water to seven additional states. Therefore, all the way in Los Angeles, people are drinking water that originated in Colorado. Just as we see in the food industry, where foods are shipped and driven thousands of miles just to please people’s tastes, we go to similarly inefficient and frankly absurd measures to provide water to inhospitable areas.

Coupled with a complicated legal system for water rights that includes seven district water courts, the Colorado River Compact makes water access and water rights extremely convoluted and inefficient. This leads us to assume that Colorado doesn’t have enough water, when, in fact, it does.

Burns offers a market-based approach to attack the political structures that cause and encourage inefficient water use practices. In his opinion, the first step to cease inefficient water use is to raise the price of water. Because the price of water has been extremely subsidized, people are less likely to care about high levels of water usage. Thus, a raise in price could  motivate people to use less water. Furthermore, water markets that break down convoluted political structures would, in his opinion, facilitate easy water transactions. From there, municipal services could work with the community to lower the prices.

It seems that Colorado could adopt a few strategies from other states’ and countries’ water policies. Israel is an example of a country that uses its water extremely efficiently through a system of electric monitors on water pipes that detect water usage in each building. These monitors have the ability to tell when faucets are left on for extended periods of time and shut them off.

In the end, though, it’s not water quantity. Rather, it’s how the water is used.

Burns believes that the biggest problem, beyond municipality and inefficient water usage among civilians, lies in agriculture. About 90 percent of water resources are spent in agriculture, not in municipality. What we need more than ever is efficient agriculture. To obtain it, policies must be ratified.

Once again, Colorado could take a lesson from its neighbors and other countries.  Arizona practices a policy called “water banking” in which they funnel extra water into underground reservoirs to save for later use. Meanwhile, in Australia, people have “pool allocations,” meaning that they can use the water when desired.

So is Colorado College wasting water by using sprinklers to maintain the refreshing green of beloved Armstrong Quad? Is this inefficient water usage? Many would instantly say yes. Surprisingly, Burns has a different view. If CC is still willing to water the lawns after an increase in water cost, this is efficient use, in his opinion. An increase in cost forces those using water to make a decision, and if CC decides that the benefits outweigh the costs, then that luscious grass must be worth it.

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