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How Colorado River Basin States Can Improve Water Efficiency

An assessment of the seven Colorado River Basin states shows that there are two key areas where states are lagging and a stronger legal framework could help, writes Mary Ann Dickinson of the Alliance for Water Efficiency.

Written by Mary Ann Dickinson Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Benjamin Franklin Plumbing technician Todd Snider installs a 0.8 gallon per flush ultra-low flow toilet at a home on February 5, 2014 in Novato, California. Plumbing code laws can help spur water savings, but many states lag behind California in requirements.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

These are difficult times on the Colorado River. Diminishing flows and population growth are exacerbating the already contentious Colorado River allocations among the Colorado River Basin states. To move forward, state-level legal frameworks will have to be strong and comprehensive to ensure that water from existing allocations is conserved, and that states are prepared for the inevitable climate-induced shortages.

While efforts around these issues are in play in varying degrees among the Colorado River Basin states, there is still a lot of strengthening that can be done. Roughly 40 million people currently rely on Colorado River allocations, but even states with relatively little reliance on the river will encounter increasingly difficult supply challenges as other sources take on rising demand. Stronger state laws can only help.

However, in order to figure out where state laws can be improved, there must first be some accounting of where states currently are. The Alliance for Water Efficiency undertook just such an assessment. In the most recent Water Efficiency and Conservation State Scorecard: An Assessment of Laws, the Colorado River Basin states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming received grades ranging from “A-” to “D”, averaging a collective “B-” in the region for the strength of laws supporting critical water efficiency topic areas.

The scorecard findings demonstrate that while some states have robust laws, and others are moving in the right direction (and have improved their scores since the 2012 scorecard), there is still tremendous opportunity to bolster water efficiency policy across the Colorado River Basin states. The scorecard identified a number of areas where basin states could advance stronger laws, but two areas leap out as important first steps: adopting high-efficiency plumbing and building codes; and requiring utility system water loss control.

Strong plumbing and building codes are a secret gift. The water savings that result automatically from requiring high-efficiency fixtures and appliances can be significant – and virtually cost-free to the states. High efficiency plumbing products are already widely available in the marketplace, and requiring their purchase and installation would not cause economic hardship.

Yet, among the Colorado River Basin states, only California and Colorado have codes more stringent than the 26-year-old federal standards for toilets, urinals and showerheads. Changes to plumbing and building codes would result in significant savings, and would require little in the way of state resources, relative to other conservation and efficiency initiatives.

Another area that could yield significant savings is requiring utility system water loss control. Four of the seven Colorado River Basin states have some kind of requirement – which is a great start – but even the more thorough frameworks among them could be enhanced with requirements for leak detection, leak repair and other features that could lead to actual water savings.

The three states – New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – that currently have nothing in the way of water loss control mandates could start with simple requirements for system audits for both public and private utilities. Designating a numeric limit for loss (as opposed to a percentage) or a formula for calculating acceptable leakage limits would also be a critical companion law to begin identifying and addressing utility system water loss.

Water loss does require more in the way of staff time, monetary support and other resources, but it is a sound investment: Water lost is water that has already been treated and paid for. Isn’t it worth pursuing measures to protect that initial investment?

Alliance for Water Efficiency’s State Scorecard also looked at where state-level climate resiliency policies currently exist, and the Colorado River Basin states overall averaged a “C” in this area. While California and Colorado were exemplary in this regard, three Colorado River Basin states (Arizona, Nevada and Wyoming) have no plans or laws of any kind to build climate-change resiliency broadly, or to help deal specifically with climatic impacts to water supply. Of the four states that do have plans or laws, none of them imposed requirements on the water and wastewater industries to plan for climate resiliency in any way. These results seem to misalign with apparent wins in conservation, ultimately signaling that collectively the Colorado River Basin states have both significant challenges and opportunities ahead.

The Colorado River Basin states are at an important crossroads. Even in the states that aren’t currently daunted by diminishing supplies, conservation and climate preparedness are the best and most affordable way to navigate the water supply challenges that will inevitably arise in the future with population growth and diminishing flows. Stronger laws and policies are needed to address these needs.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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