30 water suppliers pledge to address Colorado River shortage

With the federal government demanding significant water-use cuts to address historic Colorado River shortages, leaders of 30 agencies serving cities from the Rocky Mountains to Southern California have signed an agreement pledged to protect conservation , partly by committing to aim to remove a particularly thirsty mainstay from suburban landscapes: ornamental grass.

Water boards that supply Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Santa Monica, Burbank, San Diego and other cities have committed to a non-binding list of actions, including creating a program to remove 30% of “non-functional” weed and to replace it with “drought- and climate-resilient landscaping while preserving vital cityscapes and treetops.”

The pledge could bolster efforts across the Southwest to remove grass along roadsides and medians, as well as in areas governed by homeowners’ associations, apartment complexes, businesses and other properties.

The 30 city water utilities also agreed in their MOU to expand indoor and outdoor water efficiency improvement programs; increase wastewater recycling and reuse where possible; and implementation of various “best practices” for nature conservation, such as B. offering discounts to customers who remove grass, introducing fee structures that encourage savings, and setting mandatory schedules for outdoor irrigation, among others.

While city water utilities have already worked toward conservation goals, the agreement represents a broader effort by agencies across the Colorado River Basin that are “moving forward together and really doubling down on those commitments in light of the crisis we’re facing,” said Liz Crosson, Chief Sustainability Officer of the Metropolitan Water District in Southern California.

“This multi-state agency engagement is of tremendous importance right now,” Crosson said. “We’re all coming to the same conclusion that we really need to address some of the remaining water wastage that we’re seeing out there in our landscapes.”

One of the key areas where water managers see great potential for downsizing is the sprinklers that spray unused strips of grass that line streets and the entrances of businesses and public lands where nobody goes except to mow. By converting these non-recreational or community grasslands into other plant species that require less water, cities can significantly reduce their water footprint.

New measures have already been taken in some states to ban non-functional weed.

Last year, the Nevada legislature passed legislation banning watering of non-functional weed starting in 2027.

In May, California’s State Water Resources Control Board passed drought rules that also ban watering of non-functional grass.

And in October, the Metropolitan Water District board passed a resolution recommending that cities and water boards throughout Southern California pass ordinances permanently banning non-functioning turfs on businesses, public lots and homeowners’ associations.

These measures don’t affect people’s lawns at home, but many cities have also tried to encourage homeowners to remove grass by offering discounts for every square foot converted to low-water-using plants. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Energy recently increased its turf removal discount from $3 to $5 per square foot.

In the Las Vegas area, more than 5 million square feet of grass has been removed and turned into desert landscapes this year, according to the Southern Nevada Water Agency.

Officials setting water policies throughout the Colorado River watershed are under increasing pressure to find ways to quickly reduce water use in both cities and rural areas.

The river has long been congested and its flows have shrunk dramatically during a 23-year mega-drought that is being compounded by human warming of the planet. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the country’s two largest reservoirs, are now nearly three-quarters empty.

And scientists have warned that climate change is leading to a long-term drying out of the region, eroding the river’s expected volume of water.

Without major cuts in water use, the latest projections show a growing risk that reservoirs will approach ‘dead end’ levels, where no water would flow downstream.

Since June, federal officials have asked the seven states that depend on the river to come up with plans to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet a year, a reduction of about 15% to 30%. However, negotiations between states and water authorities have yet to reach agreement on how to achieve this level of reduction.

The US Department of the Interior and Bureau of Reclamation last month announced plans to revise their current rules for dealing with congestion, saying they may also need to release less water from the levees as reservoirs continue to recede.

The signing of the agreement, which was submitted to the Bureau of Reclamation, shows urban water users are ready to advance approaches to address drought and the impacts of climate change, said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

“Given the lack of progress in negotiations between the seven states, I think this shows that sensible people of good will can continue to make progress on important ways to reduce water use and adapt to a warmer, drier future,” Entsminger said. “The future will require all of us to use less water and you really see that the need to adapt is widespread.”

Cities use about 20% of the Colorado River’s water, while agriculture uses about 80%.

Southern California water districts recently submitted a proposal to the federal government to reduce water use by about 9% over the next four years.

One of those four agencies, the Imperial Irrigation District, uses the largest single amount of water from the Colorado River to service Imperial Valley farms. IID’s managers have pledged to handle most of California’s reductions, saying they plan to prioritize protection based on improving water efficiency rather than leaving fields dry and fallow.

“If we look at the long-term drying up of the Colorado River Basin, the math is simple: water use is outstripping water supplies,” Entsminger said. “Every user will have to find a way to consume less.”

Leaders from seven environmental and conservation groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, American Rivers and the National Audubon Society, expressed their support for the memorandum of understanding in a letter to the federal government, calling it “an important step in the right direction.”

“That [Colorado River] Basin no longer has the privilege of methodically preparing for a hotter and drier future,” they wrote in the letter. “The pace and scope of solutions to successfully reduce the basin’s water supply risks must be accelerated … if we have any hope of ensuring a sustainable Colorado River Basin in the future.”

Madelyn Glickfeld, co-director of UCLA’s Water Resources Group, said the agreement is a good step, but cities still need to do more and that agricultural water districts should make similar water conservation commitments.

“Agriculture needs to consider growing less water-intensive crops,” Glickfeld said.

Referring to the ubiquitous urban and suburban lawns, she said, “Everyone should take out their non-functional grass — and even their functional grass where there are good substitutes.”

A big question will be how water authorities will meet the goal of removing 30% of non-functional grass, Glickfeld said.

“They’ve never done that before. Let’s see how they do it,” Glickfeld said, “and how fast they can do it.”

“The changes we need to make are huge,” she said. “And because we’re letting it get so bad, we don’t have a lot of time.”

https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2022-11-17/30-water-suppliers-pledge-to-address-colorado-river-shortage 30 water suppliers pledge to address Colorado River shortage

Alley Einstein

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