Fredrickson: Start conserving water now to head off Colorado’s drought

Michelle Fredrickson

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.  

On a 20 degree day following a nearly 70 degree weekend, the bizarre weather conditions in Colorado may seem to just be part of the state’s unique charm. However, the shifts this year have led to a significant problem – 99 percent of Colorado is already in drought or near-drought conditions, with some areas of the state already declaring a severe drought.

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This map of Colorado shows the percentage of the state in different drought conditions. Courtesy of PlantMaps Drought Monitor.

This year’s drought is caused by a dearth of snow, which supplies Colorado with most of its water. The continued rise in Colorado’s population doesn’t help.

A drought in winter is a bad sign of what’s to come for summer, as a winter drought could increase risks in summer as well as exacerbate wildfire risk, which the state already suffers enough from. Unless there is a very snowy late winter and spring or an abnormally rainy spring and summer, Colorado is in for drought of increasing severity until next year’s snowpack.

Water scarcity, which is becoming a larger and larger problem every year around the world, is due to increasing demand and decreasing supply. The world population is growing, especially around urban centers, and water usage is increasing even more than population, according to the United Nations. While this is happening, climate change is causing a shortage of snowfall and rainy seasons.

Fort Collins and northern Colorado are currently labeled as ‘abnormally dry’ while Denver and the surrounding areas are labeled as ‘moderate drought.’ Grand Junction and most of the Western Slope are labeled as ‘severe drought.’

Water scarcity is one of those frightening, looming issues that isn’t a global public health catastrophe yet, but will be before the end of our lifetimes. We need to start preparing for it now.

Cape Town, South Africa is a city currently showing the all-too-real situation of a major drought. Cape Town is a beautiful coastal city and it is less than three months away from running out of water entirely.

I stayed in Cape Town for three months while doing an internship last summer – winter in Cape Town – and the drought conditions even then were raising alarms. While I was there, we were restricted to three showers a week at five minutes per shower. These guidelines were enforced by our landlords only. The situation has since gotten more severe, with the government now strictly regulating everyone to two showers a week at 90 seconds a shower.

Even with these regulations, unless the weather dramatically shifts, Cape Town will face the horror of a ‘Day Zero’ when the taps in the city run dry. Day Zero was initially scheduled to be April 22, but after some much-needed rain last week it has been pushed to early May. When the water runs out, the city may be thrown into chaos.

I see parallels between the Cape Town situation and the Colorado situation, although our drought is not as severe as theirs – yet. I lived in Cape Town in their winter, and already the drought was raising alarms. Now, during their summer, they are facing not just a water shortage, but a total water absence.

We don’t want that to be us.

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People need to start practicing smart water consumption techniques right away, because the compounding effects contributing to water shortages aren’t going to stop.

Fort Collins Utilities implemented a Water Efficiency Plan, and water use has declined nearly 40 percent since 2000. Fort Collins is on track to hit the previous mark for 2020, and is aiming for an increased decline before 2030. It is actually illegal to waste water in Fort Collins, and last year Fort Collins Utilities identified and addressed 55 cases of such waste taking place.

Everyday citizens can help be more water conscious by critically thinking about the water they use. It’s easy to leave the water running while doing dishes, but is it really necessary? No.

This graphic shows a breakdown of water usage. The toilet and the faucet are the biggest culprits. Photo courtesy of the EPA.

Similarly, while this rubs some people the wrong way, not flushing the toilet every time can help save water, because the toilet is the number one consumer of water in a residence. If not flushing isn’t something you’re comfortable with, consider putting a half-gallon to a gallon filled jug in your toilet tank – older toilet especially use a lot of water, and by creating displacement in the tank, the toilet will use less water.

While we don’t need to restrict showering to 90 seconds twice a week like Cape Town, shorter showers can help anyone, anywhere. Leaks also account for 12 percent of daily water consumption; many people may have a leak that isn’t causing problems, so they don’t do anything about it. It’s important to call your utilities or maintenance people when you find a leak, because that can be a significant source of water waste.

Small things like turning off the faucet while washing hands or brushing teeth can also help stop water waste. Reusing shower water or pasta water to water plants can, too.

Colorado may not be preparing for a disaster like Cape Town just yet, but it’s important for everyone to do their part now to conserve water. Water is a commodity, and it’s going to be a major issue eventually. If we start saving water now, when we are in a drought but not actively approaching a ‘Day Zero’, we stand a chance of heading off a disaster before it happens.

Michelle Fredrickson can be reached at letters@collegian.com or online at @mfredrickson42.