What the US can learn from Cape Town’s water crisis

What the US can learn from Cape Town’s water crisis
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Four million people living in Cape Town face an uncertain future due to the city’s worst water crisis in history. Even with some extraordinary measures the city has already taken, steadily increasing demands for water and three years of drought mean that the city just can’t keep up.

About four months from now, the city’s water supply is projected to drop so low that city officials will be forced to turn off municipal water supplies. Residents will need to line up at water distribution centers for a reduced allocation of only six gallons per day.

In the United States, we typically take the availability of water for granted. If water comes from our taps or flows to farms and industry, we tend to assume our water supplies are assured.

But water crises are becoming more common, and no nation is immune — so the smarter approach is to learn some important lessons now.

Water crises have been identified among the top five global risks for seven years in a row, according to a World Economic Forum report. Atlanta, São Paulo, Melbourne, and London have faced serious droughts that threatened their drinking water supplies in the past few decades. Iran, Syria, Somalia, and South Sudan have experienced civil unrest due to poor water management decisions coupled with drought.

Closer to home, the Colorado River Basin has limped through an 18-year drought. There have been some wet periods, but the trend is a declining water supply, and it may be the new normal.

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in America, is less than half full. And the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center predicts this year’s runoff to Lake Powell will be about 50 percent of normal.

Of course, we could have a snowy spring to help — but we also know it could get even drier. While we can hope for the best, we must plan for the worst. We know that places like the Colorado River Basin, Texas, New Mexico and California will continue to experience drier and hotter conditions over time.

Extreme dry periods are no less devastating than other natural disasters. In the Colorado River Basin alone, 40 million people, almost 5 million acres of agricultural lands, a vital recreational economy, energy production and wildlife throughout the region are depending on us to get it right.

There is no silver bullet, but solutions exist that are feasible and necessary to ensure that communities in the U.S. do not find themselves in a water crisis like Cape Town’s. But it requires that stakeholders be proactive.

Every level of government has a responsibility to act. Cities need to foster a water conservation ethic and develop plans for the droughts we know are coming. States, primarily responsible for managing water in the West, should develop policies that promote flexible water systems. And the federal government must demonstrate how innovative water management can reduce conflict, provide secure water supplies, and restore health to rivers that flow through arid lands.

In the past few years, Congress has taken important steps to respond to the historic Western drought by funding programs at the Bureau of Reclamation that build more resilient water systems. The WaterSMART Program improves water infrastructure to sustain communities and irrigated agriculture while also supporting nature.

Producers need reliable supplies of water. Once water is delivered to farms, which is where about 80 percent of water in the West is consumed, conservation programs in the farm bill help producers use water more efficiently and effectively. With a robust conservation title in the farm bill, they can contribute to a more resilient system, too.

Congress should use the annual appropriations process as well as upcoming debates over infrastructure and reauthorization of the farm bill to tie together these on-farm and off-farm solutions.

There’s a lot Congress can do, but it cannot wait.

The farm bill expires in September and important infrastructure legislation is actively moving right now. Given the enormously high stakes, it is critical to ensure those pieces of legislation maximize multiple benefits.

With federal support and action at the state and local levels, we can plan for and manage future droughts — and we can do it with an eye toward protecting our rivers and maintaining a healthy environment while also meeting the needs of our communities.

Providing clean and adequate water supplies is one of the most critical functions a government can play. While the stakes are high, we are all in this together and we must recognize that water is too important to all of us to let politics overwhelm good solutions.

The rivers and lakes we depend on depend on us.

Taylor Hawes is the director of The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program.