Water is an economic issue, not just an environmental issue

Water is an economic issue, not just an environmental issue
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Congress recently passed landmark, bipartisan legislation to protect the Colorado River system and the nearly one in eight Americans who rely on it for their drinking water and livelihoods. The Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) provides crucial stability for a river system that spans seven states, two countries and supports thousands of American companies, communities and ecosystems across the West.

The region has been buffeted by 20 years of persistent drought. Winter snows this year bring some relief, but the two main reservoirs on the Colorado River are less than half full. Continuing drought would trigger mandatory delivery cuts and could lead to a “shortage” declaration with impacts to our water use and supplies.

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That’s a sobering prospect for a river system that supplies drinking water to nearly 40 million people every year, supports 16 million American jobs, generates $1.4 trillion in economic benefits and irrigates nearly 6 million acres of farmland.

DCP puts safeguards in place to help manage water use now and better deal with a potential shortage. Utah, Arizona and the five other Colorado River basin states wisely chose to include conservation measures in the DCP — and shared in their sacrifice to avoid costly litigation and imposed cuts.

Congress and the states should be commended for this bipartisan, collaborative process. The success of that process also illustrates how business leaders can work with lawmakers to find common ground across the aisle and develop policies safeguarding the natural resources so vital to our regional and national economies.

Recognizing we had to make concessions now to be prepared for when, not if, water levels dropped to “shortage” levels, many companies in Utah and Arizona have already taken voluntary steps to prioritize conservation. For example, the city of Chandler, Ariz., partnered with Intel Corp. to treat wastewater discharge. By using reverse osmosis technology, a new facility in Chandler can bring wastewater up to drinking water quality standards for groundwater recharge and community reuse. Intel also invests in onsite water conservation systems that conserve approximately 1.3 billion gallons in Arizona each year. 

In cities throughout the West, local business communities and chambers of commerce have added their voices to key water policy decisions. In Utah, that has meant acknowledging that water is an economic issue, not just an environmental issue, and working to add the business voice to key policy decisions regarding this finite resource. This proactive approach includes pushing for greater investment in the state’s water data, advocating for aggressive conservation through tiered-pricing and helping develop a more adaptive water strategy.

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Businesses have stepped up at the state level, too — in Arizona, the business sector is deeply engaged on water policy, management and efficiencies. Unique among the seven states, Arizona’s drought plan required approval by state lawmakers. Extensive negotiations involving chamber and business leaders, Native American tribes, the agricultural sector, conservation NGOs and others helped build the political will needed for the plan to pass.

DCP is a historic milestone. And its impacts will be felt across the country; demonstrating to other regions how we have been able to manage natural resources in ways that allow our cities to grow, our farmers and ranchers to thrive, and keep the West open for business.

We also recognize DCP is but one, critical step. As we continue to grapple with an increasingly warmer and, likely drier climate, we must remain vigilant and engaged to ensure predictable, reliable water supplies.

Glenn Hamer is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Intel is a corporate member of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce.

Derek Miller is the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber.