More Western water conservation and resilient systems needed now

More Western water conservation and resilient systems needed now
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This weekend, families around the country are adapting plans to celebrate the Fourth of July. Campgrounds, lakes, riverbanks and beaches that teemed with activity last summer will remain bare, as Americans attempt to maintain social distance. In grocery stores, some summer staples are less available due to the crisis. These changes — big and small — underscore how natural resources affect every aspect of our lives. Few things are more important to our economy and way of life than access to clean water.

Across America, our aging water infrastructure is failing to meet the challenges we face. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that Colorado alone needs $10.2 billion in drinking water infrastructure improvements over the next two decades. This threat is made more urgent by the fact that the American Southwest is currently in the midst of a historic megadrought brought on by climate change. 

Fortunately, Congress has the tools needed to strengthen our infrastructure and is beginning to take the steps necessary to do so. This week, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on the Moving Forward Act, a broad infrastructure bill which, if passed, will shore up precarious water infrastructure. The bill sets out a balanced approach and includes measures to expand water recycling and reuse projects, create additional water storage and use a natural infrastructure approach through resiliency and water conservation alongside traditional surface and groundwater approaches. 

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By passing the Moving Forward Act and investing in water infrastructure, Congress can improve the economic outlook for communities around the country. While there are some federal programs that fund projects and approaches to provide multiple water benefits to communities of water users, investing in the nation’s economic recovery provides an opportunity to solve more problems for the future while putting people back to work.

Research shows that every $1 spent on water infrastructure in the U.S. generates $3 to the private economy. That’s just one reason why 4 in 5 Americans support increasing investment in water infrastructure. Because investing in water infrastructure also means investing in and protecting the health of our rivers and streams — and in turn, our economies. 

In states like Colorado and Arizona, rivers and streams fuel a vibrant outdoor recreation industry that underpins their economies. From boating and rafting to fishing and swimming, recreational activities on waterways are the sources of entire industries and thousands of jobs. In Arizona, a study from the National Audubon Society found that water-based outdoor recreation generates nearly $14 billion annually in economic output. Also, a just-released study by Business For Water Stewardship finds that in Colorado, water-based recreation generates $18 billion annually, and supports over 131,000 jobs.

The water in our rivers is essential to more than just recreation. Farmers depend on reliable water to irrigate their crops, which provide critical food supplies to millions of Americans. In the fast growing Southwest, cities and communities need reliable water supplies to sustain their economies. Against the backdrop of growing populations and increasing drought due to unchecked climate change, the future of our water supplies is anything but secure. 

Scientists in the Southwest now talk about a “hot drought” where rising temperatures, rather than changes to precipitation, are likely to decrease the amount of water flowing in rivers and available for use by cities or farms. These extreme conditions mean increased uncertainty over water supplies, which in turn have enormous effects, increasing risk for businesses and communities alike. By investing in water infrastructure, including water conservation programs, efficiency projects, revamped land-use policies, sustainable agriculture practices, watershed protection plans and more, we can reduce risk and ensure that our communities are sustainable in the long-term. 

Lawmakers have a responsibility to protect our water supplies and ensure the long-term resiliency of our country’s economy. We applaud the House for recognizing this in the Moving Forward Act – and it is essential that Congress continues to come together and invest in water infrastructure and conservation efforts.

Melinda Kassen is senior counsel at Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Julie Hill-Gabriel is vice president at Water Conservation at the National Audubon Society.