2012 ANNUAL WATERWISE WATER CONSERVATION SUMMIT
Denver, Colorado, October 19, 2012
At the 2012 Colorado Conservation Summit, a variety of speakers from Colorado’s water community presented on a diverse range of topics. These presentations covered issues including the current state of Colorado’s water supplies, recent water conservation policy and legislation, new water fixture technology, drought planning, and the political impact of revenue loss on water conservation programs.
Drought Parallels and Lessons Learned: 2002 to 2012
In the afternoon, the speakers began to focus on the impacts of drought on Colorado. Nolan Doesken, climatologist for the Colorado Climate Center (“CCC”), presented the topic of progress and challenges in Colorado’s climate variability. He focused on the parallels and lessons learned from both the 2002 and 2012 droughts in Colorado. Both years experienced similar annual precipitation well below the seventeen-inch state average yet Doesken stressed how Colorado is currently more prepared than in 2002 because of lessons learned from the recent 2002 drought. In contrast, the last major drought before 2002 occurred over two decades before, in 1980. Doesken explained that the wet 1990s gave the state a false sense of security and the 2002 drought forced municipalities to reevaluate their water use demands. Even giving the preparedness today, however, Doesken cautioned that utilities in 2002 could meet the increased demand because state reservoir levels were stable. The less extreme temperatures and lower evapotranspiration rates allowed reservoir levels to maintain stability in 2002 whereas today the reservoir levels are much more variable.
Doesken then described CCC’s system of agricultural weather stations used to provide temperature and precipitation data across the state. He noted that providing a constant water supply through variable drought years presents a very difficult challenge for municipalities hoping to encourage water users to become more willing and flexible in their water uses. Municipalities often attempt to appropriately reflect the reality of surrounding environmental conditions with their water use, but this does not often translate to the end users and households using water. Utilities continually face the challenge of meeting increased water demand pressures during droughts with depressed water supplies and Doesken expressed a desire for those in attendance to consider a historical perspective of how to approach water supply and demand conditions in a drought.
National Themes in Water Efficiency: Revenue Loss and Its Political Impacts on Conservation Programs
Mary Ann Dickinson, founder and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, presented the final talk of the conference and discussed, from a national perspective, water utilities’ inadvertent revenue loss due to successful water conservation measures. Dickinson explained that decreased water usage caused by water conservation, reduction of new construction projects, and increased home foreclosures all combine to reduce overall water sales and revenue. The decreased water consumption is catching many municipalities off-guard and forcing many to increase the price of water and cut most discretionary costs, such as water conservation programs.
Dickinson argued that the political process further complicates the problem because unhappy water consumers are demanding reduced water prices from their political representatives. Although the cost of water continues to rise faster than any other basic utility, political officials are failing to adequately increase water rates to adjust for increased costs. Instead of incrementally increasing water rates every two to three years, political pressure has postponed adjustments based on political cycle. Aging municipal water systems are forcing officials to make drastic adjustments, often a decade’s worth of budget increases all at once, in order to keep municipal systems financially viable. Dickinson explained that many political representatives must decide between yielding to their constituents’ pleas to keep water prices down and alienating their constituents by raising water prices during a recession. Because consumers today do not fully understand the true cost of water, educating consumers about infrastructure costs in concert with detailed adjustment plans from municipalities should help take adverse pressure off political representatives, allowing them to develop better long-term solutions.