One key takeaway: The situation around water is dire – more dire than it has ever been before.
Yet, as the fourth annual CSU Spur Water in the West Symposium convened experts from across the country on Nov. 3, the focus was on learning from one another’s successes and finding solutions at scale to water issues.
“As in past years, the symposium will touch on the challenges that face us in water, but we won’t dwell there – instead we’ll spend most of our time on the solutions to these challenges. This year we have the opportunity to link these solutions to one another in specific ways – across scales at which these solutions have been applied to-date,” said Dr. Tony Frank, chancellor of the CSU System. “Our hope is that today you will listen with an ear toward features of water solutions that you might be able to apply at the scale at which you work.”
The Water in the West Symposium was launched in 2018 as an early offering of the CSU Spur campus, set to open its first public-facing building in Denver this January. The Symposium is an example of the kinds of convenings and conversations that will happen at the CSU Spur campus.
The 2021 Symposium, hosted virtually, began with CSU Native American Cultural Center Director Ty Smith sharing the CSU Land Acknowledgment, recognizing that the lands of the university’s founding came at a dire cost to Native Nations, and sharing a commitment toward education and inclusion.
Water is a common thread
Water connects all things, all people, all lands. It’s at the heart of basic human needs of water, food, habitability, equity … and there is much work to be done.
Keynote speaker Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for Water and Science for the U.S. Department of the Interior, noted that nearly 90% of the West is experiencing some level of drought conditions – with Lake Mead and Lake Powell making recent headlines for being at all-time lows – and that water issues require collaborative solutions and solutions that have a “solid foundation in science.”
Water solutions also require ongoing optimism, perseverance, patience, and a focus on relationship building – “we’re looking for win-wins and patience,” she said.
“We have seen over the past 20 years great examples of being able to work among constituencies in individual states and to determine solutions to conflicts from an interstate perspective,” Trujillo said.
“The Colorado River Basin is one where we have been able to bring diametrically opposed perspectives together.”
Water in Climate & Equity
Climate challenges and equity often go hand-in-hand, and Symposium panelists reiterated that water is no different.
Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, outlined the efforts of Metropolitan and noted the focus on sustainability and climate resiliency and efforts to build the plans into a holistic One Water infrastructure. Water recycling is the future, he noted – showcasing that they are building one of the largest water recycling programs in the nation – recycling, reusing, and returning water to the ground – which will create 150 million gallons of recycled water a day, equivalent to water for 500,000 households. It’s a regional solution that California, Southern Nevada, and Arizona are collaborating on, and the federal government is helping to fund.
Metropolitan covers 5,200 square miles and six counties, which include diverse and underserved communities.
“I believe strongly that we need to do something that can help everyone. And to me the future is One Water — One Water is a holistic solution, a solution that brings everyone together,” Hagekhalil said.
Andrew Lee, acting general manager, Seattle Public Utilities, reiterated that point.
“Community centered, One Water, zero waste, that’s the heart of our statement. We believe that water and wastewater services are a platform for greater social good,” Lee said, acknowledging that equity work is a constant learning process of empowering voices, listening to people, and finding places where underrepresented communities have power to make decisions that impact them.
“Equity is at the heart of all of it,” he continued.
Water, while seemingly accessible to all, is actually an area where equity is a large issue.
Native American homes are 19 times more likely than white homes to lack indoor plumbing; Black and Latinx homes are twice as likely to not have drinking water, said Bidtah Becker, associate attorney of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. She noted that there have been some successes when it comes to Tribal water but shared that she has unprecedented hope for the future.
In addition to subsidizing residential water usage, the biggest outcomes can come through policy changes, John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, noted. He said that Nevada expects its gallons per capita/day to increase by nine gallons, simply due to the increasing temperatures.
“We’ve added over 800,000 new residences to Southern Nevada, using 23% less water in that same timeframe— and we’re not done yet,” he said. “In the next five years, the Nevada Legislative Assembly Bill 356 will prohibit the use of Colorado River water for watering nonfunctional turf.”
Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director of the National Audubon Society, showed a photo of the dried-up Colorado River Delta.
“Not everyone fully appreciates that the Colorado River trickles to its end in the sand between the U.S. and Mexico,” Pitt said. “It’s the beginning of the end of the Colorado River’s Delta.”
The Colorado Water Plan brings a shared vision to water and water in Colorado, which is designed to be a living document that will seek input on its next version in June 2022.
“We did imagine that the future would look different than the past,” said Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board Becky Mitchell. “Colorado has to come together to solve its challenges.”
“These are challenging times,” Mitchell said. “[For instance] we also want to avoid the risk of curtailment in the upper Basin, because if there is a curtailment situation on the Colorado River, every Coloradan will be affected whether they know it or not. That would have a heavy impact economically, socioeconomically.”
While the issues are clear and vast, panelists – whether from national, regional, state, or local interests – reiterated the importance of innovating on the path toward increasingly smarter and more sustainable solutions, and of working together and using learnings from each other to scale these solutions.
“By putting more than just the usual suspects … by including other stakeholders at the table, the solution sets grew because we had more to talk about,” Pitt said. “Adaptation in this Basin, creating climate resilience, is going to take a generational investment, no question about it.”
About CSU Spur
In 2022, the CSU System will open CSU Spur, a new education destination in Denver located at the National Western Center. CSU Spur’s three buildings will focus on water, food, and health and will connect K-12 students and visitors to experiential education opportunities. Spur is where learning is open and accessible to all. Where researchers tackle the world’s most pressing problems around water, food and health. Where art and culture challenge and surround you. Where rural and urban, local and global intersect. Learn more at csuspur.org.