Unless carbon emissions plummet soon, the risk of a region-altering disaster in Arizona and New Mexico will exceed 99 percent (source). That’s the context for the 2nd annual Next Generation Water Summit, Santa Fe April 29-May 1, 2018. The Summit brings together builders, designers, architects and water professionals to share best practices and develop next practices for water conservation and water reuse in the arid Southwest. We interviewed Doug Pushard, one of the conference founders
What are the top water issues of concern?
Drought and population growth are creating a dangerous situation in the Southwest. The population is exploding, projected to grow by upwards of 19 million people by 2030. Yet there are no new sources of water.
In his book Bird on Fire, the New York University sociologist Andrew Ross branded Phoenix the least sustainable city, but it is not alone. We’re in the cross hairs of climate change. Climate change will make this region drier and hotter, which in turn increases the demand for water.
A study in the Journal of Climate shows drought situations facing the Southwest may be the worst seen for the past 2000 years, worse than the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. There is real concern that a “megadrought” could last up to 35 years.
Something has to change! So we have a real sense of urgency – bringing together leaders – from business, politics, and technical experts to find solutions.
What will happen if we continue doing the same things?
It will definitely have both an economic and quality of life impact. Some areas may be less effected due to luck of weather and location; while others will be severely impacted. We’re likely to see a dramatic population and economic decline. This has happened before in the Southwest.
There’s a story worth repeating – back in the 15oo’s, an epidemic swept through the indigenous people. People bled from their face while suffering high fevers, black tongue, vertigo, and severe abdominal pain. Large nodules sometimes appeared behind their ears, which then spread to cover the rest of their face. After several days of hemorrhaging, most who had been infected died. The disease was named cocoliztli, after the Nahautl word for “pest.” The cocoliztli killed 15 million people in the 1540s alone—about 80 percent of the local population. On a demographic basis, it was worse than either the Black Death or the Plague of Justinian. For several centuries, its origin remained a mystery, but now a drought has been found to be a partial explanation of this horrific event.
The 16th century is the last time that the deserts of southern North America experienced a mega-drought. Unfortunately, we may be seeing the beginnings of another one now. More recently, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s emptied the great plains. This event although not solely caused by drought, coincided with some areas experiencing a drought of up to 8 years.
The lack of access to water is likely to do the same in some areas of the west. Cities in the southwest are aware of the drought that is gripping the area and looking for solutions, both long-term and short. At least one city is limiting the types of businesses they want to attract. They are prioritizing low-water businesses over high-water-use businesses.
There’s an online tool from the National Drought Mitigation Center called the US Drought Monitor Map Comparison Slider which shows us what the condition has been in the Southwest since January 4, 2000. The maps are very sobering.
January 4, 2000
April 12, 2018
What should individuals be doing about them? Where do we start?
Some problems can seem so large and overwhelming that we are like deer in the headlights – we freeze! But actions, both big and small, do have an impact. First and foremost, be aware of how much water you and your family use. How does it compare to the average in your community? Set a goal to reduce it by 10% or even 20%! Take the Wyland National Water Conservation Challenge and get started today.
There are many, many small actions that add up quickly. Changing out your toilets for newer ultra-low flush models, will get you almost 10% savings. Or if that is not in your budget, change out the innards of your existing toilet to convert them to a dual flush model. These conversion kits are available at most hardware and plumbing stores and will pay for themselves in water savings in about a year. Big individual actions like installing a greywater or rainwater system for use in your yard, will save you way beyond 10%.
Also, and this is more important than you think, make sure your local officials know you are worried about climate change and the impact on your water supply. Ask to see if your state or community created a Climate Resiliency Plan. If not, why not? These plans may start out as paper-only documents, but now at least the start of plan is in place.
How can businesses make a difference? Local governments? Developers?
Individuals by themselves can make a difference, but we are all in this together. It is going to take individuals and businesses together to really change the water landscape. Many, many green businesses recycle and compost and reduce. These same businesses need to expand their green programs to include water. It is the same principle: reduce and recycle.
Just as with homes, there are many easy changes a business can make to reduce water use. Very high on the list is retrofitting the bathrooms with low-flow fixtures. Given the higher traffic these can get in some establishments (i.e. restaurants, medical clinics), these can have even a greater impact than doing at home.
Recycling water is really the key to extending our water supply, not just years but for decades. Recycling is not just for water utilities it is for everyone. In San Francisco it is required. In the small development of Cloudcroft in New Mexico it is required. These cities are on the leading edge of the next wave. How do we expand this wave in a way that does not negatively impact the economy, the environment, and our neighbors?
Watersheds, aquifiers, and rivers do not know about geographic borders. Saving water in one location is not enough.
You organize the Next Generation Water Summit – can you tell us about the event?
It is about solutions. The Next Generation Water Summit brings together builders, developers, architects, water professionals and policy makers to learn from each other and discuss solutions. It is focused on the Southwest and attendees include professionals from each of the Colorado Basin states (i.e. AZ, CA, CO, NM, NV, TX, UT). Although this region is geographically very diverse, we are all tied together by the Colorado and the Rio Grande Rivers.
The event is at the forefront of creating the forward looking policies land use codes and development practices required to support vibrant economies and reseliency that scale and collaborate from California to Texas.
This year we have luminaries like Nobel Laureate Jonathan Overpeck; US Senator Tom Udall; Dr. Robert Mace, past Director Texas Water Development Board; David Crawford, Executive Director of the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association, Kevin Reidy, Water Conservation Manager for the State of Colorado; Darrel McMaster, the owner with his wife Shauna, of Sustainable Homes where they design and build of Net Zero homes in Texas, Pat Sinicropi, Executive Director of the WateReuse Association; and many others – April 29th – May 1st in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There is a sense of urgency that is beginning to be felt by all of us.
The year’s event is drawing national attention from vendors and organizations like: McCume Foundation, Vulcan, Uponor, and National Tank Outlet.
In many ways this may well be an existential crisis, and we are going to have to step up. Join us!
INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar