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The Power of Water: The biggest threats and successes in our water system right now

With Earth Day approaching on Saturday, April 22, Denver7 along with ABC News are going in-depth on one of our most vital natural resources: water.
Posted: 5:59 PM, Apr 20, 2023
Updated: 2023-07-06 12:39:13-04

DENVER — With Earth Day approaching on Saturday, April 22, Denver7 along with ABC News are going in-depth on one of our most vital natural resources: water.

In this special report entitled the Power of Water we go deeper on these important topics:

  • Fighting water disparities and preserving this resource for underserved communities
  • How testing for lead in Colorado schools and childcare centers works
  • An innovative CSU program helping to recycle, conserve water in our homes
  • The current state of the Colorado River

A wetter-than-normal winter is helping conditions along the Colorado River but it remains the most endangered River in the U.S., according to American Rivers.

The group cites critically low water levels at Lake Powell fueled by high levels of drought in the western U.S.

It has forced the Bureau of Reclamation to limit water releases downstream and that has impacted marine life, recreational beaches and Native American sites. In fact, the Colorado River has been named the most threatened by the organization 12 times since 1991.

So where is the water going? Digging deeper, research published in the journal Nature Sustainably showed 79 percent of water taken from the river is diverted to farms to irrigate crops.

You might be surprised to learn that much of the food they grow doesn't end up on our plates. Instead, it's used to feed livestock.

Breaking down the numbers: 37% of water taken from the river is used to irrigate alfalfa hay, a water thirsty crop that doesn't grow naturally in the southwest.

colorado river crisis.jpg

Another 16% is used to grow grass hay crops and 2% is used to water corn pastures, which is one of the most important feeds for dairy cows.

Another 11% is used to grow cotton and just 3% goes to wheat, which is the number one human consumed crop grown by farmers using water from the Colorado River.

With so much demand for water, the price of water right along the river is skyrocketing, and that has Wall Street taking notice.

By some estimates, Colorado Big Thompson water rights are worth about $73,000 per acre foot right now and you can read more on that below.

Those water rights are owned by farmers and ranchers and cities, but recently those rights have become a popular investment for hedge funds.

While some say it will further drive up the price for water. Others say it's simply an investment.

Colorado River crisis: The 'most endangered' in the U.S.

New building on CSU Spur campus reuses ‘gray water’

Inside the uber chic brand-new Hydro building on the CSU spur campus they are collecting and reusing gray water in a water treatment lab like no other.

“This lab is one-of-a-kind across the country,” explained professor of civil and environmental engineering Sybil Sharvelle who teaches at CSU in Fort Collins and on the CSU Spur campus at the National Western complex in Denver.

“The real driver here is to use local water sources.”

The lab is treating water to be reused right here in the same building.

“Gray water here in this building is water that is collected from showers and faucets,” Sharvelle said.

“So, right here – gray water comes into this tank – this is the treatment tank. And then it gets stored in this tank and then over here – pumps that have some controls and things that are used to pump the water back up to flush toilets with.”

Essentially, water from the sinks and showers in the building flows through pipes to a treatment tank on the first floor. It’s treated, then stored in a separate tank, then pumped out and reused in toilets throughout the building.

“And new development is a great fit for this kind of technology,” Sharvelle said. “Especially multi-residential buildings, where plumbing is stacked, so you can collect all the water and pump it back up for use in various parts of the building. It can be done really efficiently in new development, especially in kind of larger multi-residential buildings.”

This lab has six different water treatment technologies. In addition to the gray water treatment, they also treat raw water from the South Platte River. They treat trucked in water, they treat treated sewer water and they treat roof runoff.

“The roof runoff comes down here and into this tank,” Sharvelle explained. “Then roof water is treated and pumped out to the grounds, so it’ll be used to irrigate this landscape that’s right outside of this lab.”

What’s even more impressive is perhaps the size of this lab.

It’s relatively small, a room that could potentially be incorporated into any new construction or development project at minimal cost to the builder. Some cities like San Francisco are already doing something similar.

Perfecting the technology is key to getting the public and builders to buy in, according to Sharvelle.

“Demonstrations are important though, because when you have new things like this and you’re talking about water at building scale, it makes people nervous,” she said. “So, when you can demonstrate that these work – it gives people a lot of confidence in these kinds of systems.”

The benefits are obvious and potentially endless, reusing water that would otherwise end up in the sewer or downstream.

“Gray water is about 50-60% of the water that we generate at a household,” Sharvelle said. “Just using that alone, we can reduce demand by 50-60%.”

How water is managed in Colorado: The Power of Water

Israel becomes global model for fresh water production

Taking the water conservation conversation a step further in-depth, many countries are turning to Israel of all places for advice.

Even though 60% of Israel is a desert, innovation has made the country a net exporter of water.

Israel’s National Water Carrier established a spine that essentially carries treated water throughout the entire country.

The vein stretches from north to south and is fed by pumping stations, reservoirs and desalination plants.

If Israel relied on fresh water, it would only be able to serve about 50% of its population. But the country has built five desalination plants nationwide, which pull water from the Mediterranean Sea and turn it into freshwater.

Now, Israel produces too much water for its own use, so it exports about 20% of the fresh water it produces to neighboring countries like Jordan.

“I think that 90% of our water is from desalination,” said Gili Elkin, co-founder of ICI Israel. “So, we have at least five plants, very large desalination plants in Israel.

Israel has become a water powerhouse. 96% of wastewater is treated in Israel and more than 85% of that is reused for agriculture. That’s why you can see the desert and how it’s blooming.”

The government in Israel sees its role as very hands-on. It is heavily involved and provides grants to water utilities to adopt new technologies.

Water in the Western U.S.

Water in the west has made headlines recently because of critically low levels along the Colorado River, especially in the lower basin states like California, Arizona, and Nevada.

John Tracy is the director of the Colorado Water Center, one of 54 water centers and institutes in the U.S.

It’s all part of a federal and state partnership managed by the United States Geological Survey.

Tracy says despite recent headlines, he, for one, does not subscribe to the notion that this is a crisis or a problem. Instead, he says we need more collaboration and cooperation in managing our river water.

“First of all, we have to stop considering water a problem in the west,” Tracy said.

“Yes, it’s a limited resource, but I always look at it as a situation that we need to manage – not a problem we need to solve.

Because solving problem is like – “‘Oh, here’s the solution. We’re done. Let’s go home.’ And the reality is – and not just the western U.S. – there are issues related to water quality, sustainable water management, how are we going to sustain our infrastructure and they are never, ever, ever going away.

With increasing populations, we just need to be more engaged with this, and more knowledgeable.” Tracy said.

Management of the Upper Arkansas River Basin

Managers of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District have been managing the resource there since the 1990’s, some of the wettest years on record.

Buena Vista is the driest spot in Colorado, with just 12 inches of annual precipitation.

Yet, Terry Scanga, general manager of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District says his 3,000 square mile district is run very efficiently so water is never a scarcity.

“For example, if you build a home and you had what we call a non-exempt well that you wanted to put in because you didn't have a priority or an exemption under the law, then you would have to augment,” Scanga said.

“So, you can come into our office, you can purchase at a nominal price, a reasonable price, about $4,000 for your home for uses within the home and for some outside irrigation. And then we manage that account for all of your depletions. We make the releases from reservoirs to the river, and so forth so you end up with water that you can use.”

Priority water rights holders in the Upper Arkansas district are ag producers in some municipalities.

Scanga says that water in Colorado is not over-appropriated, but the lower basin states of Arizona and California must be better about not exceeding their annual apportionment.

“At some point, the Bureau of Reclamation has to put their foot down and say, ‘You're only going to get so much,’” Scanga said.

Under the compact, the lower basin states and upper basin states along the Colorado receive about 7.5 million acre feet of water a year, but the lower basin states have exceeded that amount in recent years because of drought, hence the depletion of Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

“We owe the river 75 million acre feet and it’s a 10-year running average,” Scanga said. “So 7.5 million acre feet a year from Colorado to the lower basin states. We’ve actually produced that and have met that target and exceeded it actually. The lower basin states, however, have utilized much more than 7.5 million for a whole bunch of different reasons.”

CBT is like liquid gold

Colorado-Big Thompson water rights – or – what are commonly referred to as CBT water rights are worth tens of thousands of dollars per acre foot.

Experts estimate the value of CBT water is about $75,000 per acre foot right now.

These water rights are owned by farmers, ranchers, municipalities and investors. A recent phenomenon in the water markets includes hedge funds or capital investment firms from New York purchasing CBT and other water rights.

While some say this will only further drive up the price, others say – it’s just an investment.

“What I also like to point out is that Bill Gates has bought up quite a bit of agricultural land,” said John Tracy, executive director of the Colorado Water Center.

“And if you read what he’s saying – that’s going to stay in agricultural production because he feels like that is a good investment. So, it’s entirely possible these firms just see ag production as a good investment. It’s an opportunity, and it’s a hedge against downturns in the economy.”

Tracy also says water laws protect Colorado water from being diverted someplace else, but water can be transferred from ag to municipalities to support urban growth.

ABC News' The Power of Water special coverage features an interactive look at the drought in the West and how climate change is having a wide-reaching impact on water. Explore the coverage here.

Denver7's Russell Haythorn also contributed to this special report.

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