[Editor's Note: The following is a guest post by John Sanderson, The Nature Conservancy's director of conservation science in Colorado.]

By John Sanderson

The greening grass that is my small front lawn tells me the warmer days are here to stay. Today is also the day when residents of Fort Collins, Colorado, where I live, begin watering restrictions. Since my house’s street number is 1012, I can water my lawn only on Thursdays and Sundays.

Denver has done the same, setting a goal of saving 16 billion gallons of water in the next 12 months.

That’s roughly 25,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Where my brother lives, in Lake County, Illinois, where annual precipitation exceeds 36 inches per year, watering restrictions are nothing new. He can water his lawn only every other day, and never between 10 AM and 6 PM. Why? Because his water supplier knows that even once-mighty waterways like the Colorado River are in trouble, and the supplier wants to avoid that fate for the Great Lakes.

The emptying of the Colorado River begins just 40 miles west of Fort Collins. That mighty river is shipped through tunnels and over mountain passes to provide water to Denver and other growing cities.

Ironically, in this water-scarce region (14 inches rain per year), we are asked to limit our lawn watering only in the most extreme years. The last extreme year was 2002. By some reckoning, the current drought has lasted since 2000. Some view the drought and accompanying warmer temperatures as clear evidence of climate change. It may be. But you don’t have to invoke climate change to know that the western U.S. experiences severe droughts.

In a remarkable series of studies, scientists have used tree rings to reconstruct river flows going back over 1200 years. These studies tell us that there have been several droughts over the centuries that have been more severe than the current one, and at least one — the drought that dispersed the Anasazi — that was far deeper and longer than anything we have seen in the past century.

The current drought is already having terrible repercussions for today’s farmers. Many will be planting only half their usual crops this year.The drought has affected our rivers, too. Yesterday, as we enjoyed a Sunday stroll along the Cache la Poudre River, my young daughter decided to stroll in the river. She barely wetted her ankles. You would probably guess that if her ankles are barely wet, the fish aren’t doing well. And that’s not counting the places along the river where a diversion currently takes every last drop out of the river.

Every time we turn on our faucet or shower in Fort Collins or Denver, we are taking water out of a river. With a population expected to double in the coming decades and a finite (or shrinking) water supply, this year is a stark reminder that it’s up to us to chart a new, smarter course toward meeting the future needs of our cities if we also want to protect rivers we love.

What steps are YOU taking to conserve water this spring? Share you tips in the comments section below.

[Image: Lawn care. Image source: Trevor Manternach/Flickr via a Creative Commons license]

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Comments

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  2. We guiltily harvest rainwater too, even though we know it robs valuable groundwater recharge from our local aquifer. From the aquifer, that water would have flowed into the Missouri River instead of onto our garden. Sorry, Mighty Mo!

  3. What, if anything, can be done to improve the efficiency of irrigation for agriculture? Is drip irrigation not a partial solution? It seems to me the use of ditches and such for irrigation must lead to a lot of evaporation in the southwestern climate. Also, my understanding from reading about micro irrigation technology is that the problem of run-off with fertilizer pollutants is also a plus.
    Also, I heard that subsidies to agriculture create a disincentive for more thoughtful irrigation practices.

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