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Thinking about Water: Sustainability and Climate Change (3)

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 6:57 PM GMT on September 11, 2011

Thinking about Water: Sustainability and Climate Change (3)

In the past two articles (Sustainability 1, Sustainability 2) I have been exploring the relation between climate change and sustainability. There are a couple of issues that floated to the top. The first is that both climate change and sustainability have complex and difficult issues of communication. For example, if an organization takes a strident and dogmatic position on a single issue, in my example, compostable plastic cups, then the important points about sustainability can be lost in a way that, bluntly, looks silly - and that is definitely damaging to advancing sustainability. The same is true for climate change. The second issue is that central to both sustainability and climate change is waste management – and in the particular case of plastic waste and carbon dioxide emissions there are some interesting parallels. The third is that there are practices in the sustainability movement that are not obviously “good” in the realm of addressing global warming. Ultimately, to address climate change we have to find sources of energy that do not emit carbon dioxide when energy is used.

In this entry, I want to visit the issues of water resources and sustainability and climate change; my primary purpose is to explore more fully the issues of communication, perspectives, and perhaps lumping people together into social and political groups.

In August I took a one-day course on grasslands and the reclamation of prairie land. Throughout eastern Colorado there are efforts to return farmland to natural prairie. Eastern Colorado is very dry, and in fact, southeastern Colorado was at the heart of the Dust Bowl ( an old dusty blog). To support crops such as sugar beets, corn, and Rocky Ford Cantaloupes, water for irrigation is required. The South Platte and Arkansas River watersheds are completely managed. If you drive the dirt roads through un-irrigated land, you see cholla growing.

The grasslands course that I took went to several fields where natural prairie grasses were being planted. Simply, this is agricultural land. If the land is abandoned, then all sorts of weeds, some of them considered pernicious invasive species, take over. That is, if there is some water. If there is no water then the land dries out and blows away. In the spirit of good land stewardship, grass seed are planted and the land is irrigated for a prescribed number of years. In this way, the broadleaf weeds grow first, the grass sprouts and takes hold, and then in five years the tough dry-lands grasses are left to fend for themselves – or perhaps used as rangelands. This appears to me to be good land management, sustainable perhaps, but I am not an ecosystems expert and if there are underlying problems with this, then I hope some readers will let me know.

What is the motivation for this return to prairie? The primary motivation is the capture of water for the cities along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains (Thirsty Cities, Dry Farms). So this might challenge some people’s notion of sustainability, especially those who couch the problem in terms of cantaloupes for suburban lawns.

But I don’t want to frame this in terms of suburban lawns. Denver Water is a large water owner in Colorado, and they have been long-time advocates for water conservation. In fact, if you look at most large U.S. West cities, their water consumption per person has gone down tremendously for the past decade or two. The population, their customer base, has gone up. Looking to a future with more people and a robust economy, water is important, so they are buying up water and water rights. These water rights, often, were originally for agriculture. Again this seems likes sensible, responsible behavior. From the point of view of sustainability, the fundamental problem is a lot of people in a dry land. But just to the west of Denver are the Rockies and they collect, or at least they always have collected – they collect water, store it snow and it flows down to the Plains in the summer. (Perhaps assisted by large tunnels and aqueducts – a good Latin word.)

So climate change – this is a blog about climate change. I started this series of blogs at the county fair. There were science exhibits, and a display on climate-wise gardening. There was a lot of attention to garbage; it was a zero-waste event. There was an exhibit and lecture on irrigation, with, of course, some discussion of stressed and contentious water resources. In one of the discussions I had, I brought up the climate-wise gardening exhibit, and the immediate response was that they did not think that climate change was a very important issue with regards to water for county farm land.

From the point of view of a farmer in eastern Colorado, the weather has always been an unreliable partner. You simply cannot count on water falling from the sky. When the farmer hears someone talking about climate change and the growing unreliability of water, they feel that they already have a large knowledge base about unreliable water. Already, they don’t count on the weather. If it rains, well, that is good fortune that means a little less irrigation or a little more corn. If you look at what affects the farmer’s water, it is cities buying up water rights at the head of the stream, in the mountains. The purchase of water, or more generally, water rights, water policy, and water engineering have a FAR greater impact than climate change. So if you are a farmer in eastern Colorado, the threat offered by climate change is pretty far down the list of risks.

The farmer’s climate risk is then influenced by, say, the cost of fuel. If you are reliant upon fossil fuels to pump water for your irrigation, then the increased cost of that fossil fuel to address climate change, that is threatening their water a few decades down the road – well it does not make a lot of sense. Ultimately, if it is the political will that matters, then the political support for climate change policy does not follow intuitively from their experiences. Plus, if you are a farmer in eastern Colorado, you likely sit on top of some oil or natural gas and with those high prices, and there’s a nice source of steady income – to replace the income lost because the water is being taken away by the city. That climate change is not a major environmental issue is not a surprise, and at least on the surface of policy options, much of what we propose to do about climate change does not appear to be in the farmer’s self interest.

So that’s one perspective of climate change. For another look at Denver Water. Denver Water looks at the mountains to their west, millions of people, and planning 50 years ahead. They look at cities that want to grow; towns that want to attract new businesses. They look across a large region. They look at changing seasonal supplies. Denver Water is one of the utilities that is most concerned about climate change. (Drought and Climate Change from Denver Water) The size of the problems Denver Water care about is large enough that climate change matters and is small enough that the climate projections, what will actually happen, is highly uncertain. They are prepared for the future, if the future looks like the past. But what if that future is different? The smart way to address such ambiguous risk is to buy more of the resource that you need.

I want to end with the grass tour. As we rode around in a bus looking at fields, you cannot help but be impressed by the presence of solar panels in those fields. Even if climate change is not a front-burner issue, energy, energy cost, energy access, energy reliability is.


Figure 1: From Rocky Mountain Climate Organization which works “to protect the West and its climate, by bringing about action to reduce heat-trapping pollution and to prepare for the changes that are coming.”

Climate Change Sustainability

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.