Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Water Conservation's Secondary Benefits

One of the often overlooked benefits to water conservation, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, gets some coverage today. According to the Las Vegas Sun:

Energy experts across the country are starting to look at just how the nation’s water supply systems affect electricity consumption, the strain they put on grids and the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that come from the treatment and transporting of water. It was one of the topics at the 2009 Water Smart Innovations conference held in Las Vegas this month.

About 25 percent of America’s electricity goes to moving and treating water, according to a 2005 California Energy Commission report.

One state is leading the way on dealing with this issue and will hopefully serve as an example for others to follow:
California passed a law three years ago that is aimed, in part, at the electricity burned to move and treat water. The legislation requires greenhouse gas reduction for water utilities, which have been instructed to make their operations more energy efficient and to incorporate renewable energy. With population growth, demand for water and water treatment are expected to grow. At the same time water treatment standards are expected to become stricter. That all adds up to a prediction that the energy demand for water will continue to grow significantly.
With climate change legislation looming on the horizon, southwestern states in particular will need to address this issue in the near future. Las Vegas could benefit greatly considering that the "amount of electricity used to move and treat water in Southern Nevada annually is enough to power the entire valley several times over."

Fortunately, managers of the area's water utilities are aware of the issue and working towards moving to more sustainable energy sources.

Henderson plans to have the first local wastewater treatment facility using renewable power. The city recently got federal funding to build a 4-megawatt solar installation to help power its wastewater treatment facilities and to install turbines in some of its downhill-sloping water pipes to generate electricity emission-free from the flowing water.

They've also acknowledged that new, mulit-billion dollar infrastructure projects aren't the only component of the solution and are encouraging residents to get on board and implement common sense water conservation measures. After all, less water used translates directly into reduced costs, reduced electrical use and generation, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Or as they put it:
Those changes could do a lot more good — in many more ways — than most people realize.


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Ecology must find way to approve irrigation trial

We live in a region surrounded by water. Three major rivers come together right in the Tri-Cities. Most of us cross them several times a week.

With all that water flowing past, it seems counterintuitive that there's always a fight when farmers need to draw more water from the rivers.

The state Department of Ecology would tell you it's not that simple, and antiquated water laws support the department's position.

The most recent battle has some interesting twists.

The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association and the state made what farmers thought was an agreement to increase the number of irrigated acres of farm land in the Mid-Columbia.

The deal was part of a landmark water bill approved by the Legislature in 2006, but in the four years since, not a single acre of irrigated land has been added, and it looks as if the two sides are more polarized than ever.

The back story is that there had been a decades-long backlog of water rights applications. That legal dispute appeared to be resolved with the much-touted Columbia River Water Management Act in 2006.

The wide-ranging package provided $200 million to create new water supplies for farms and cities in Central and Eastern Washington.

The legislation is doing some good, without a doubt. The state's focus on helping farmers in the Odessa Aquifer promises real results.

But the legislation also allows its members to use water saved through conservation efforts to irrigate new ground.

Farmers around here have long practiced water conservation. While there are economic incentives to use less water, there's also the farmer's role as a good steward of the land. Water conservation offers short- and long-term benefits to farmers.

It isn't rational or equitable to punish farmers for good practices. By making sound farming and good management a detriment to long-term water rights, the law encourages waste. Some irrigators are frustrated enough to consider dropping future conservation efforts.

Farmers can show that best management practices cut water use by at least 17 percent, probably more.

But the state argues that any irrigation water not needed by crops would return to the river anyway, either as runoff or evaporation. Leaving it in the river in the first place, instead of overwatering, doesn't actually save water, according to the argument.

Irrigators don't buy it. Water that's never pumped from the river provides a clear benefit for fish and downstream users. Extra water poured on the field may never get back to the river or percolate through the basalt for centuries, the farmers say.

For their part, the farmers have proposed a pilot project that would allow a few farmers to use half of the water saved by best conservation practices and spread it to new lands.

The Department of Ecology has proved it can find reasons to reject the proposal.

State officials need to instead begin looking for ways to make it happen. Water reforms shouldn't leave irrigated farmers on the Snake and Columbia rivers high and dry.

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