Guest Opinion: Day zero is coming – will it be in our lifetime?

When you live in a dry region, there’s nothing more beautiful than the sound of rain. Growing up, I loved hearing a good old- fashioned thunderstorm crashing through the sky. As an adult, living in West Texas for six years meant that I very rarely heard a raindrop hitting the ground. Moving to the San Luis Valley five years ago has been a lesson in waiting nine months of the year for those few weeks when we are blessed with monsoons. I never get tired of watching storm clouds roll in, the sudden drop in pressure, the smell of ozone rising, and then finally, the sweet pitter patter of fat water droplets weaving rivulets through dry soil.

No one who lives in an arid, high alpine desert such as the San Luis Valley takes for granted those short bursts of welcome water, especially not when we know those rainstorms are capricious beasts. In 2017, the Valley received record amounts of rain, enough to put us on the national weather map. In 2018, the parched irrigation ditches and thirsty crops reminded us that once again, Mother Nature had chosen to withhold. Weather patterns, climate change, all of these major events are beyond our control. Humans have ever been at the mercy of weather, that’s why we choose to settle at the bottom of mountains where the snows melt into the rivers if we are in a rain-deprived area. Traditional acequias were built purposely to catch every last bit of snowmelt, direct it onto the crops, and then allow it to continue on its way for downstream neighbors. 

Rain and snow are the only ways that Colorado receives fresh water, and it’s the only water we have for crop irrigation, recreation, and municipal use, which includes the small percentage of water that is considered potable, or drinkable. When the snow doesn’t come and our irrigation ditches in the San Luis Valley suffer, we commiserate with our farmers and ranchers, but it doesn’t stop us from running a hot shower after a sweaty workout, or filling our coffeepot for that sweet jolt of caffeine first thing in the morning. So why should the average community member care?

Day Zero sounds like a high budget action movie starring Hugh Jackman as a single father rescuing his children and the rest of the world from alien invasion. In fact, it is a very real event that has already occurred in areas around the world, most recently and notably in the region of Capetown, South Africa. South Africans realized in the early 1990’s that their area would very soon, as in within 20 years soon, run completely out of water. They were dependent on a system of reservoirs to capture rainfall, which has always been in plentiful supply from the storms off the coast. But years of increasing population, increasing water use, inefficient water storage, and weather patterns that resulted in areas of extreme drought meant that within a very short window of time, the taps would run dry in a city with a population of almost 500,000. City officials moved quickly, and with a date of April 21, 2018 set for Day Zero, prepared water restrictions, conservation measures, and an emergency action plan for the current water supply. Through sheer determination and the cooperation of its thousands of citizens, Capetown narrowly averted a major disaster – but not entirely. Although the date of Day Zero was pushed back to 2019, it hasn’t been completely eliminated. Day Zero is still a very real and very scary reality for Capetown.

Capetown isn’t the first world city to face a water disaster of epic proportions. In 2008, Barcelona, Spain was forced to import water for its citizens after years of unprecedented drought. Other world cities such as New Delhi, Sao Paolo, Mexico City, Istanbul, Tokyo, Beijing, and the closer to home cities of San Diego, Las Vegas, Miami, and San Antonio are facing a drinking water emergency within the next few years (if not months). It isn’t a stretch to say that Denver or other Colorado municipalities could soon join the list. Scaring people into caring about water didn’t work in Capetown’s case, and it shouldn’t be what we in Colorado resort to either. We don’t want to police the water system (that’s what the water courts are for, after all), but we do want to be aware that while water used to be a given for generations – no longer. If you’ve lived in the San Luis Valley for any length of time you’ve already discovered that we don’t see much precipitation. Every bit of water is useful and necessary, whether for agriculture, municipal use, or just to dip our feet into on a hot day. And that’s not even scratching the surface of the needs of vegetation, habitat, and wildlife.

In the next few Roundtable articles, we’ll explore the projects and topics impacting our Rio Grande River Basin, particularly issues that may not be familiar to the average citizen. We welcome questions and comments at [email protected] or we encourage you to attend a Roundtable community meeting generally held on the second Tuesday of the month at 2 p.m. in the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District’s conference room at 623 4th Street in Alamosa. 

In addition, an upcoming water symposium will be hosted by the Salazar del Norte Center at Adams State University’s Richardson and McDaniel Halls on Saturday, February 23rd from 9 a.m.- 4 p.m. Featuring Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser as the keynote speaker, the “State of the Basin” Symposium will focus on water issues relevant to the San Luis Valley. Presenters will include Cleave Simpson of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Craig Cotten, Division 3 Engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, Heather Dutton, San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District manager and Colorado Water Conservation Board Rio Grande representative, and many other water community leaders. The symposium is free, but for more information and to register, please contract Rio de la Vista at [email protected] or 719.850.2255. Pre-registering before February 18th will include lunch. If you have ever used water in the San Luis Valley, even if it was just to wash your face or brush your teeth, please consider attending.

Bethany Howell is executive director of the Rio Grande Watershed Conservation & Education Initiative.