Officials in Cape Town, South Africa, are gearing up for the possibility they may run out of water this year. Without unanticipated downpours of rain, Cape Town will need to curtail water deliveries to taps as a consequence of an unprecedented shortage of water. This could be the first time in recent history that a modern city runs out of drinkable water.
Cape Town, a city of 4 million people, was known worldwide for its careful management of water and conservation. The New York Times reported that while the city led the world in saving water, it could not escape climate change and drought. The article points out that the city conserved so much water that it postponed looking for new sources. According to the city’s former water department director, “the city’s water conservation strategy, without finding new sources (of water), has been a major contributor to Cape Town’s troubles.” As the city now recognizes, the time to start planning a water project is not when you need it, but years, if not decades, in advance.
Like Cape Town, southern Utah is susceptible to drought. Southern Utah has experienced 12 years of drought during the last two decades. Local reservoir storage has helped the area weather dry times, but the water resources needed to fill the reservoirs have already been tapped.
Also like Cape Town, southern Utah has stretched its limited water supply through conservation. Washington County was the first county in Utah to surpass Gov. Gary Herbert’s 25 percent water conservation goal. From 2000 to 2015, water demand decreased in Washington County more than 30 percent and efforts for additional reductions continue.
Contrary to what happened in Cape Town, however, the state of Utah and water providers in southern Utah have looked ahead and developed a long-term comprehensive water plan that integrates a number of diverse strategies designed to reduce risk and ensure continued prosperity. The comprehensive water plan includes increased conservation, use and development of remaining local supplies, reuse, purchasing agricultural water rights from willing sellers and the Lake Powell Pipeline. The pipeline will divert Colorado River water at Lake Powell and pipe it approximately 140 miles to Kane and Washington counties.
Most of southern Utah’s population currently relies on a single source of water, the Virgin River basin. The system has served the area well, but persistent droughts, wildfires and floods and the risks associated with aging infrastructure, declining water quality and ever-tightening regulations pose serious risks to a single source system. The Lake Powell Pipeline brings a much-needed second source to the area, improving water security and augmenting local supplies in preparation for anticipated future demand.
Some argue the pipeline is too expensive. Ironically, other proposals cost more, provide less water and fail to bring a second source of water to the community.
Running out of water is not cheap and it has serious economic and tourism consequences. It is taking Cape Town a tremendous amount of time and resources to react to the impending disaster.
Southern Utah is taking a proactive approach. The lesson learned from across the globe is that implementing a long-term plan with multiple strategies helps mitigate risk and avoid a crisis.