Watershed Council: Preparing Eagle County for the future through resiliency and adaptation planning (column)
Cape Town, South Africa, is counting down the days until “Day Zero,” where city officials will be forced to shut off the municipal water taps to its residents and businesses and implement even further restrictions on water use from about 13 to 6 gallons per day, per person.
Severe restrictions may have recently pushed Day Zero into next year, but Cape Town’s future remains tenuous. In this city of 4 million people, drought, climate change and population growth exasperated the threat of dwindling water resources and escalated a dire situation much quicker than expected.
What’s perhaps less known is that Cape Town has won several international water-management awards in years past. The city reduced per capita water use and implemented conservation measures but failed to plan for precipitation patterns that differed from those seen historically.
The rain stopped in Cape Town in 2015 — it has been in its worst drought for the past three years, and rain (surface water) accounts for 90 percent of the city’s drinking water. The city is exploring the option of desalination for water treatment but will need a bond to do so. The costs will be passed down to the consumer and disproportionately affect low-income populations and communities of color, as Cape Town is one of the most economically inequitable and divided cities in the world.
Cape Town’s reality is an apt example of why sustainable planning doesn’t always cut it. Climate change and population growth, among other variables, introduce shocks with uncertain outcomes into our future, making it necessary to plan for a variety of overlapping scenarios — a new way of thinking called resiliency and adaptation planning. Resiliency is the capacity to reduce exposure, as well as prepare for, recover from and adapt to the direct and indirect effects of climate change.
What does that look like in Eagle County? As the climate warms, our future becomes uncertain. A low snow year such as this year will strain our water resources, putting incredible stress on our aquatic environment and leaving less water in streams for junior water-right holders. Lower snowpack will mean increased prevalence for wildfires, and the subsequent mudslides and erosion will load our rivers with sediment and place higher stress on our water treatment facilities.
A warming climate goes well beyond environmental concerns. We’ve seen smoke impact our more vulnerable populations, and infrastructure damage such as road closures will affect those populations, as well. Protect Our Winters recently released a study that found tourism-based economies such as ours will take a $1 billion hit and cost about 17,400 jobs compared to an average season due to climate change. And without affordable housing, we won’t be able to attract a range of people needed to diversify our economy and buffer against potential shocks.
Too often, the narrative is that these issues cannot be solved. But if we look around the country, we’ll see examples of how communities are taking the initiative to plan ahead, be prepared and come up with innovative solutions.
The city of Portland, Oregon, for example, has a resiliency plan for an unprecedented 500-year flood and the looming 9.0-magnitude earthquake. Boston dove into resiliency planning following the terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon. New Orleans has a visionary plan embracing environmental change, preparedness and equity.
Eagle County has made important strides in establishing a Climate Action Plan in 2016. Our county also has drought and wildfire mitigation plans, as well as source-water protection, watershed and emergency management plans. But a single overarching plan encompassing strategies to minimize risk and establish infrastructure to rebound from a multitude of scenarios does not yet exist.
A local team recently attended the Sonoran Institute’s Community Resiliency Workshop, designed to give communities the tools to develop the framework for a resiliency-action plan in our mountain community. Representatives from the county’s Wildfire Mitigation, Public Health and Sustainable Communities departments, along with a county commissioner and the Eagle River Watershed Council, worked to identify the hazards, risk and how these threats can be opportunities for economic improvement.
The process has only begun and will include a comprehensive process of identifying the values that are most prioritized to our community, a range of scenarios that our community faces and how we can best prepare for them and capitalize upon them. Stay tuned for opportunities for the public to provide input and raise their voice in shaping Eagle County’s future.
Lizzie Schoder is the education and outreach coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406, or visit http://www.erwc.org.