For the next issue of the EmpowerGen Column, I invited Rachel DeStigter to write an article about something she’s passionate about. Rachel is a young leader and dedicated international studies graduate who is seeking to earn a Ph.D. in sociology and perform innovative research on the sociology of neurodiversity. Rachel worked closely with me at Dream Tank as a NextGen Innovation Fellow in our Development department in 2021.
I am delighted to publish Rachel’s article this week. Enjoy!
With great hope and love for water, Heidi
“Why You Should Be Thinking More About Water”
By: Rachel DeStigter
I know that in the age of climate change we young people have more than enough to worry about, but hear me out about water. Water scarcity, especially where I live in Colorado, is a major issue and, like most major issues, I believe it needs more young people to help solve it. I also believe that a huge part of how we fix this issue starts with how we think about water. For this article, I’m going to be talking about the Colorado River, but a lot of this will apply no matter where you live.
Take a moment and think about how you use water
Are you thinking about water bottles and drinking water? What about dishwashing and showers? Those things matter, but they are actually only a small percentage of our water use. If you’re like most American households, your biggest water use is actually watering lawns and gardens 1 . Even that is tiny compared to the amount of water used for agriculture. Of all the water we use each year from the Colorado River, 86% goes to agriculture and over a third of that is for crops to feed livestock like cows and pigs2 .
More ways to think about water
Water is essential for life. Plants and animals, from beavers who dam up mountain streams to desert cacti who store up water in their trunks, have adapted to make the most of their local water sources. We humans also depend on water- it makes up the majority of our bodies after all. Beyond water’s importance to our health, many cultures have spiritual connections to water. You yourself may have been baptized with water, or participated in a rain dance. You and your family have probably also bought water, as a plastic water bottle at a convenience store or a monthly water bill for your home. With so many uses and so many meanings it is impossible to fully explain the value of water, much less figure out how we should best use it. We still have to try though.
How do you think we should use water?
Maybe you’re thinking a bit more now about how you use water and what it means to you and your community. Use the following questions to guide you as you think about how we should use water as a society.
Who should be in charge of managing the water?
- The government?
- Local Communities?
- Water experts?
Who should get to use the water first?
- indigenous people?
- People who grow food?
- People in cities?
What should we do if there is not enough water for everyone?
These are complicated, tricky questions and there is no one right answer. No matter what you were thinking though, you probably came up with something better than the current system of water management that we have for the Colorado River.
What does the current system look like?
If you live in the Southwestern U.S., then your water probably comes from the Colorado River Basin. There are about 40 million of us in total 3 and many more people outside the region who eat food from here, vacation here, or buy things made here. The Colorado River is governed by a complicated mess of laws and agreements. Many of these agreements are old, from back when much fewer people lived here and before we entered a 20+ year, climate change fueled mega drought. They also historically did not include Mexico or any of the indigenous tribes that also depend on the river.
Recently, the states have come back together to renegotiate the Colorado River Compact, a 100-year-old agreement that is at the heart of water rights in the west. During this year’s water negotiations in Boulder, Colorado, seven states sent representatives, and notably, so did 13 tribes 4. Over the past few decades, we have also gotten better at conservation. Environmental advocates have pushed to conserve water for local ecosystems, and in many cases, they have won. There is still a lot of work to do to fix the Colorado River’s water shortage, but it is a start.
Why we need young people
The Western U.S. keeps growing while our water resources shrink. But we still have a lot of water to work with if we can figure out how to use it more wisely and distribute it more fairly. We need innovative solutions and fresh perspectives- two things that young people excel at. More importantly, these are our homes and this is our water. We deserve to have a seat at the negotiating table, especially young people who come from marginalized communities.
What can you do?
- Minimize outdoor water use. Don’t water your lawn as much and if possible, convert to local, low water plants.
- Eat less meat and dairy. Meat, especially beef, takes a lot of water to grow and feed. You don’t have to go vegan or vegetarian if you don’t want to, but even eating a couple vegetarian meals a week or smaller portions of meat helps.
- Learn about water issues. Pay attention to local news articles about water, watch educational videos, and read books about water.
- Think about water. Talk to members of your community, visit local water sources and get inspired. Write a poem, paint something, or put on a performance that shows your perspective.
- Become an Advocate. Connect with local water organizations, support laws and regulations that you believe in, and spread the word in your community.
- Get Creative. The sky is the limit for ways to conserve water, protect wildlife, and make a difference. Create your own invention or organization related to water and find other people to help you develop and promote it.
- Sign up to write an article and share your voice on Dream Tank’s EmpowerGen column and join the ‘EmpowerGen’ Revolution – Dream Tank (wearedreamtank.org)
My Recommendations to Learn More
- “Outdoor Water Use in the United States,” Water Sense: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Wastewater Management, February 14, 2017. https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/www3/watersense/docs/factsheet_outdoor_water_use_508.pdf
- Vox, “Who’s really using up the water in the American West,” YouTube video, 5:54, September 26, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0gN1x6sVTc&ab_channel=Vox
- “Colorado River Basin Fact Sheet” U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, 2016. https://www.usbr.gov/climate/secure/docs/2016secure/factsheet/ColoradoRiverBasinFactSheet.pdf
- Shannon Mullane, “Colorado River officials weigh how to cut water, include tribes ahead of looming negotiations” The Colorado Sun, June 12, 2023. https://coloradosun.com/2023/06/12/colorado-river-negotiations-tribes-top-priorities-2026/