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In the West, Climate and Energy Policy Is Water Policy

Posted: 07/19/10 12:36 PM ET

As the West continues to struggle with a decade-long drought, declining river flows have left major storage reservoirs--like Powell and Mead--only 55% full. Whether these important storage vessels will ever be full again is in question as scientists are concluding that the extended droughts of the past may become the norm of the future. So what should we do about this bleak situation?

If we are serious about avoiding the biggest looming crisis of meeting the water needs of the West, we have to understand the energy-water connection and advance clean energy solutions.

A well-designed national climate and clean energy policy is vital to safeguarding the West's water resources--the lifeline of the West's economy and environment. The U.S. Senate must take action to curb carbon pollution. That's a critical step to ensure westerners continue to have clean, safe, reliable water supplies for the future.

The next few weeks are a key window of opportunity. Within that time, the U.S. Senate will make critical decisions that will determine--for many years to come--how our country utilizes our energy resources and revitalizes our economy. The stakes could not be higher. Water is the essential ingredient of life in the West, where we depend on scarce supplies for drinking water, to grow food that feeds our communities, to support a large and growing recreational economy, sustain the environment, and maintain our quality of life.

At the Western Governor's Association meeting last month, Montana's Governor Schweitzer said, "the demand for water across the West is beginning to outstrip supplies, and states have no time to waste in averting a potential crisis." His sentiment is shared by water managers, engineers, irrigators, and millions of others all across the West.

National climate and clean energy polices will play an important role in guiding our energy choices towards more sustainable options. Our energy choices have significant carbon and water implications. Traditional fossil fuel power plants have a large carbon footprint--thus contributing to climate change--and they consume lots of water. Most renewable sources of energy use no freshwater and emit zero carbon.

The figures are compelling - thermoelectric power plants in just 5 southwestern states (CO, AZ, NM, NV, and UT) now consume nearly 300 million gallons of water a day - enough water to meet the consumptive use of the cities of Denver, Albuquerque, and Phoenix, combined. Oil shale, if developed as a transportation fuel, could impose a heavy burden on the water resources of northwestern Colorado, driving it from an agricultural economy to an industrial one.

In contrast, energy efficiency and many forms of renewable energy--such as wind power and solar photovoltaics--use little or no water. And the West sits at the center of tremendous renewable resources. Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada are a hotbed for solar power. Colorado and Wyoming have tremendous wind resources. And many states have geothermal potential.

Westerners are pursuing innovative solutions today, and would be further compelled to action by national climate and clean energy policies. For example, Colorado's 2010 Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act will transition Colorado's oldest, dirtiest coal plants to cleaner sources of energy, and in the process, may free up water now used by the coal plants to instead sustain a reach of the South Platte River that is an important ribbon of life just west of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in north Denver. Transitioning from carbon- and water-intensive sources of energy to clean renewable sources not only protects our air quality, health, and environment, but can also free up new water supplies for the region.

Among other benefits of federal policy, creating an environment of regulatory certainty will enable businesses to invest and innovate on an even playing field. Limiting carbon pollution will provide the most durable, efficient incentive for investments in cleaner energy -- thus leveraging innovation by the private sector, and unleashing lasting investments in a more efficient, stronger economy.

The President's and Senate's strong leadership in putting in place a durable national climate and clean energy policy is essential. Now is the time for action. Our businesses and our nation are poised to lead the race to clean energy innovation in the global marketplace - but we need well-designed policies to ensure strategic investments that protect our environment and strengthen our economy.

Climate and clean energy legislation will accelerate the solutions we need to meet our future needs and maintain the West's prosperity. Renewable energy, energy efficiency, water conservation, water re-use, and finding innovative strategies for transitioning away from the dirtiest, water-thirsty power plants in the region - these are all part of the picture.

These key messages delivered and explained in new report, Protecting the Lifeline of the West: How Climate and Clean Energy Policies Can Safeguard Water, written by Environmental Defense Fund and Western Resource Advocates. It gives more details about why, in the West, climate and clean energy policy is water policy - and why we need the Senate to pass a strong climate and clean energy bill now.