Water 101

A Spring evening at colorful Maroon Lake, with Maroon Bells rising in the background, Aspen, Colorado, USA. (Photo: iStock - SeanXu)

Q&A with Colorado Water Center Director John Tracy

Ahead of World Water Day on March 22, John Tracy, director of the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University, previously shared answers to common water questions – and his main concern for the future of water in the United States.  

One thing he isn’t worried about: water supply. There’s plenty to go around, as long as it’s used wisely. However, water infrastructure, workforce and education are all real issues, he said.  

As water users, we are all decision-makers. The Colorado Water Center is working to educate Coloradans, Tracy said, so they have a basic understanding of water resources and can productively participate in water decisions.  

Is there a water shortage in the United States?

It depends on how you define shortage. Is there enough water for everybody to use water in a way without thinking about it? No, there’s not enough. Is there enough water to keep everybody healthy, happy and productive – both economically and socially – as well as the ecosystems? Absolutely, yes, there is enough.

Do you recommend filtering drinking water?

For any water utility that’s meeting EPA requirements for the Safe Drinking Water Act, I’d say it’s pointless. 

When you filter water, you’re filtering out all kinds of things, including minerals and different constituents that affect the taste. Some of those constituents might make the water taste bad, but others you might want in your water. In New York City, people swear that the city’s water is why their bagels are so good, and there’s some validity to this argument. 

If you’re in a situation where the pipes are old and that’s affecting the water, maybe it’s not a bad idea. But just blanketly filtering water without knowing what water’s coming out of your pipes is a ridiculous expense.

In general, the water supply for most cities in the United States is very good quality, and there’s no reason to filter it. And actually, there might be some things that detract from the value of the water if you do filter it. 

What is the biggest water issue in the United States?

The biggest issue is the water workforce. It is a nondiverse, aging workforce. We’re running into problems filling positions, and it is a problem across the nation. 

When we look at the biggest water failures – the Flint, Michigan, failure was actually a failure of water workforce. In essence, they didn’t have someone making this decision of switching a water source and knowing what was going to happen. They didn’t test the water quality when they switched the source. They had someone in a decision-making position that didn’t know what the outcomes would be, and they should have. That means they didn’t have the right people in the workforce. 

About 75% of the water workforce is a white male over 50, and that is a shrinking part of the population. We need to expand the pool of people interested in working in water. We can have all the technological interventions we want, we can have all the scientific understanding, but if you don’t have an educated workforce that knows what to do with that knowledge, it’s pointless. 

How do we go about finding and educating a new wave of workers?

First, there needs to be more outreach into K through 12 programs and into a much more diverse range of schools to talk to students about what it means to be part of the water workforce. By the time students get to college, if they don’t have a preconceived notion that this is an option, they don’t even know it exists.  

The second level comes down to having more of a coordinated effort when students are getting out of high school and being able to identify where they can go. For example, you don’t need a college degree to be a water treatment plant operator. You can get a credential, and maybe that’s what they want to do and move up that way. For somebody who doesn’t see themselves as an engineer, there are lots of other pathways. 

Then once we do get into higher education, I think there needs to be a fundamental change in how we teach society about water. I think there needs to be an introductory, core-level course – like we teach about English and history – a basic course that says these are all the elements of water, and then students can go into the specialties if they want to. Even if they don’t, they should have some general understanding. There are economic, legal and social aspects that really are important for understanding our water systems, and even if somebody doesn’t see themselves as a water professional, they go home and turn on the faucet. They are part of the water community. They’re making decisions on water. 

What is the outlook for water in the U.S. West?

Not as dire as people say it is. There are some realities that everybody needs to adjust to. Colorado is growing faster than the rest of the West on average, and the West is growing faster than the rest of the United States. The vast majority of this population is going to settle in metropolitan areas, so the reality is that we’re going to be converting more farmland and rangeland into cities, and it isn’t a question of stopping it. It’s a question of doing it in a sensible fashion. The conversation needs to be, how do we do this and maintain the quality of life? 

The second reality is there’s going to be an expectation from people coming into Colorado and the West that water is going to be part of the recreational opportunities. This is why people come to Colorado. They want to fly-fish; they want to go to the high-elevation reservoirs. So, we have to figure out how we are going to have this as a recreational amenity and provide water for cities and agriculture. There are ways to do it, but you have to think through how it all works together and not just say, recreation was here last, so it’s last in line, because access to that is part of what drives people to the state. 

Colorado is one of the few Western states that does not make rivers public access. In most Western states, you’re allowed to float down a river even if you’re adjacent to someone’s property; it’s still public access. Not in Colorado. Those are the types of things that have to be policy considerations, because with a bigger incoming population comes greater expectations of access to this resource and more stress on water management.  

The water is owned by the people of Colorado. It’s not private property. It is public property owned by Colorado, so the public can get together and start forcing these changes. 

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What’s the biggest waste of water, or where is there the most opportunity for water savings? 

From a global perspective, water operates in a cycle, and all the water in the world has existed forever; it’s just constantly moving between places and phases. There’s no such thing as a global water shortage. It is a lot of local issues that are happening at various locations around the globe. 

I think the biggest thing that needs to change is our perspective – becoming very conscious of the value proposition of water use. What value are you getting out of how you use your water? If people think about it from that perspective, you’ll start seeing a whole lot of changes in water behavior. 

We’re to the point now where there’s so much competition for water that everybody needs to start thinking about investing in how they view water management, what their value system is, and then align their water use to match that value system. 

What can the individual do to use water wisely?

Just become very conscious of your value relationship with water, and then make your decisions on water use based on those values. 

The Colorado Water Center at CSU is one of 54 Water Resources Research Institutes created by the Water Resources Act of 1964, which collectively form the National Institutes for Water Resources. The center is focused on outreach and engagement, with programs supporting agricultural water management, water workforce development and water equity. 

Water Workforce Summit

The Colorado Water Center will host a gathering April 2 in Denver to identify Colorado’s most urgent water workforce needs and education/training gaps, connect sectors and organizations, and outline next steps for water workforce development. A Water Career and Education Fair will be held April 3 at the CSU Spur campus to connect students with water-related employment and training opportunities. The summit is geared toward water industry members and employers, water-related educators, workforce development specialists and students. Visit the Water Workforce Summit website for more information or to register.