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Can Day Zero happen here?

What the crisis in Cape Town, South Africa, tells us about planning for the future.

There’s a stunning date looming for one of the most water-efficient cities in the world: Day Zero, the time Cape Town runs out of water.

Absent any rain, that day is July 15, when officials will shut off taps in South Africa’s second-largest city, and residents will receive water rations at collection sites throughout the city, a move civic leaders say will wreak havoc on public health and cause chaos throughout the city.

What is Denver Water doing to avoid its own Day Zero? Could it happen here?

“We’re never in control of Mother Nature,” said Dave Bennett, Denver Water’s director of water resource strategy. “But we’re working very hard to make sure we have a secure water future for our customers.”

With that in mind, Denver Water focuses on three strategies to ensure customers always have the water they need.

Conserve, recycle, secure new supply

Cape Town is a model of sustainability and careful water management, according to a recent New York Times article, which said: “The city’s water conservation measures — fixing leaks and old pipes; installing meters and adjusting tariffs — had a powerful impact. Maybe too powerful. The city conserved so much water that it postponed looking for new sources.”

Denver Water's award-winning "Use Only What You Need" campaign helped create awareness to conserve and use water more efficiently.

Denver Water has had a popular water efficiency program for years, but it has always been part of a larger, diversified approach. That includes working to find new uses and customers for recycled water, investigating new ways to store water, like Aquifer Storage and Recovery, encouraging small-scale rainwater capture and responsibly sourcing new supply.

 Plan far, far ahead

Cape Town led the world in embracing water-efficient practices, but it couldn’t escape the effects of climate change and its resulting unpredictable, devastating droughts.

The crisis in Cape Town confirms the importance of our ongoing planning efforts — known as the Integrated Resource Plan, a document on which we rely to keep us focused at least 50 years into the future, said Sarah Dominick, water resource engineer at Denver Water. It’s also why we incorporate climate change into our planning process. Still, there are a wide range of climate change predictions for Colorado, which makes future water-supply planning difficult.

“We’re looking way into the future at a huge portfolio of options and different possible futures,” Dominick said. “We try to consider a range of future prospects through scenario planning — will it be hotter or cooler? Wetter or drier? How will climate change, population growth and the economy affect usage patterns?”

Cooperate with neighbors

Cape Town, like Colorado, has had struggles between agriculture and municipal water users, as well as disputes between neighboring communities over water rights. But in recent years, Colorado has taken significant steps toward mending those disagreements to benefit the entire state.

The landmark Colorado River Cooperative Agreement signed by water interests on both sides of the Continental Divide has resolved disputes and ushered in a new era of cooperation, and Gov. Hickenlooper’s state water plan has set a steady course for the future. Those solutions are taking root – literally and figuratively. Denver Water’s participation in Grand County’s Learning By Doing program has improved stream habitats and the environment, while strengthening relationships among entities throughout Colorado.

It’s also up to customers to protect such an important natural resource, said Jeff Tejral, Denver Water’s efficiency manager, adding that Denver Water will continue to educate and communicate with customers about the importance of using water wisely, especially during droughts. And if Day Zero ever looms on the horizon here, we’ll be warning customers years in advance.

“Looking at our current reservoirs and our capacity to serve customers, we are really well off,” Tejral said. “But you have to work on water resources and planning all the time. You can’t wait for a crisis or it’ll be too late to discuss how to share the last few drops.”