One of world’s leading authorities outlines water challenges for Steamboat audience

Sandra Postel

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — One of the world’s leading authorities on freshwater issues praised local Yampa River enthusiasts for working together to keep their river healthy, but she said the world has serious freshwater challenges they need to face immediately.

Before she outlined problems and solutions, Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project, made it clear climate change and water are intertwined.

“Unless we deal with the climate issue, we’re going to have a very difficult time dealing with water issues,” Postel told the virtual Seminars at Steamboat audience as part of her talk, “Our Freshwater Future: Building Water Security in a Changing World.”

First, Postel reminded the audience that less than 1% of Earth’s water is fresh and drinkable.

“Water is finite, our demands are not,” said Postel while bringing up her first graphic.

The graphic showed a map of the world where water shortages have become a yearly problem including the central part of America where the Ogallala Aquifer is steadily being depleted by farming. Another hot spot was the Central Valley of California, a major farming area where the groundwater is being dramatically depleted.

“Nearly half of large cities are experiencing periodic water shortages” around the world, Postel said.

She talked about the world’s dams that interrupted natural river flows and how they are harming wildlife and natural habitat. She talked of the world’s wetlands being dredged and filled up. Postel said wetlands are the natural way nature regulates floods, mitigates droughts and stores freshwater. She said they also are key to carbon sequestration that is vital to keeping atmosphere carbon levels from rising.

 “Since 1970, the average abundance of freshwater vertebrate populations worldwide has declined 83%,” Postel said.

For example, if 50 years ago there was a pool of 100 fish and frogs, there would now be only 17 of them left, Postel explained.

“All of these problems we’re seeing require we think differently,” she added. “We need to replenish and repair the water cycle and figure out how to remain prosperous in doing that.”

Solutions include strategic removal of dams to let rivers flow.

“We realized some of these dams are unsafe, causing more harm than good,” Postel said.

She showed a photo of a Washington state dam being removed and how fast wildlife returned to the resulting natural river.

“If we let rivers flow again, they will heal and life will come back,” Postel said.

Managing dams differently and incorporating ecosystem restoration is another solution.

“Getting smarter with how we manage water,” is a big way to save water, Postel said, describing the Verde River in Arizona and how conservationists are working with farmers to make irrigating more efficient. The farmers put in simple solar-powered gates that help them take just the water they need to irrigate crops while not wasting river water. She said they can even use a phone app from their living room to operate the irrigation gates. 

She also said soil health is key since soil can hold eight times more water than all the world’s rivers combined. For example, Postel said farmers need to be incentivized to plant cover crops, which keep living roots in soil making it healthier to hold water.

Most importantly, Postel said all agencies, governments and civilians need to work at a grassroots level to keep rivers healthy.

She also addressed political concerns and what America has done right with conserving water, including the fact that Americans are using 18% less water because of changes in products that use less water like modern toilets.

Many of the topics covered Monday are in Postel’s latest book, “Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity.” Her full talk can be found on along with other public policy guest speakers.

Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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