How a small Wyoming town’s water shortages could set an example for other Western towns in the future
This is the second part of a two part series on Rawlins' water shortage. You can listen to the first part here.
Rawlins and Sinclair have recently been facing water shortages as the result of aging and neglected infrastructure, but also drought. Experts suggest that many towns across the West could face similar problems in the future.
What happened in Rawlins?
Rawlins has one main source of water - a natural spring that is not producing the amount of water it used to.
"You walk up to it, and you can hear it, because there's just so much going through it," Stevie Osborne, the City of Rawlins water treatment plant operator, said. "Well, that's not the case right now, because we're not getting that snowpack that we used to."
The water infrastructure is also outdated and has leaks throughout it. This all came to a head in March when many residents turned on their faucets and did not have water, resulting in water restrictions that could likely last for the next five years.
The resounding message from people is that something similar could happen anywhere. It is not just Rawlins.
"I grew up here. So I know that like in Rawlins we took a lot of focus on street infrastructure because it's easy to see," Mira Miller, the community relations coordinator for the city of Rawlins, said. "But I think a lot of towns like us might not have been able to see the water infrastructure problem. So I think it's a wake up call for the state. So please take notice, and figure out what you need to do."
This is the new trend
A lot of towns nationwide have aging infrastructure that is suffering because of drought.
David Sedlak, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, researched the history of America's water delivery systems and how they can adapt in a changing climate.
Sedlak said water infrastructure was initially put in place in the 1800s. People typically settled in areas that did not have enough water naturally present, so they had to have a way to transport water to them. But, over the last 200 years, a lot of those systems have not been maintained.
"And that's the place that many American cities find themselves in today. So this is an issue that is not unique to Rawlins in any means," Sedlak said. "And it's really hard to get the focus that we need on fixing the problem because people aren't interested in it until they're at a point of crisis."
He added that much of the West is undergoing not just a drought, but aridization, which means an increasing trend of drying.
"All of these western parts of the country are running into this problem of the water supply shrinking, and in many cases, the demand continuing to grow," Sedlak said. "And so this is something that, if anything, is going to become more common in the coming decades."
Many smaller towns, like Rawlins, only have one or two main sources of water. Sedlak said some ways towns can address these issues is by diversifying their water sources. Sedlak pointed to some areas in California as an example.
"All of the treated sewage gets cleaned to a point where it can be returned to the drinking water aquifer or sent to a reservoir," he said. "And by recycling our wastewater, we can essentially expand our water supply by close to 50 percent."
Rawlins is in the process of getting funding for a second treatment plant to process dirtier water. But, Sedlak said no matter what, conserving water will always be essential - so things like water restrictions could become the new normal.
Adapting to change in Wyoming
Researchers at the University of Wyoming are in the early stages of studying the impacts of climate change on water resources in the state. Ginger Page, a researcher on the team, said a lot of old infrastructure is losing water that could be useful.
"So getting a handle on those underlying - where the water is now, versus where it might be if we change up our infrastructure is important," Page said. "So whether it's old, dilapidated irrigation structures on the Wind River Reservation, or the need to replace old leaky head gates in the Upper Green."
The hope is to work with community stakeholders in towns across Wyoming to develop a plan for water access as water becomes more scarce.
Corrie Knapp, another researcher on the team, said it is really about being proactive versus reactive, like Rawlins has had to be.
"When we react to anything in a very reactive way, without fore planning, there's usually more damage, more loss, more trade offs that we face, whereas if we can look at some of these changes that we might need to plan for in the future, there are more opportunities for us," Knapp said.
The researchers specifically want to look at how water structure might have to change given reduced snowpack and earlier surface water runoffs in the spring. Page said it could involve addressing leaky systems. They are planning to focus first on areas in western and northern Wyoming to hopefully prepare communities for water shortages and changes in water access in the future.