Blog post

Learning from Colorado's freshwater measures

Published on
February 7, 2013

The rest of the world knows that the Netherlands has a great deal of expertise relating to water. But mightn't this reputation lead to an overestimation of our own abilities? Are we really open to ideas about water management that come from other countries? It's wise to stay aware of international experiences dealing with new solutions (and new information about possible measures) which can solve our imminent freshwater shortage.

With the  Delta Programme (Dutch) we are preparing ourselves for future drought periods, under which agriculture, shipping, and the energy sector will certainly suffer. Although the circumstances sometimes vary in other countries, we can learn from the approach and the choices which others have made in this area and the information they have learned as a result.

In December 2012 a study was released about the Colorado River basin. This study involved calculating the advantages and disadvantages of various measures. Some measures were less conventional than others, but the Netherlands can take advantage of the information gained and utilise the experiences in implementing measures which can be useful to us.

  1. In the southwestern United States, water conservation measures in agriculture cost approximately €0.10 per cubic metre per year and score well in a number of criteria. This water conservation is primarily by means of financial instruments. We can derive a great deal of benefit from the knowledge and experience in implementing water conservation in agriculture (such as the introduction of water rights and registering how much water is conserved);
  2. The reuse of greywater (wastewater that has not been contaminated by any toilet discharge) is a measure being given serious attention. It is estimated that this measure can be implemented within ten years. During this period it will be necessary to adapt the plumbing code and ensure that health concerns are eliminated.

But stakeholders have also come up with less conventional methods for the Colorado River:

  • For instance, importing water to the Colorado River basin has been seriously considered. But importing icebergs is extremely expensive, and removing water from other basins would cost an additional two euros per cubic metre per year. This option also scores poorly in other criteria, such as energy costs, flexibility, and the environment.
  • Another expensive solution would be covering the watercourse in order to prevent evaporation (this would cost nearly ten euros per cubic metre). I came to the same conclusion in my Master's thesis from 1987 regarding creating shade over another river in the United States. However, this option scores well in terms of technology, the environment, and social aspects.

I propose that, just as in the American study, we start by looking also at less conventional measures to address our freshwater issues. Then a brief analysis could be made utilising information from the Netherlands and abroad, presenting a well-founded shortlist of the most attractive measures. Then, in a following step, these measures could be evaluated on the basis of their costs and benefits. The Colorado River study offers new solutions and extra information about these two steps. It is important that we be willing to look beyond our own borders and to learn from the experiences and ideas of others. Have any other projects or analyses been carried out abroad which could be instructive to us in terms of the Delta Programme? I would be happy to receive them at

On 22 March 2013 the Netherlands will be hosting the 2013 World Water Day.