Thursday, November 24, 2011
Who will Control your Water
Fresh water supply poses a real and looming environmental risk. Regional shortages of water will drive decisions that will impact our future.
According to the US Census Bureau there are 312 million people in the United States. The water that exists on the planet is finite, but always moving as part of the water cycle or hydrologic cycle, on, above, and below the surface of the Earth. The good news about water is that “on average” the United States uses less than 8% of the water that falls as precipitation within our borders annually. Unfortunately, precipitation varies from that average significantly on a regional basis and over time, and our need for water is often greatest where there is the least precipitation because of the need for irrigation. In addition, only the cities on the great lakes have adequate precipitation and water storage to supply their population’s water needs, so our urban center have become very used to thinking of appropriating water from nearby regions to the cities.
As population rises, the demand for fresh water for drinking, domestic use, for industry (especially power generation) and for agriculture increases. The demand for food and the water that is essential to produce food grows with population and wealth. Globally, farming is estimated to account for 60% -70% of fresh water use. Irrigated agricultural consumes over 75% of the water in California, which produces 17.6 % of U.S. crops, and 7 % of the U.S. livestock and livestock products. California produces about half of U.S. grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Several of these crops are currently produced only in California. In the United States we have used the various complicated, layered and hidden subsidies within the various “farm bills” and subsidized water to complicate the business of farming and obscure the true costs of food in America.
This past spring, even as the Mississippi River basin was inundated with water, large portions of the arid west were struggling with drought. Farmers in the west pumped groundwater (unsustainably) to produce their crops. Regional water supply and allocation of that water is a growing problem especially in the western states which are arid, dependent on irrigation and have multi-state water right compacts. One of the best known of these Compacts is the 1922 Colorado River Compact, negotiated by the seven basin states (Colorado, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Arizona, California, ) divided the Colorado River basin into upper and lower portions, allotted consumptive use of the Colorado’s water on the basis of territory rather than prior appropriation. Before this agreement was negotiated allocation of water rights (ownership) was based on historic use, first to use the water owned it in perpetuity. In a land where water was wealth and all water was diverted from its natural location, this was how it was done. The allocation of water rights based on territory allowed development to proceed in the lower basin (essentially California) while safeguarding supplies for the upper basin. Then, as now, California's growth and demand for water was viewed with concern by her neighbors.
The problem is that the allocations promised were more than 100% of the water available and the demand for water has exceeded the supply. Specifically, the amount of water allocated under the Colorado Compact was based on an expectation that the river's average flow was 16.4 million acre feet per year. Subsequent tree ring studies, however, have concluded that the long-term average water flow of the Colorado is significantly less. According to the University of Arizona, a better estimate would have been 13.2 million acre feet at the time of the Colorado Compact and the records going back to paleolithic times (more than 10,000 years ago) indicates periods of mega-droughts in the distant past. During the drought of 2001-2006 the Colorado River flow was estimated at 11 million acre feet and hit a low of 6 million acre feet in 2002. The situation was critical bordering on regional rationing when the drought ended. More than 23 million people of the lower basin are at least partially dependent upon the water resources of the Colorado River. Almost 74% of them reside in the greater Los Angeles and San Diego areas. The deep snow pact and rain of last winter in northern California has taken has taken emergency rationing off the table- until the next drought.
Population growth, increased food production and increased power production all consume more and more water. The water available from the Colorado River has not increased with the increased demand and may even be falling. Even without climate change, paleoclimate records show a history of tremendous droughts in the region, and now more than 35 million people (in the upper and lower basins) depend upon the Colorado River’s waters for their water supply. The need for water is always growing. California is the most populous state in the nation and Nevada was identified as the fastest-growing state in the country in the 2010 census growing over 35% since 2000. Despite aggressive conservation activities the region simply does not have enough water to meet the projected demand. Las Vegas, was in the midst of a building boom when the drought hit. While adding 400,000 people they were able to reduce water use by a third by the implementation of draconian conservation measures. This was city and suburban consumption, not agricultural or power generation use of water which is much more difficult to cut.
The states of the Colorado Compact need more water. Overuse is killing the Colorado water basin which suffers from decimated aquatic ecosystems, overdrawn and irreparably damaged groundwater aquifers, and polluted agricultural and urban runoff. California has focused all its attention on developing a plan for reducing carbon dioxide emissions which is unlikely to prevent climate change, but they have failed to develop a workable water budget (or a balanced state budget for that matter). For two decades the Pacific Institute has called for a revamp of river management to protect endangered fish species and critical ecosystem elements, free up water for restoration of the Colorado River delta, and eliminate long-term groundwater overdraft throughout the basin. California and the other Colorado Compact states could not face the simple fact of a limited water supply and ignored the warnings, preferring to think about that tomorrow.
Even the conservation measures implemented in Las Vegas and throughout the region are not enough to ensure the long term water supply. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has requested to build a pipeline to transfer 65 billion gallons of water from northern Nevada to Las Vegas. The state will decide in January whether to proceed with that plan. The project has encountered stiff opposition from conservationists and rural communities against tapping northern groundwater to fuel more growth in southern Nevada. The pressure to push the project forward is off after the large snow pact of last winter inundated the area in the spring thaw and filled Lake Mead for the first time in a decade. Lake Meade sits on the Nevada-Arizona border and was formed in 1935 after the construction of Hoover Dam. Lake Mead and the upstream Lake Powell are the major water storage facilities in the Colorado Compact system. Roughly 96% of Lake Mead's water comes from melted snow in the upper Colorado River basin states: Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming.
Las Vegas is only one small area of the Colorado Compact. Regional politics demands maintaining a vibrant agricultural sector, quenching the thirst of growing urban and suburban, growing economies that also demand water for power and industry, despite the limitations of the water supply. Politicians do not seem able to make the hard choices that will balance their water budgets. Instead the politicians came up with the idea to investigate the “Long-Term Augmentation of the Water Supply of the Colorado River System.” The study commissioned by the Colorado Compact states and the federal government identified 12 long-term augmentation options: desalination of both brackish water and ocean water, coalbed methane produced water, recharging groundwater from other surface sources, reduction of consumptive use of water for power generation, reservoir evaporation reduction, storm water storage, vegetation management, importing water via boat, water reuse, weather modification, and importation of water from the Midwest. Former Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson suggested “compacts” with the great lake states to import water to the drier western states under a federal water Czar. One of the ideas explored by the Southern Nevada Water Authority is to pipe 1,000 cubic feet of water per second from the Mississippi River 1,000 miles west to the Colorado River. They estimated that this aqueduct-pipeline would cost $11.4 billion to construct and an unknown amount of money to operate and maintain. Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, who is responsible for ensuring that the 2 million residents of Las Vegas have water argues that this plan could flood proof the Mississippi River Basin while recharging the depleted Ogallala Aquifer under the Great Plains and maintain and increase agriculture on the eastern side of the Colorado River. The plan is to remake nature with a modern era of big infrastructure projects rather than accept the limits of nature and locating large water use projects where water is plentiful. Water control and allocation would be another federal power under this water augmentation plan.