As The Economist recently noted, America’s West – gripped by drought – is rethinking how it uses water. As the article notes, seven states, as well as northern Mexico, rely on the Colorado River and are quickly coming to the realization that things have changed:
“This is not a normal drought,” says Pat Mulroy of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Since 2001 the flow of water into Lake Mead has been below average for all but one year. The reservoir is now less than half full. If the drought does not break in the next few years, the Las Vegas metropolis will be the first to suffer. Its 1.8m inhabitants depend on the lake for nine-tenths of their water supply…
Fearing that the surface of Lake Mead will soon drop below the level of one of its two pumps, Las Vegas is quickly building another. It has bought ranchland in eastern Nevada and plans to build a pipeline to bring its water hundreds of miles south. Next year it will raise the sum it pays city residents to tear up their lawns and replace them with cacti and other abstemious flora. The price of water is likely to go up….”
The article goes on to note that even if global warming has not permanently reduced the Colorado’s flow, continued population growth will create “an unbearable strain.” Yet, while getting more water to the new Westerners will be hard, finding it is easy. It is the regulations & allocation mechanisms that will have to change, and new techniques of sharing & banking water will need to be developed:
“…In the West, water law is founded on the principle of “first in time is first in right”—in other words, he who first diverts water from a river has the strongest claim on it. This doctrine evolved in the 19th century, in response to the needs of miners. It turns out to suit modern farmers rather well. Better still, California’s landowners are allowed to drill for groundwater. Each year, over a million acre-feet more of it is pumped out of the earth than returns to aquifers.
“…The cities would, of course, pay much more for the farmers’ water than could possibly be made growing rice. But the water is not always the farmers’ to sell. Many sources belong to water districts, which require the approval of all members before a transfer can take place. Rural politicians tend to oppose the idea of letting fields turn to dust in order to fill the swimming pools of Las Vegas and Beverly Hills. And, while California has an extensive infrastructure for moving water around between users (see map), many states, including Nevada, do not.
Yet the cities’ desperation, and their consequent willingness to pay top dollar for water, is speeding the development of a water market. Clay Landry of WestWater, a consulting firm, points out that cities can get hold of the stuff much more quickly by buying it from farmers than by building reservoirs and desalination plants. Water contracts are becoming more sophisticated: southern California’s cities routinely buy options to guarantee supply in dry years.
Bigger steps in the same direction will be taken in the next few years. Later this month Dirk Kempthorne, the federal interior secretary, is expected to approve a plan, thrashed out by the Colorado River’s dependent states, that will regulate water use in times of drought. The agreement encourages interstate trades and allows users to cut back their water use and “bank” the savings in Lake Mead or underground aquifers. It will be the most fundamental change in how the river’s water is allocated since the 1920s….”
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