Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
The Drying of the American West – A Wellspring of Future Water Wars

As we have discussed previously, the U.S. West is facing a myriad of water resource issues. In an excellent article, National Geographic recently analyzed the “drying of the American West”, focusing particularly on the decreasing flow of the Colorado River and the fact that the 20th century — the century when Americans built an incredible civilization in the desert — was the wettest for the region of the past millennium. An aberration versus the norm. As the article notes:

“…The Colorado supplies 30 million people in seven states and Mexico with water. Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Diego all depend on it, and starting this year so will Albuquerque. It irrigates four million acres of farmland, much of which would otherwise be desert, but which now produces billions of dollars’ worth of crops… …tree rings testified that in the centuries before Europeans settled the Southwest, the Colorado basin repeatedly experienced droughts more severe and protracted than any since then. During one 13-year megadrought in the 12th century, the flow in the river averaged around 12 million acre-feet, 80 percent of the average flow during the 20th century and considerably less than is taken out of it for human use today. Such a flow today would mean serious shortages, and serious water wars. “The Colorado River at 12 million acre-feet would be real ugly,” says one water manager.

Unfortunately, global warming could make things even uglier. Last April, a month before Meko and Woodhouse published their latest results, a comprehensive study of climate models reported in Science predicted the Southwest’s gradual descent into persistent Dust Bowl conditions by mid-century… In their simulations, which have been confirmed by others, the river never emerges from the current drought. Before mid-century, its flow falls to seven million acre-feet—around half the amount consumed today.

…”What we have come to consider normal is profoundly wet,” Stine said. “We’re kidding ourselves if we think that’s going to continue, with or without global warming.”

And what will this mean for the region going forward? National Geographic suggests:

“…Before the drought, she and her colleagues nevertheless thought [the Las Vegas] water supply, 90 percent of it from Lake Mead, was safe for 50 years. In 2002 they were celebrating the opening of a second water intake from Lake Mead, 50 feet lower than the old one, which more than doubled their pumping capacity. Now they are scrambling to insert a third “straw” even deeper into the sinking lake. Las Vegas is also trying to reduce its dependence on the Colorado. The SNWA is exercising water rights and buying up ranches in the east-central part of the state. It plans to sink wells and tap groundwater there and pump as much as 200,000 acre-feet of it through a 250-mile pipeline to the city. There is considerable local opposition, of course, and an environmental impact statement must be prepared—but there is “zero chance,” Mulroy says grimly, that the pipeline won’t be built.

Other southwestern cities are also realizing their vulnerability to drought. Phoenix, hellish as it is in summer and bisected by the dry bed of the Salt River, is better off than most—for the moment. “In 2002 Phoenix was virtually the only city in the Southwest that had no mandatory restrictions,” says Charlie Ester, water resources manager at the Salt River Project in Phoenix. “We didn’t need them.” Phoenix pumps groundwater whenever it needs to, though it is under a state mandate to stop depleting the aquifer. And it gets a little over a third of its water from the Colorado River via the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile-long canal. But the Salt River remains its biggest source. The riverbed is dry in the city because the SRP has half a dozen dams in the mountains north and east of the city, which convert the Salt and its tributary, the Verde, into chains of terraced lakes.

Phoenix would thus seem to possess that holy grail of water managers: a diversified portfolio. But Ester was still disconcerted to see his lake levels dropping in the drought, until they were less than half full.

…Looking for new long-term sources of supply, many water managers turn their lonely eyes to the Pacific, or to deep, briny aquifers that had always seemed unusable. Last August, El Paso inaugurated a new desalination plant that will allow the city to tap one such aquifer. The same month, the Bureau of Reclamation opened a new research center devoted to desalination in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The cost of desalination has dropped dramatically—it’s now around four dollars per thousand gallons, or as little as $1,200 per acre-foot—but that is still considerably more than the 50 cents per acre-foot that the Bureau of Reclamation charges municipal utilities for water from Lake Mead, or the zero dollars it charges irrigation districts. The environmental impacts of desalination are also uncertain—there is always a concentrated brine to be disposed of. Nevertheless, a large desalination plant is being planned in San Diego County. In Las Vegas, Mulroy envisions one day paying for such a plant on the coast of California or Mexico, in exchange for a portion of either’s share of the water in Lake Mead. “The problem is, if there’s nothing in Lake Mead, there’s nothing to exchange,” she says.

A more obvious solution for cities facing shortages is to buy irrigation water from farmers. In 2003 the Imperial Irrigation District was pressured into selling 200,000 of its three million acre-feet of Colorado water to San Diego, as part of an overall deal to get California to stop exceeding its allotment. San Diego paid nearly $300 per acre-foot for water that the farmers in the Imperial Valley get virtually for free. The government favors such market mechanisms, says the Bureau of Reclamation’s Terry Fulp, “so people who really want the water get it.” At that price, the irrigation water in the Imperial Valley is worth nearly as much as its entire agricultural revenue, which is around a billion dollars a year. But not everyone favors drying up farms so that more water will be available for subdivisions. The valley is one of the poorest regions in California, yet the richest farmers stand to benefit most from the sale. Many more people fear the loss of jobs and, ultimately, of a whole way of life….”

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008 at 12:26 pm and is filed under Colorado River, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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