Easy enough, perhaps, to talk about living with less in wet Seattle, where the skies rain three feet of water every year. The arid West faces a more pronounced set of challenges. Scarce rain has become scarcer over a twelve-year stretch of drought, exposing cracks in the region’s hydraulic empire as clearly as the bathtub ring around Lake Mead.
Formed by Hoover Dam, the nation’s largest reservoir reflects both the permanence of scarcity and many Americans’ obliviousness to it. The dam’s sculpted turrets are a reassuring symbol of the strength of infrastructure even as they rise above the mineral-bleached canyon walls of a weakened water source. In March, Lake Mead and the other storage reservoirs on the Lower Colorado were 54 percent full, compared with 64 percent a year before.
The historian and novelist Wallace Stegner said that civilizations try first to deny aridity, then to engineer it out of existence and finally, to adapt. No doubt many western water managers are still at door #2.
Among the baroque proposals lawyering their way through approval, a Los Angeles–based company called Cadiz seeks to pipe groundwater from the eastern Mojave Desert and sell it to urban water agencies in Southern California. Cadiz’s engineers insist they can draw 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from land the company owns near Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve with no damage to the desert’s delicate hydrologic pastiche of aquifer and playas, springs and seeps. Federal hydrologists and scientists hired by environmental groups predict Cadiz will mine the aquifer far in excess of its ability to recharge.
A little farther east, two days after Christmas, the Bureau of Land Management gave Las Vegas a long-wished-for gift. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which relies on the troubled Colorado for 90 percent of its supply, sought to pump groundwater from rural valleys 300 miles upstate and pipe it south to Las Vegas. For nearly 25 years, ranchers, local governments, Native American tribes, and environmentalists protested the project they compare to California’s Owens Valley, the once-bucolic home to orchards, farms, and ranches that turned to a near dust bowl when Los Angeles tapped it at the turn of the last century.
The water authority insists the project, with its 306 miles of pipeline and 323 miles of power line, is a “critical safety net” for 2 million. But it could also become one of the last vestiges of America’s 20th-century water-industry tradition of finding a pristine new source of freshwater, extracting it with sacrifice to an ecosystem, and burning the energy to move a liquid weighing 8.3 pounds a gallon over hundreds of miles.
By comparison, the Colorado River Basin study released last year — the government’s road map for navigating the dry times ahead — collected more than 140 options for closing the gap between supply and demand. The suggestions include plenty of 1950s-era schemes, such as pumping and piping floodwaters from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to top off the Colorado. But the report’s largest category of options involves highly local, demand-side answers: conservation, efficiency and reuse.
Afloat on the Colorado River, Credit: National Park Service
In the wake of the study, geoscientist Brad Udall, one of the most prominent water thinkers in the West, made an emperor has-no-clothes observation of the region’s water narrative. It is time, he suggested, to abandon the “we’re running out of water” game long played by water purveyors, NGOs, scientists, and the press — which loves nothing so much as a drought story illustrated with oversized photos of cracked earth. Scaring Americans with visions of a parched future has the pernicious outcome of seeing big supply projects as the only option, says Udall.
The study’s climate models point to an average 10 percent decline in the river’s flow at mid-century. Factor in demand, and that means 85 percent of today’s flow will remain, or nearly 13-million acre-feet — “still a very large number,” Udall says. Sharing a smaller amount of water will be difficult legally and politically. But those challenges pale next to the ecological and social costs inherent in big supply schemes, especially given the uncertainty of climate change.
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